You can’t see the Badlands from the path alongside Rapid Creek in Rapid City, but someday it might be possible to keep following the path until you reach them.
That’s the dream of the West River Trail Coalition, whose members want to convert an unused, 100-mile rail bed into a hiking, biking recreational trail stretching between Rapid City and Kadoka.
The name given to the project is the Mako Sica Trail, after the Lakota phrase for the Badlands.
Backers have completed a feasibility study and have some help from Rapid City officials, who plan to build a small segment of the trail within city limits by next year. But little of the project’s estimated $21.5 million cost has been raised, it’s unknown who would manage the trail, and some ranchers along the route oppose the project.
Jerry Cole, a coalition member from Rapid City, saw the entire rail bed by foot and bicycle with permission from the state of South Dakota while he was helping with the feasibility study.
“When people get out on it," he said, "they’ll see it’s just amazing.”
The route, remarkable for its beauty and diversity, dips down into the remote country south of Interstate 90 on a path that alternately parallels and veers away from state Highway 44.
The trail would run near Rapid Creek as it flows out of the Black Hills and into the valley and rangeland to the east, and then across the Cheyenne River and through Badlands National Park.
The segment inside Rapid City would be hard-surfaced. Beyond Rapid City, the trail would consist of crushed rock, similar to the 109-mile Mickelson Trail that runs through the Black Hills. Development of that trail, which was also a former rail line, took nearly two decades from the earliest discussions through its completion.
The rail bed targeted for the Mako Sica Trail was built in 1907 by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, commonly known as the Milwaukee Road. The company went bankrupt in 1977, and in 1981, South Dakota’s state government began acquiring hundreds of miles of the track to protect it for possible future use.
But the line between Rapid City and Kadoka was never used again, and the ties and rails eventually were removed. The old line is now just a raised earthen bed with 83 bridges, 123 culverts and fencing along much of the route.
Bruce Lindholm, rail program manager for the state Department of Transportation, said the state-owned rail bed is “railbanked” under the National Trails System Act.
“That allows the right-of-way to be used for a recreational trail if everybody can agree on what to do,” Lindholm said. “And anytime that rail line needs to be reactivated, you don’t need any additional federal approvals. It’s inactive for a period of time, but it can become active at anytime.”
Keith Ham, a rural Caputa rancher who has land adjacent to the rail bed, said he’d rather live next to a train track than a recreational trail. Cattle can get accustomed to a train that comes at regular times, he said, but could be highly agitated by random comings and goings of bicyclists.
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He also fears litter, damage to fences and accidental wildfires, and he said people on the trail could be endangered by a lack of consistent cellphone service and by long distances from emergency responders.
He compared the potential problems from a trail through his land to the problems encountered by downtown business owners who deal with litter, loitering and crime in their back alleys.
“Back when the railroad came through, I’m sure everybody here was glad to see it, because it was going to change the world for them, and it did,” Ham said. “But I think if people would’ve known that it’d end up a trail for some bicycles to go up and down, I don’t think they would’ve agreed to it.”
Frank Bloom, a rural Scenic rancher, has similar concerns but said his family, which has been on the land since 1916, also had problems with the rail line. He said trains sparked wildfires and sometimes struck and killed stray cattle.
If the old rail bed is to be used for anything, Bloom would prefer some kind of utility like a pipeline or transmission line rather than a recreational trail.
“There’s not a rancher on this whole line that’s for it,” Bloom said.
Backers of the project have conducted public meetings attended by landowners along the route and also by state officials.
Doug Hofer, parks and recreation director for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department, said his office participated in some early scoping meetings but has not been part of any recent discussions.
The office is focused on another trail project, the proposed connector from the Mickelson Trail to Mount Rushmore. The state is working with the U.S. Forest Service to begin drafting an environmental impact statement for that project, which is an exhaustive process that could take two years.
“So it’s difficult right now to really think about another project that would dilute those efforts,” Hofer said, though he believes that over the long term, the Mako Sica Trail “deserves more discussion.”
Meanwhile, a small portion of the project is scheduled to be built in 2016 in Rapid City. The city has a $206,837 grant that will be paired with $193,000 of city money for an eastward extension of the Leonard Swanson Memorial Pathway, which runs along Rapid Creek through much of the city.
The extension will take the existing path from its crossing under Cambell Street to the north along Cambell; east along the same rail bed that would be used by the Mako Sica Trail; north along Kennel Drive; east along Centre Street; and north across Omaha to Western Dakota Technical Institute and the east location of the Rapid City Public Library.
The trail could someday be extended farther east to connect with the proposed Mako Sica Trail, said Alex DeSmidt, a landscape designer for the Rapid City Department of Parks and Recreation who sees value in the broader vision.
“The Mickelson Trail is ranked in the top 10, if not No. 1, in terms of rail trails,” DeSmidt said. “So to have something similar to that connecting directly into Rapid City would be great for Rapid City and Rapid City Parks and Recreation.”