Gold Star Biking in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Beauty abounds with every pedal stroke. Riding the incredible car-free Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota is an adventure worth repeating.

Bicycle Adventurers: Ann Wilhelm and Debbie Crooks

When: July 10 – 11, 2014

Accomodations: Carsten Cottages, Super 8, The Rocket Motel

Distance: We rode 47 miles over two days, point-to-point, on this self-supported adventure.

Bonus tip for this adventure: 

  • Take your time to read the trail signs; they give excellent information about the area.
  • The maximum grade of the trail is four percent, and the elevation can make it seem worse, but take your time, enjoy the beautiful scenery, and know that a long stretch of downhill is coming. 
  • Lewie's Saloon and Eatery can be found just off of the trail in Lead, SD. It has a fantastic patio and great food. The onion rings are amazing.
  • Bumpin' Buffalo in Hill City, SD has great food and reasonable prices. Turtle Town has amazing homemade candy. 
  • You can see the Crazy Horse Memorial from the Mickelson Trail. 
  • Custer State Park and the Needles Highway in Custer, SD provide an exciting adventures for exploring by vehicle. You can see Mount Rushmore from several points along the highway. 
  • Here's a link to a short video of our ride on the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota.

I was both excited and nervous about a self-supported adventure on the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota. We'd be riding south for forty-seven miles on a point-to-point journey through the Black Hills toward Hill City and eventually Custer, SD. Nervous energy caused fitful sleep as my mind raced with questions: Will we be able to handle any mechanical issues with our bikes? Will our shuttle show up? Will we have enough water to make it between trailheads ... on and on my mind raced. 

DAY ONE

I rose at 5:00 a.m. to shuttle our car south to Custer, SD and left Debbie, the bikes, and our gear at the Carsten Cottages. Bill from Black Hills Discovery Tours met me promptly at 8:00 a.m. in Custer and on the drive back north with Bill, we talked about the history of the area, wildlife, and details of the Mickelson Trail. 

Arriving back at the cabin, Debbie and I made our final preparations, pushed our bikes across the street and up a short path, and hit the trail by 9:30 a.m. Shortly, we stopped to read one of many trail markers and take pictures of a structure shingled with lids from metal cyanide buckets.

After another mile of pedaling, we stopped to attach the GoPro to my helmet. The pretty scenery compelled me to document. It's a good thing that we ride to soak in the experience with all of our senses, not to set a speed record. 


The first seventeen miles flew by with beautiful green pastures, amazing rock formations, cool tunnels, babbling creeks, informative trail signs, and level to downhill trail grades. While visiting the Rochford trailhead, the trail marshal greeted us. He checked our trail passes, quizzed us on our destination, and inquired about our water supply and rain gear. Then he proceeded to tell us how the next seven miles were the toughest with a five mile uphill climb and another two mile climb before getting to Hill City.

His job is to make people aware of the potential hazards of the trail, but it really didn't help our confidence. 

After lunch at the Mystic trailhead, we began our seven mile climb. I kept reminding myself "slow and steady wins the race." The beautiful views continued, but it was difficult to appreciate them because I was concentrating on breathing. Climbing for seven miles at 5500 ft while carrying thirty pounds of gear can be a little challenging for a flatlander, but we prevailed, even while herding some cattle from the trail and dodging a thunderstorm in one of the tunnels.

What goes up, must come down! Thankfully, the last five miles going into Hill City were downhill and we sped downward at 16 m.p.h. to beat another storm.

After settling in to our room at the Super 8, we explored Hill City. Our first stop ... Bumpin' Buffalo for dinner and beer and after dinner, we explored the shops along main street and visited Turtle Town Coffee and Fudge. Their chocolate covered caramels, toffee, and turtles are amazing.

Day Two:

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Today's ride to Custer would only be sixteen miles, but the first ten miles were uphill, inspiring us to hit the trail early. Slow and steady was the motto of the day. 

The scenery today included views of the Crazy Horse Memorial, beautiful rock formations, tall pine trees, green grass, and abandoned mining camps. We met several cyclists going the opposite direction and it was hard to not be jealous of the smiles on their faces as they zipped by going downhill.

Reaching the summit at the ten mile mark was euphoric. Not only was it the start of our downhill run, but there was also a trailhead with a bathroom, water, and a picnic table. Debbie and I celebrated our accomplishment with "turd balls" and an electrolyte beverage before hopping back on the bikes to enjoy the reward of six downhill miles. Turd balls — nicknamed for our homemade peanut butter/chocolate energy balls, taste awesome, but look like ... 

We arrived at the Custer trailhead and our waiting car by 11:30 a.m., exhilarated by the downhill run, and satisfied that we had just completed 47 of the toughest miles on the Mickelson Trail. 

Your favorite local bike shop? Rabbit Bike in Hill City is located just off of the trail. It is the only bike shop on the Mickelson Trail and has great trail t-shirts.

Bike overnight tips and tricks?

  • We over-packed for this trip. We each brought swimming suits and extra clothing that we never used and the lighter the load the better for this journey.
  • Bringing food and plenty of water is important as many sections of the trail are very remote.
  • Carry the phone number for Rabbit Bike just in case you have a major mechanical issue. They know the trail well and could perform a bike rescue. 
  • You can also ride from Dumont to Deadwood It's primarily downhill, so getting a shuttle back to Dumont is a very popular activity among tourists.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your bike overnight adventure!

3 responses so far ↓

Bruce - Nov 5, 2015 at 7:30 PM

Sounds like a fun trip.
We did our first bike overnight on this trail about 4 years ago. We've done other tours, and returned this year to do the whole trail out and back. You are off to an excellent start. You mention slow and steady. SPPED DOES NOT MATTER. It's a tour, not a race. Go as fast or slow as you want. Just get to where you want to go.

Mark Kline - Nov 24, 2015 at 5:17 PM

I rode this from North to South in May of 2014 breaking it up into 3 days of riding w/alternating days of sightseeing & hiking and I concur it is a great trail. I was extremely impressed with how well maintained it is. I also was amazed at the wide range of terrain I rode through. From mountains/hills to forests & streams to badland type terrain and finally to rural cattle land. It was really nice! I would recommend waiting till later in the year as I had to hike a bike over some deep snowfields the first day out of Lead and even with a mountain bike the trail at times was like permafrost. Dry on the top but mushy an inch below. Can't wait to re-ride it in the summer months.

Hannah - Jan 7, 2016 at 9:00 AM

Biking is one of the best ways to explore the black hills. It puts you right there where you can cruise past-at whatever speed is comfortable-and take it all in. Great post!

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