The only sound was the crunch of our tires on the crushed limestone as my family and I pedaled our bikes along the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota. Suddenly my sons slowed their mountain bikes to avoid the flock of wild turkeys strutting their way across the trail in front of us. Earlier that day we had surprised several deer on the trail and ridden through railroad tunnels so long we couldn’t see the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Not long afterwards, we encountered a strange trailside building, which our guidebook told us was sided with the round lids of cyanide barrels left over from mining operations.
Wildlife, scenery, history and adventure were around every bend as my husband Tim and I and our 14 year old daughter Hanna and 11 year old sons Flynn and Sam rode for three days and over 90 miles through the Black Hills of South Dakota on the Mickelson Rail Trail. While thinking about taking the family on a multi-day, self-supported bike adventure may seem daunting, it is quite within reach for anyone wanting to give their family a memorable, confidence-building experience.
My first reaction to the idea of bike touring with kids was, “No way!” as I envisioned herding my brood of youngsters along a major highway while lethal semi-trucks sped by. Then I discovered rail trails – the perfect solution for a safe family bike tour. Rail trails are decommissioned railroad beds that have been transformed into multi-use trails for biking, running, hiking and skiing. Some are paved while others have a crushed gravel or limestone surface, and all are generally flat or have gently rolling hills. Many, like the Mickelson Trail, have railroad tunnels and trestles that add to the appeal.
There are over 2,000 completed rail trails in the United States and another 700 or so projects in progress that will eventually add up to over 30,000 miles of trails. Some rail trails are only a portion of a mile long, while 14 trails in the United States are over 100 miles in length. The Mickelson Trail rolls for 114 miles through the scenic Black Hills in South Dakota from Deadwood to Edgemont.
Our bike tour on the Mickelson began with both excitement and trepidation as family trips sometimes do. Our pre-teen boys were excited to start the adventure. Hanna; however, let us know with the teenage silent treatment and frequent eye rolls, that riding her bike for days through the middle of nowhere on what just happened to be the weekend of her 14th birthday was not her idea of fun. We hoped her surly attitude wouldn’t taint the whole trip, and were relieved to see her angry face visibly relax over the miles. Eventually a smile broke through as golden aspen leaves surrounded us and she discovered new-found confidence that she could indeed ride her bike for miles through the boonies.
On day one we planned to ride 16 miles to our first cabin, less mileage than planned for future days due to this section of the trail having the most elevation gain. Thankfully, this section is also one of the most beautiful parts of the trail with spectacular views and fall color. The kids’ faces showed the strain of the long uphill climb, but some encouragement that there would soon be a downhill section helped get them to the top. Once at the pinnacle, we whooped and whooshed our way downhill, enjoying the wind in our faces, the golden fields whizzing by, and the knowledge that the hardest section of the trail was behind us.
As we had breakfast at our cabin on day two, we awaited the passing of the hundred or so riders on the annual 114 mile Mickelson Trail Trek which just happened to be the same weekend. By the time we got packed up and ready to ride the 32 miles planned for day two, the first trail trekkers pedaled by from the south on their final day of riding. Heading in the opposite direction from the trekkers, we enjoyed waving and smiling to each person as we passed. We saw young kids and families, mountain bikes and cruisers, riders decked out in colorful cycling jerseys and others in skirts or jeans.
“Mom, did you see that?” exclaimed Flynn, as he pointed to a woman who looked to be in her 80s and was riding a vintage cruiser bike with a wicker basket and leaving a trail of dust in her speedy wake. I shamelessly reminded the kids of this woman’s amazing energy later in the day when they were whining about being too tired to pedal any further.
In a short while we arrived in tiny Rochford, where we visited the Moonshine Gulch Saloon, known for its storied history and eclectic decorations consisting of ball caps and business cards stapled to every inch of the ceiling. We were there too early for their famous burgers, so we ate a snack at the quaint Rochford “Mall.” From there it was several long slow uphills and breezy downhills into Hill City. Once checked into our hotel, we visited Teddy Bear Town, a house packed to the brim with stuffed animals of every type and size from all over the world, most donated by visitors. Many other attractions such as riding the steam-powered 1880 train await families in Hill City.
On day three we rode 37 miles, made possible by having a special birthday destination along the way – lunch at the Purple Pie Place in Custer, a funky restaurant that offers delicious milkshakes and pies. Also memorable was the view we had of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the trail, and the herd of buffalo we encountered.
By the time we arrived at our final destination we all had sore bottoms but were proud of our accomplishment. Due to school and sports schedules we had decided not to bike the final leg of the trail to Edgemont. I was surprised that when Sam found out there was more trail left, he wanted to ride it, and I think we would all have done one more day if we had the time.
So, pump up the bike tires and gather up the kids for a family bike adventure on the Mickelson Trail. In an age when our youth are often glued to computer games and television, the experience of being outdoors relying on your own power and perseverance to bike to your next bed is confidence-building and memorable.
When to go:
The Mickelson can be ridden from spring through fall, though summer can be hot, requiring riding early in the morning. We chose mid-September due to cooler temperatures and nice leaf color and it was a perfect time to ride.
Where to stay:
There are campgrounds, cabins and hotels all along the Mickelson Trail. We stayed at the Carsten Cabins at around mile 16 the first night, at the Day’s Inn in Hill City on our second night, and at the Shady Rest Cabins on our final night.
Where to start your ride:
The Mickelson Trail can be ridden in either direction but the trail loses about 1,100 feet in elevation overall when ridden from Deadwood to Edgemont. There are 15 different trailheads to use to customize the length of your trip. If you can’t swing an overnight trip, day trips are also possible. Many shuttle companies can help you get back to your car.
What to bring:
Wide tired bikes such as mountain bikes or comfort/hybrid bikes are needed. Staying in cabins rather than camping reduces the amount of gear you need to bring. Bike racks and panniers are the best bet for carrying gear, since backpacks weigh heavily on backs over the miles. Our panniers carried changes of clothing, warm layers, hats and gloves, rain gear, food and snacks, water, a map and guidebook to the trail, first aid, sunscreen, bug repellant, a camera, and bike repair tools and supplies.
Tips for families:
Your speed and distance each day will depend greatly on the age and riding ability of your children. Be prepared to stop frequently at the many trailside rest stops and attractions, and bring plenty of high energy snacks and water. Make sure you know how to fix a flat tire and have basic bike maintenance skills. Buy the latest edition of the “Trail Guide for the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills, SD” which has a good trail map inside.
Trail guidebook with detailed map: http://www.mickelsontrailaffiliates.com/shop
Trail website: http://www.mickelsontrailaffiliates.com/trail-info
Trail map (general overview): http://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/mickelson-trail/docs/mickelson-trail-map.pdf