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AAA World Article

Pedaling Into America’s Past

A bicycle tour along the George S. Mickelson Trail reveals rich history, diverse scenery and abundant opportunities for reflection.

By Jeanine Barone

AAA World Article

Riding the George S. Mickelson Trail
Photo Courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism

As I bicycle into Rochford, South Dakota, with Carrie Bowers, owner of Black Hills Adventure Tours, and about a dozen other locals, it seems as if a time warp has opened into the Wild West, albeit during a decidedly peaceful moment. On this spring weekday afternoon, the tiny former mining town’s hub of activity—what little there is—centers on the wooden porch of the Moonshine Gulch Saloon, a weatherworn building seemingly plucked right out of a U.S. history book. A pair of middle-aged men lounge on chairs, rolling cigarettes and chain smoking. Nearby, three gents in cowboy hats chat with each other, standing smack in the middle of the main road with no concern whatsoever for traffic—because there’s no sign of any. The scene was likely very different during the frenetic activity of the Gold Rush in the late 1800s. Pedaling along this portion of the 109-some-mile George S. Mickelson Trail, one of the nation’s most beloved greenways, I’m constantly reminded of this bygone era of U.S. history.

George Mickelson Trail
A restored railroad trestle along the Mickelson Trail
Photo Courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism

From Rail to Trail
The Chicago-Burlington-Quincy Railroad constructed a line in 1891, just two years after South Dakota had become a state. Running trains through the heart of the Black Hills—from Deadwood in the north to Edgemont in the south—accommodated the commercial demands brought on by the Gold Rush. But as rail transportation declined in the U.S., the route was abandoned in the early 1980s. Then, during his first gubernatorial run in 1986, George S. Mickelson backed the conversion of this corridor into a pedestrian way. Fully opened 12 years later, what became South Dakota’s first rail-to-trail was named for the two-term governor, who in 1993 tragically lost his life in a plane crash.

The Mickelson takes cyclists—as well as walkers, horseback riders and Nordic skiers—across dozens of restored railroad trestles and into shadowy hard-rock tunnels that were blasted through the rugged mountains. Passing abandoned gold mines, fields of wild berries and other botanicals, evergreen forests, dramatic canyonlands and once-thriving ghost towns, the trail’s varied scenery and sense of history make it a favorite for locals and visitors alike.

George Mickelson Trail
Gold mine tailings visible along the trail in Castleton
Photo by Aleen Golis

More than half a dozen trailheads allow cyclists the flexibility to opt for anything from a short jaunt to a multiday trek. Those who prefer minimal effort can tackle the route in a southerly direction, with its decidedly downhill grade. And, given that you can choose to overnight by camping off the trail or settle into a hotel by arranging a shuttle to a nearby town, the Mickelson is also a gem for its convenience.

The Lakota Sioux and Sanctuary
South Dakota’s Black Hills may be historically notable for the Gold Rush—as well as Colonel George Custer’s expedition (which led to his “last stand”)—but long before then, these sylvan, pine-covered mountains were revered by the Lakota Sioux Nation as the epicenter of their very creation. With so much of their way of life now lost, it’s worth detouring barely two miles from the Dumont trailhead, where Bowers and I begin our ride, along Juso Ranch Road to Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary. (The Sanctuary usually closes at the end of October, but it can remain open longer if the weather is good. It reopens in mid-May.) At this 80-acre outdoor site, time seems to slow down, and it’s easy to feel an intimate connection with the land that the original inhabitants held sacred. Leave your bike, and stroll through the meadows and woods, including a lovely grove of aspens, contemplating the numerous plaques emblazoned with inspirational quotes placed there by the owners. A bronze sculpture, Invocation, depicts a Native American riding a bucking horse, his arms upraised and holding a buffalo skull, a reflection on humanity’s connection with the spirit world. As you settle into one of the hand-hewn wooden benches along the trail, take a moment to meditate on this peaceful, lush land that was held in such reverence by its native peoples.

George Mickelson Trail
Invocation at Pathways Spiritual Sanctuary
Photo by Jan Avenson Snyder

Mines and Meadows
“This is the part of the trail I most love,” says Bowers as we pedal from the Dumont trailhead toward vibrant Hill City. “The wildflowers are in bloom, it’s slightly downhill, and we’ll bike through my favorite tunnel.”

Enwrapped in nature—aspen groves, ponderosa pines and meadows speckled with wildflowers—we pause beside signage referring to a wood-frame building across the road, all that remains of the Bulldog Ranch, a brothel that buzzed in the mining days. Farther along, plump wild raspberries beckon to be picked, and we sample a handful; their sweetness clings to my lips as we pedal onward past aromatic wild lavender and black-eyed Susans that dapple the meadows with their bright hues. Nearby, the roof and siding of a wooden structure painted brick red is curiously shingled with metallic circles, repurposed from buckets that held cyanide, a chemical once used in the gold mining process. As we ride parallel to a tributary of the spring-fed Rapid Creek, where beavers are actively building dams, Bowers explains that Custer and his men camped two miles south of this site and shot a grizzly, a species no longer found in South Dakota.

Rolling into Rochford, referred to by the residents as the “friendliest little ghost town in the Black Hills,” Bowers describes how the population peaked at 500 people in 1878 and plummeted to fewer than a handful of occupants three years later, as the others left to seek their fortunes elsewhere after gold exploration ebbed.

 “Rochford is busy in the summer,” says Bowers, “as well as every Sunday afternoon when the town holds a weekly bluegrass jam.” The do-it-all general store, self-proclaimed as the “Small of America,” also does a good business with visitors on and off the Mickelson, selling everything from first-aid and camping supplies to local artwork and strong coffee.

George Mickelson Trail
Rochford General Store
Photo Courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism

After we roll through “downtown” Rochford, Bowers suggests we veer slightly off the trail to explore the Standby Mine, its foundation visible above the creek. Inside, where the walls are initially timber lined, the air is dramatically cooler. Bowers tries to persuade me to walk farther into the dark expanse where the interior becomes a rocky cavern. But once my claustrophobia kicks in, I pass up the opportunity for further explorations in favor of gathering more wild raspberries just outside.

Back on our bikes, meandering past dense stands of conifers and wide expanses of slate outcrops, the path becomes even more bucolic. Suddenly, the yawning entrance of a tunnel comes into view, its opening rimmed in rugged timber—Bower’s favorite tunnel. As we pedal through it immersed in shadows, I look up to the luminous exit portal framing a thick, luxuriant woodland. Later, as we cross a trestle far above a spot where the creek weaves like ribbon, we see two people panning for gold, and I’m reminded that, while the Gold Rush is over, the mining era here may never fully pass.

George Mickelson Trail
A tunnel along the Mickelson Trail
Photo by Aleen Golis

Check out the George S. Mickelson trail webpage, gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/mickelson-trail. For more information on excursions along the trail, visit Mickelson Trail Affiliates at mickelsontrailaffiliates.com as well as Black Hills Adventure Tours at blackhillsadventuretours.com.

 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of AAA World.


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