The George S. Mickelson Trail, named after a prominent South Dakotan politician, runs the north-south length of the Black Hills, 109 miles from Deadwood to Edgemont.
Established first as the Burlington Northern Railroad line that ran between towns and the many gold mines in the Black Hills, the rails were abandoned in 1983.
A handful of outdoor enthusiasts jumped on the chance to make the scenic railroad into South Dakota’s very first Rails-to-Trails project. A packed gravel, largely level trail, it is popular with locals, and many use parts of it for snowmobiles during the long, South Dakota winters that make the narrow, curvaceous roads treacherously slippery with ice and snow.
The pleasant trail passes through canyons of brilliant orange rock, abandoned and not-yet-abandoned gold mines, around rusty equipment and past ghost towns.
We started the day at our campsite, Whistler Gulch, just south of Deadwood. Popular with bikers, it felt like a mini-Sturgis already. It’s an easy bike ride into town, and cheaper than a seedy motel, and our campsite was right across the street from a BLM mine, complete with dangerously enticing, abandoned mining equipment. And, importantly, mini-golf (which is apparently NOT putt-putt in South Dakota). Our goal that morning was the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. “Let’s just ride for a few minutes on that bike trail,” we said.
Two hours and 15 miles later, we had disappeared onto the trail, passing through-riders and those out for a leisurely morning, before the afternoon sun started to bake the air. We did a scenic Deadwood-Lead-Middle of Nowhere loop, taking us up and over cliffs and mines and into the heart of the Black Hills.
The Mickelson Trail does pass through state park land, and they do ask that you pay a measly $3 for use of the well-maintained trail. There are 15 trailheads and maps along the way, and keep a look out for private property, “No Trespassing” signs and active mines (extremely dangerous!) along the trail. Most are clearly marked, complete with photographic histories of the area. If you’re interested in a longer bicycle event, check out the Mickelson Trail Trek, held in mid-September (in 2011: Sept. 16-18), which travels the length of the trail in just about the best time of year.
… what is there to say when…
… after a day that has managed to disappoint you, even though you’re on vacation…
… and you wander away from your campsite, fighting tears of frustration…
… and you hit the edge of a lake and look up
… and all you see is this…
… and it just leaves you breathless?
At the very western edge of the Black Hills sits a monument to both the deepest of mythical mysteries and the wildest of science fiction fantasies. Past and future seem to collide perilously into the failing remnants of an extinct volcano. Mato Tipila. Bear Lodge.
Devil’s Tower National Monument peeks up above the horizon in the northeast corner of Wyoming, a prominent precipice in the seamlessly flat grasslands of the Great Plains.
We circle around, taking in each claw mark from every angle.
Legend says that two Sioux girls were playing in the fields when they came across a giant bear. Angry, the bear chased the girls, gnashing and growling and slashing, and to escape, the girls jumped onto a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Suddenly, the rock began to grow and grow, and the bear could not climb the mountain to reach the girls; he could only claw in vain at the steep sides. The rock continued to grow, carrying the girls to safety in the heavens, where they play forever as Pleiades.
After our trip around the alien structure, we headed down the road to Hulett, a rough-around-the-edges and pretty rough-in-the-middle town surrounded by oil and gas development and other industrious types.
As we walk into a local bar, the record scratches and all is silent as the friendly bikers with big tattoos and Budweisers give us the critical once-over.
But in typical Pardo fashion, we play pool and sit at the bar and talk about the last time Jonmikel was there, when it happened to be No Panties Thursday. After that, drinks were on our new friends and we were welcomed as locals.
… we begin our Black Hills Road Trip with a historical venture into Buffalo, Wyoming, home of the Occidental Hotel and Saloon.
As True West’s “Best Hotel in the West” and one of the hotels that National Geographic Traveler loves to gush about, the 1880 Occidental has quite the seedy and wildly seedy reputation. It has been host to some of the most famous names of the Wild West: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stopped by from time to time on their way to Hole in the Wall; Calamity Jane passed through while pursuing in vain the notorious Wild Bill Hickok; and Buffalo Bill Cody called the hotel home when passing through town. Even Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were rumored to tell wild stories of hunting, drinking and other adventures in the building’s romantic parlor.
As history slowly faded into the shadows of the Great Depression and the modernization of the late 20th Century, plans to demolish the building nearly became reality.
But in 1997, saviors Dawn and John Wexo bought the dying hotel and embarked on a 10-year restoration project to return the Occidental to its former glory and reclaim the history of Buffalo, WY.
Today, visitors can stay in the charming rooms that sit above the bar and restaurant, take in live bluegrass music (that happens every Thursday night!) in the Occidental Saloon, and share a romantic dinner among the Bordello tassels and tin ceilings of the building’s original vaults, a private getaway in the Wild West.
In a lonely corner of the Red Desert flow the Killpecker Sand Dunes, aptly named for the unfortunate effects the brackish water can have on…. ahem. Right.
Despite the intimidating name, the sand dunes themselves hide a dry tenderness that only the desert can extend. Crevices in the sand are filled with ponds and young, green plants with enough audacity to face the long summer head on. The evanescent sand castles hide the scars of oil and gas and agriculture and ancient battles.
Local adventurer John Mionczynski takes us from mountain to dune to butte to plain, pointing out fossils and burial sites and places that simply make him stop and breathe. He knows this area inside and out and tells us stories of crocodile heads the size of truck beds and mummies and encounters with the ghosts of cowboys.
Every mystery is gossiped about but never solved, from the ethereal vistas…
… to the tiniest blade of grass that pushes through thousands of years of scarcity. Nothing is left unwondered.
Not even the mystery of the sand angel.
As the largest active sand dunes in the United States, Killpecker has a lot to account for. Lost campers, mountainous reserves of fuels, free play areas sprinkled with ATVs. The bodies of prehistoric warriors and the lost souls of pioneers. You could set up your tent at dusk one night only to wake up and find the entire desert has changed entirely, right underneath you, when the sun rises.
It’s easy to feel alone out here, utterly desolate and lost. The sun parches the land of sweat, and only the brine of salty earth remains.
Footsteps are soon swept away in a monsoon of Wyoming winds. You head into the dunes alone, your camera your only goal, and hope to find… what? To find you?
And there’s nothing left, but nothing.
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