Mt. Rushmore & Badlands Tour, 2014

Riding the Mickelson Trail was a main motivation for traveling to the Black Hills. The trail is located on an old mining railroad right of way that was abandoned many years ago. Located in the heart of the Black Hills, most of the small towns the railroad served remain, but with few services. We originally intended to plan our own trip and ride self contained, staying in motels and B&Bs along the route. However, given the lack of services we decided to join an established tour with Bicycle Adventures.

Neither Kerie nor I have spent much time in South Dakota. When I worked for the USGS, I had a GIS training class in Sioux Falls and enjoyed the two-weeks of clean air and wide open spaces. We booked the Mt. Rushmore & Badlands Tour through Bicycle Adventures, a company we’ve successfully used many times in the past. The trip started in Rapid City from where we would take a shuttle to Badlands National Park and the start of the ride.

The Black Hills are a hidden gem. The main attractions for most tourists are Mt. Rushmore, Devils Tower (just west of the hills), and the city of Deadwood. For us the attraction was the Mickelson, and one of the rides on the BA tour was a long stretch of the trail.

Thursday, September 11 – Fly from Reston to Rapid City, SD

We flew in to Rapid City where it was cold and wet, with occasional snow flurries. Later we discovered that the Black Hills tour held the week before encountered several inches of snow. Most hotels used Airport Express for their free shuttle so after a long wait we had a tour of the city on the way to the Howard Johnson, which was across the river and just north of downtown. It was across from the high school that had an incredible amount of traffic when school let out. It appeared that buses were not provided so most kids either drove or were driven by parents.

It was a short walk to Firehouse Brewing Co for fish tacos (single piece of battered fish with cole slaw wrapped in a flour tortilla) and a good local beer. We stopped by the Adoba hotel where we would stay when we returned to Rapid City. They agreed to store our bike suitcases. The lobby was crowded with with six bus loads of Black Hills tourists from around the world. It was a cold and wet walk back to the hotel.

In our room we assembled our bikes. We had the following day to spend in Rapid City and we hoped for milder weather so we could check out the paved trail that followed the Rapid Creek for several miles in each direction from downtown.

Friday, September 12 – Explore Rapid City – Highlight: Connecting with Curtis from USGS.

I brought my digital SLR and the next morning was up before 6 am to take some photos of the city. I’m always impressed by the clean, crisp air in the West compared to our not so clean, crisp air in DC. While our air quality is much better than when I moved there in 1979, the difference is noticeable. With a bright sun and new places to explore, I took lots of shots in the downtown area, which included some tall grain towers adjacent to the city center. Rapid City is a very small, but very lively town.

After I returned to our room, Kerie and I walked back downtown to the Dahl Art Gallery, where there’s an impressive mural of US history. For lunch we planned to meet up with Kerie’s friend Curtis, who she knew from her job at the USGS. We met him for an excellent meal at Tully’s Silver Spoon. Kerie and Curtis worked as part of the USGS Water Resources Division GIS team, and many of the GIS people either knew Curtis or knew of him. He’s a knowledgeable, creative talent who willing shared tools and techniques with others, along with being a very nice guy. He filled us in the political and cultural landscape of Rapid City, which is mostly conservative but includes many progressive, artistic types.

After lunch we tested out our bikes on the river trail where we rode west for a few miles to lovely gardens with a large sundial sculpture. From there we could see the dinosaur sculptures on the ridge at the edge of town. The trail is located on a wide floodplain where hundreds of houses were washed away in the big flood of 1972. After the flood, the city banned construction of homes and dedicated the area to parkland, an ideal location for a trail.

After we returned from our ride, Curtis picked us up for a short tour of the city, starting at Dinosaur Park where there is a great view of the surrounding area. Curtis told us all about the flood and devastation it caused. We stopped by his house to meet his wife who teaches viola and violin, and to check out their vegetable and flower gardens. The house is an easy bike commute to the local USGS office where Curtis works. Dinner was at a good local place nearby, Colonial House.

Saturday, September 13 – Rapid City

We had another day to check out the city by bike which gave us a chance to make sure the bikes were in good shape. We headed west this time to the end of the trail near SD School of Mines and the fairground where a horse competition was underway. We stopped by The Journey Museum of Black Hills history and Native American culture. Saw a short film about Lakota star stories. The moon and sun were once together but the female moon let trickster sit at her place at the table so he could be close to an attractive woman. Sun got mad, moon was ashamed, and the two parted.

The bikes were ready for the first day of the tour starting the next day. We had an ok dinner at Que Pasa which is owned by Firehouse Brewing Co. After dinner we returned to our room to pick up our Bike Friday suitcases to take to the Adoba. We caught a taxi for the short ride from our hotel. (Kerie didn’t care for my suggestion that we wheel the suitcases there although we did walk back).

Sunday, September 14 – Badlands to Hot Springs, 35 miles

We were up early so we could pack, eat breakfast, and meet the tour leaders and other riders. We usually can easily guess which other hotel guests will be joining a tour since most would be in riding gear that morning. The pickup time was earlier than we expected so we ended up in panic mode, hurrying to the van with our luggage and bikes. The tour turned out to be one of the largest that BA holds, with around 20 guests. As a result there were two vans and a trailer. The guides Kempton, Matt, and James loaded bikes on the vans and we drove to Wall Drug where we would begin our ride through Badlands National Park. We spent a little time browsing the many gift shops brimming with kitsch. The guides had instructed us to purchase a $5 gift for handing out later in the tour to one of our fellow riders.

The park road had a good shoulder and we took our time riding, taking lots of photos along the way, although the skies were gray. After having her chain fall off her chainring at least once, Kerie discovered that her chainring was bent in transit, probably when thrown by a baggage handler. It was not so bad; as long as she was careful, she could shift OK. She wasn’t willing to take a chance on the mechanical skills of our guides, which might have made the problem worse. Some of the other riders didn’t care for the windy descents, but we enjoyed them on our small-wheeled Bike Fridays, which seem to be more stable.

Had a good picnic lunch prepared by James, who is a vegan so it was not difficult for us to find vegetarian options. At the visitor’s center we watched naturalists at the fossil prep lab preparing artifacts for display. Many large fossils are located at the site.

Some riders continued after lunch. After the headwind and cold weather we decided that 34 miles was enough for the day and hopped in the van with our bikes on top. The others rode as far as they could toward Hot Springs until the van caught them; it was too far to Hot Springs for them to ride the entire distance and still have time to check in and have dinner.

The Flatiron Inn is an old stone structure with around 7 or 8 rooms, some with shared baths. Our room was large with a huge four poster bed. Some of the others, including Sandra and Tom, who is a hand cyclist, stayed at a nearby hotel that was more accessible for Tom who does not have use of his legs. Throughout the tour we got a good idea of the challenges involved in finding accessible accommodations. Dinner was at the B&B provided by a local caterer. It was a cosy, informal dinner and a good chance for us to get to know each other over lasagne and beer.

Monday, September 15 – Hot Springs to the Game Lodge – 46 miles

I was up early again to take some photos of Hot Springs. A large Veterans Administration hospital was located behind the inn up a steep road that was closed. I later walked along the river where steam was rising, hence the hot springs. The water was said to be 98 degrees. Many of the buildings were made of tan sandstone blocks mined nearby.

After a good breakfast fixed by head guide Kempton we shuttled to the Wooly Mammoth site. When Mammoths roamed the earth there was a large pit filled with water where they attempted to drink but many were trapped in the pit. Their fossil bones were the basis for the exhibits. Not all of the pit has been excavated and it was interesting to hear about the work on the guided tour.

After riding to Wind Cave, we had a picnic lunch and tour of the cave, one of the longest in the US. The cave entrance was distinctive in that it was very small and a breeze either entered or exited the cave depending on the differential air pressure. Lunch after the tour was around 2 pm which was really late for those of us from the East Coast. To make matters worse, lunch was a salad with hummus and chips, not very filling after the morning ride and tours.

We saw lots of wildlife on the ride to our lodgings at the Game Lodge in Custer; pronghorn, some solo buffalo, and an eagle. Later we came across a large herd of buffalo on either side of the road, some in the road. Our guides had told us not to get too close to the animals and to try to follow cars through the herd. For some reason the buffalo mostly ignored the cars, but cyclists were another matter. Several of us were between two cars until we were split by buffalo wandering into the road. We stopped, hoping for a vehicle escort. One driver volunteered, but they drove off so fast we couldn’t keep up. We waited until another vehicle was able to get in front of us and lead us through, warily watching the large beasts milling around us. Buffalo are impressive animals, especially when they are stomping and snorting only a few feet away.

The last miles to the lodge were the hardest. We’d had a long day with a light lunch and I felt like I could bonk. There were great views of wide open plains with little influence of man throughout Custer State Park.

After each day’s ride, the group usually gathered for a while at the van for beverages and snacks. Our lodge was adjacent to the creek, set away from the main lodge where we had dinner. Dinners with such a large group can be long, drawn out affairs. They are a good opportunity to get to know other riders but when you are hungry after a long day of riding and still on East coast time, they just take too long. My risotto with broiled vegetables was very good.

Tuesday, September 16 – Game Lodge to Sylvan Lake Lodge – 51 miles

The main attraction for today’s ride was Mt Rushmore. Keystone is the nearest town, located a couple of miles from the park and was our destination for the morning. We placed our lunch orders at a local deli so they would be ready when we returned from Mt. Rushmore. Most people left their bikes and took the shuttle to the park, which was a long, gradual climb. A few of us rode.

The park was very crowded with busloads of tourists. We took the obligatory photos in front of the Presidents and then took a short walk toward the base of the sculptures before returning to the van. It was a great downhill ride back to the lunch spot in Keystone. Lunch took a while as the deli was shorthanded (a common theme on these trips). Kerie and I were among the last to leave (also a common theme) and we slowly made our way along Iron Mountain Road. Several of the tunnels were built so that as you approached Mt Rushmore from the other direction the sculptures were framed in your view.

Part way up the road, fellow rider Bob’s chain came apart, fortunately at the power link. I carry one for emergencies and it fit Bob’s 9-speed chain and he was able to continue to ride. Kempton later caught up to us in the van to check on Bob. BA had purchased the bike for Bob because they don’t often have customers his height, about 6’4″. On the same stretch we encountered the pig tail bridges which were a unique solution to the steep terrain in which a bridge is built over its own road.

The gradual climb to Sylvan Lake was very scenic. We stopped often for photos and slowly made our way to the lodge. At one point several riders who we thought were in front of us approached from the rear. They had followed the directions which turned out to indicate a wrong turn at a crucial point (although the road sign did indicate where we should have turned), adding about 12 miles to their ride. Later we discovered that the guides had brought cue sheets and maps from a slightly different Black Hills tour that BA runs. 

Along the way we passed through an area with steep rock formations called The Needles, and the road passed through one of them so we threaded the needle. With the long climbs and 6,000+ foot elevation it was a very long, hard day. Of course we were the last ones to arrive at our destination, and we drew a round of applause from the other riders when we finally straggled in. They already had been lounging about and enjoying adult beverages and snacks.

Our room in the lodge was small which is common in the older park lodges. Some of the others were in the cabins scattered nearby. Most of the rooms had great views of the surrounding hills. Sylvan Lake is a beautiful mountain lake amidst large rock formations. 

After a long dinner of salmon and mashed potatoes, we retired early. The next day, we could choose to climb Mt. Harney, ride to Crazy Horse or just hang out at the lodge.

Wednesday, September 17 – Hike and day trip to Crazy Horse Memorial

Up early to take some photos of Sylvan Lake. Wished I had my tripod; instead I used my backpack to hold the camera. A few of the shots came out well; it’s hard not to take a good photo at Sylvan Lake.

After a long breakfast, we joined the Mt Harney hike with several of the others, but we lagged behind. After the difficult ride the previous day we planned to take it easy. Even at the lower elevations the views of Mt Harney in the distance were very scenic. We could see atop the mountain a distinctive CCC structure (as Curtis, a proud progressive said throughout our tour of Rapid City, “built by liberal Democrats”).

We ended our hike with a walk around the lake. After a slice of pizza for lunch at the lake concession stand, we caught the shuttle to the Crazy Horse Memorial with a few of the other riders. We spent some time walking around the large concession area and watching an older Native American tell stories and demonstrate the grass stomping dance used to clear places on the grassy plains for tents. Some of us also did the snake dance.

Dinner at Sylvan Lake was on our own and the service was good, our meal arrived in a timely fashion, and the walleye with rice and asparagus was good. One downside to the day was cracking my iPhone screen while hiking. It was in my side pants pocket and when I bent down to set up my camera the phone must have bashed against the rock.

Bright stars that night; saw a satellite make it’s way across the sky.

Thursday, September 18 – Sylvan Lake Lodge to Deadwood via Mickelson Trail, 59.4 miles

We would finally be riding the Mickelson Trail today. Up early again for more photos of Sylvan Lake, using my backpack to hold the camera for longer exposures. After a quick and good buffet breakfast, we started the ride with a fast descent to the trail. Passed Kempton and the BA van then nearly ran into a fifth wheel trailer that pulled in front of me.

Matt was the riding guide who gathered everyone at the bottom of the hill and we started the trail ride together. Beautiful day, the trail was in good condition, and most riders said it was the best day of riding. 

Instead of a picnic lunch, we stopped in Rockford at a place with a wide porch. Inside, more than a hundred ball caps were nailed to the ceiling. Lunch took a while for most people but ours came quickly; egg salad with potato salad.

Workers across the from the cafe were setting up a large tent in preparation for a Mickelson trail ride the coming weekend; one reason the trail was in good condition was it had been groomed in anticipation of this ride. The final leg of our ride was mostly downhill into Deadwood where we met Kempton (in a big hat that was a good disguise) who had gatorade and snacks to welcome us. To get to our rooms, we had to walk through the casino and take an elevator to the lobby. 

Dinner was at Midnight Star, a restaurant and casino owned by Kevin Costner. He fell in love with Deadwood and the Black Hills while filming Dances With Wolves (the movie Kerie and I saw on our first date). (The place has since closed.) We suffered through another excruciatingly long but good meal of sorbet appetizer, seafood pasta, salad, and creme brulee.

Friday, September 19 – Devils Tower ride, 45 miles

The original plan was to ride from Deadwood to Devils Tower, but since previous riders encountered a strong headwind, Kempton decided we would shuttle to Devils Tower and ride back toward Deadwood. After a slow breakfast we hopped in the vans and drove an hour to Devils Tower. Most people were anxious to start the ride but I wanted to take a few photos. We walked around the tower but realized it was taking longer than I thought so we jogged the last stretch back to the van. Kerie and I were the only riders who had not left yet, so we quickly loaded up the bikes and headed out.

Since we switched the start/end points of the ride, the new maps didn’t have mileage, and it would have been nice on all the maps to have major points on the route noted, such as lunch. There were some good climbs on the ride but we generally had a tailwind. Saw what looked like a live, coiled rattlesnake in the road that on closer inspection was dead.

We had another late lunch at the rest stop where most of us ended our ride. Had a good dinner that night of penne with cheese and bits of portobello mushrooms in an old house of ill repute. At the end of the meal we all exchanged the corny under-$5 gag gifts we had bought at Wall Drug.

Since the next day was our last, it was time for a bike tour ritual: calculating the guide tips. BA suggests $15-30 per guide per day for excellent service. Our guides have almost always been good so we usually tip in the middle of that range, a large sum that we’ve learned to add to our budget. We also bring blank checks and envelopes.

Saturday, September 20 – Spearfish Canyon, 31.5 miles

On our last day of riding, we left from Deadwood, back past the Mickelson Trailhead, toward Spearfish Canyon. The winding canyon road that follows Spearfish Creek is popular with cyclists and motorists, including many motorcyclists. Most of the motorists were very accommodating. We took our time to savor the beautiful scenery.

At a local park in Spearfish at the end of the ride, we had a good salad lunch supplemented by our first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, such simple food but usually very satisfying, especially when you are starving. Some of the riders opted to sample the BBQ from the festival held in the adjacent park. We said goodbye to Louise whose husband came to pick her up in Spearfish. The rest of us shuttled to Rapid City in the van to our various hotels. 

Later we walked through downtown Rapid City and checked out the Strider bike races that were winding down in the town square/park. Strider bikes are “balance bikes” that have no pedals. The riders must scoot along using their feet on the ground. Watching the racers – including kids and adults of all ages – was hilarious. Regardless of age, the racers were very intense.

Dinner was at the Ale House, recommended by the folks at the bike shop. Good atmosphere, local craft beer on tap and good pizza. Lively crowd. On our walk home we stopped to listen to Brule, a local Native American band. Bought one of their CDs (as Airo, their earlier incarnation).

Back at the Adoba we packed the Bike Fridays and prepared for our morning flight.

Sunday, September 21 – Rapid City to Dulles via Denver

After a good breakfast at the Adoba we took the shuttle to the sleepy Rapid City airport. We thoroughly enjoyed the Bicycle Adventures tour, discovering some beautiful scenery in the Black Hills. Because of the long distances between the riding routes, there were too many times we had to ride the shuttle either before or after our ride. The maps needed improvement. We’d love to return to ride the Mickelson Trail again and explore more of the area on our own.