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Pedal – or walk – through South Dakota’s Black Hills on the Mickelson Trail
By Tom Adkinson

(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of travel stories spotlighting destinations logical to visit as Americans venture out in a time of coronavirus.)

DEADWOOD, South Dakota – South Dakota author Tom Griffith describes the Black Hills of South Dakota, the subject of many of his 80 books, as “an emerald oasis in a vast sea of prairie.”

In normal years, almost three million people come to this oasis on the prairie to see its most famous attraction – Mount Rushmore – but far fewer experience the region’s longest attraction, the 109-mile Mickelson Trail, a classic rails-to-trails project that opens the entire region for easy exploration.

Mickelson Trail bicyclists
Mickelson Trail bicyclists - The grade on the Mickelson Trail does not exceed four percent, and most is very easy to pedal. Image by South Dakota Tourism.

“The Mickelson Trail helps tell the story of this historic place that Native Americans revered, that gold miners ravaged and that notable figures such as Gen. George Custer, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane lent their stories,” Griffith said from the front porch of his seven-room 1899 Inn Bed and Breakfast in Deadwood.

Mickelson Trail trestle
Mickelson Trail trestle - Nearly 100 railroad bridges are along the Mickelson Trail, some with dramatic vistas. Image by South Dakota Tourism.

Deadwood is toward the northern edge of the Black Hills. A Burlington Northern rail line that was built in less than a year in the 1890s linked it to Edgemont below the southern edge. Gold fever can inspire speedy transportation development. In contrast, conversion to a trail a century later took 15 years.

Driving from Deadwood to Edgemont is a convoluted route on several state and federal highways, but the Mickelson Trail provides a less complicated route for those who lace up their hiking boots or hop on a bicycle.

Mickelson Trail Mount Rushmore
The famous faces of Mount Rushmore are the biggest attraction in the Black Hills. Image by Tom Adkinson.

In general, the Mickelson Trail is a gentle route whose grades do not exceed four percent. Most of the crushed limestone and gravel trail is through the Black Hills National Forest, but parts are on private land. If you cover the whole distance, you cross nearly 100 converted railroad bridges and travel through four rock tunnels.

Along the way, you see towering ponderosa pines (which from a distance out on the prairie appear black, giving the hills their name), mountain meadows, trout streams and the wide vistas of open prairie. In some places, the trail hugs the granite edge of a ridge on one side and drops off precipitously on the other.

mickelson trail crazy horse face
Work on the world’s largest sculpture, the Crazy Horse Memorial, is visible from the Mickelson Trail. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Near the town of Custer, the trail affords you a view of Thunderhead Mountain, which is being transformed into the largest sculpture in the world – the Crazy Horse Memorial. There is a three-mile spur to Custer State Park, and another side trip leads to Wind Cave National Park.

Relatively few trail users go 109 miles, of course. Most enjoy shorter hikes or rent bicycles for day trips between some of the trail’s 15 trailheads. Several outfitters along the route rent bicycles and offer information about distances and travel times.

Thirty interpretive panels along the trail tell of the region’s wildlife and its logging, mining and railroad history.

“This is sparsely populated territory. People are outnumbered by deer, buffalo, pheasants and plenty of other critters,” Griffith said. “That’s a big part of the enjoyment, the relative solitude.”

Mickelson Trail bicyclists
The Black Hills look black only from a distance. Up close, the ponderosa pines are quite green. Image by South Dakota Tourism.

Burlington Northern abandoned the line in 1983, and a campaign quickly began to convert the route for hikers, bikers and horseback riders. The trail’s first six miles were dedicated in 1991 with the support of then-Gov. George Mickelson. After Mickelson’s death in a 1993 plane crash, the trail was named in his honor.

If you do want company while traversing the full 109 miles, you can do that every September during the Mickelson Trail Trek, a three-day bicycle adventure that draws hikers and bikers from across the U.S. and Canada.

Trip Planning Resources:, TravelSouthDakota and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published June 19, 2020

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