Biking on the tree-shaded limestone trail that traverses the heart of the Black Hills
National Forest, trail users get a glimpse into the past, taking a route once sought by gold-seeking miners.
The George S. Mickelson Trail offers 109 miles of rolling, picturesque scenery from Deadwood to Edgemont. The trail follows the abandoned Burlington Northern railroad line, where 15 trailheads give access to a “one-of-a-kind experience,” said Dana Garry, trail manager.
“Where it runs, roads don’t go; you have to be on the trail to see a lot of the original mining towns and what’s left of them,” Garry said. “You can see old mining claims and different mines that have been cut into hillsides you’re not going to see from the road.”
The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad established itself in 1889 after employees completed more than 100 miles of the track, 100 trestles and four tunnels that were carved into the Black Hills.
By 1983, the track became abandoned and was donated to the state in 1988-89 in response to a request by the Black Hills Rails to Trails Association.
The trail was completed in 1998 and was named in honor of the late South Dakota Gov. George S. Mickelson, who was involved in the creation of the trail before his death in 1993.
Today, the trail is open to hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Motorized vehicles are allowed on a small section between Deadwood and Dumont.
Garry said the history coupled with the scenery “is definitely worth a half a day or more.”
Signs and markings along the path help trail users think back to the gold-mining era.
Old and new mile markers give trail goers a sense of where they are along the trail and what used to be near the tracks.
“W” signs can be found at four sites along the trail. Train engineers would spot the signs and blow the train whistle to warn people and animals near road crossings, tunnels and bridges: two long, one short and one long blast.
Mike and Kathie Kusyk of Winnipeg, Canada, said the trail is always on their list to visit, with the beauty of the Black Hills bringing them back every year.
The couple stopped at the Burlington Northern Hill City trailhead as they were riding from Custer to Hill City and back, where they were camping.
Riding a red tandem bike and wearing a fluorescent yellow biking jacket, Mike Kusyk said the trail offered them a change from the Canadian landscape.
“It’s really pretty, great for hiking and biking and fits into our schedule,” said Kusyk, a teacher.
The trailheads, spaced out from Deadwood to Edgemont, give trail users easy entrances onto the path as well as places to rest and replenish.
A trail fee can also be paid at trailheads. The $3 daily or $15 annual pass is required while on the trail, and a fine can be assessed by one of two trail patrolmen. Passes are available at self-service stations along the trail, authorized vendors and some state park offices, according to the trail website.
Garry said the number of trail users and dollars collected through fees has increased every year, attributing the increase to word-of-mouth advertising.
Passes, both daily and annual, totaled 16,357 for 2009, which amounted to $70,700, Garry said.
“For several years, it was more of the retired people coming out, and now we are seeing a lot more families with small children who want to be outside and be active,” Garry said. “It is very inexpensive, easy to get to, easy to go out and come back. You can take all day to cover as much as you want to. There is no set time limit to complete it; it’s very user-friendly.”
Though the trail seems friendly, the Game, Fish & Park website does warn travelers of snakes, mountain lions, poison ivy, cattle and horses along the trail. The majority of the trail does not exceed a 4 percent grade, but the website says some parts can be strenuous, such as the 19 miles between Deadwood and Dumont.
Garry said the trail can play tricks on travelers, with the change in climate between the northern and southern hills. She said the northern side could be raining, while the southern end is sunny and hot.
“It’s a beautiful place everybody should come see,” she said. “The history is definitely unique. It is the old railroad track, which was built by hand originally.”
Contact Tyler Jerke at 394-8415 or email@example.com