The Mickelson Trail

Located in the Black Hills of western South Dakota is the George S. Mickelson Trail, a “rails to trails” project following 114 miles of the historic Burlington Northern Railroad Line.  Completed in 1998, the trail now offers a wonderful opportunity for walkers and bikers to explore this beautiful part of America.

Spring normally finds David and I on a long-distance trail somewhere in Europe or Britain.  Walking across the countryside with only our simple belongings on our backs, our cares are reduced to the trail ahead and where we’ll have lunch.  At day’s end we indulge in the comforts of a country pub or B&B.  If you’ve never experienced this style of travel, you much to look forward to.  It’s addicting.

This particular year, however, our time was limited to less than a week, not long enough for an overseas adventure.  Having done the KATY Trail in Missouri and being familiar with a “rails to trails” project, we knew that the Mickelson would access the towns along the old railroad corridor, thus providing lodging and food.

Since we didn’t have time to hike the entire trail, we chose the middle 70 miles from Englewood to Pringle and decided to use Rochford Riders, a bike rental and shuttle service, to give us a lift where needed and to shuttle our car down to the Pringle Trailhead on the last day.

Familiar chain hotels were available, but lodging on a long-distance should be fun and should represent the real flavor of the area.  More importantly, it should cater to the needs of someone on foot.

We started with a log cabin on the property of the High Country Guest Ranch near Hill City.  Although there’s plenty of activities offered later in the summer, during early May we were  practically by ourselves.  Best of all, the Mickelson was 30 feet from the front door.

The Mickelson is similar in style to the KATY, yet possesses a gentle grade and plenty of twists and turns.  Located along the route are over 100 railroad bridges and four tunnels as well as 14 trailheads with parking, bathrooms and water.  Post railings provide almost park-like settings when the trail passes through private property.  Trail and trailheads are spotless.  “People don’t throw trash.  They pick it up,” declared Mark Newbauer.

The scenery is marked by the rocky spires that jut out from forested hillsides much like the area around Lumpy Ridge in Estes Park.  As you travel south, the hills become gentler and low-lying meadows broaden.  The trail is not wilderness and although there’s a definite feeling of being “out”, it’s interesting when you walk by buffalo ranches, rock shops (which are many) and residential areas.  You learn what it’s like to live there.

The first day brought us to the historic town of Rockford, half the size of Glen Haven.  The ramshackled Moonshine Gulch Saloon, where most of the locals hang out, had everything the weary walkers wants at the end of the day: old cushioned booths, cold beer, friendly service and hamburgers.  Since we had hiked 16 miles, we opted to be shuttled the extra three miles to the Silver Creek B&B where we were met by Dick and Carol Mettler.  After raising kids and being in the grocery business for close to 40 years, the Mettlers moved to the Black Hills and built a B&B.  They spoiled us with a special chocolate dessert served before bedtime and in the morning put out a spread of fruit, muffins, scrambled eggs and huge slices of French toast stuffed with cream cheese and raspberries.

We walked south, returning to the High Country Ranch.  Since we now had our car, we decided to spend on day climbing Harney Peak and visiting Mt. Rushmore.

As we walked beneath the Avenue of Flags, I realized that for an American, Mt. Rushmore should always be viewed up slowly and up close.  The four faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt represent the birth, growth, preservation and development of the United States.  It’s setting, amidst the great northern plains, seems to represent America at its very best.  As sculptor, Butzon Borglum, said on July 4, 1930, “Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were.  Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

We were thrilled to see that Mt. Rushmore has a Presidential Trail.  Albeit mostly on wooden stairs, it is still rated “strenuous”.

The following morning we stopped in Hill City for breakfast before continuing our 20-mile day.  The weather was now a perfect 65-degrees.  Oh what bliss to hobble into town and see the Custer Mansion B&B in the distance.  Within minutes we were transported from the hot dusty trail to the hot tub.  Ah, the rewards of inn-to-inn hiking.

The next day, after a hearty breakfast, we waved good-bye and finished the last leg to Pringle to our awaiting car.  Good thing David drove home.  My chin dropped to my chest as a feeling of sweet exhaustion covered my body.  There’s nothing like a good long walk.

David and I have walked on long-distance trails around the world and there’s not one I wouldn’t recommend.  But walking in your own country has it’s own special rewards.  South Dakota is not only rich in history, it seems to exemplify that old-fashioned western hospitality where people wave from the yard and don’t feel the need to lock their doors.

It was interesting that one evening on the news, the anchorman mentioned that South Dakota was considered one of the best places in the nation to raise a family.  He also mentioned it ranked second to last in per capita income.  Interesting facts.  For the walker, the conclusion is easy.  In places like South Dakota, wealth is not always measured in dollars and cents.

HOW IT STACKS UP“Rails to Trails” footpaths will never win any awards for hiking in my book, but they have what matters:  a path, ample lodging and a sense of place.  The Mickelson actually had a few twists and turns which improved the experience.  I loved South Dakota.