Mickelson Trail Tour [Summer 2004]

Posted by on Jul 15, 2004 in Geezer Tour Reports | 0 comments

By Michael Fischer

Comment by Jim Foreman: “Michael Fischer is sort of an associate Geezer since he has never officially joined by showing up and bringing beer, but he and his wife are Geezers at heart.”

This was the big one for the year, the Mickelson Trail, which traverses the Black Hills of South Dakota from north to South. We decided to ride north on the trail and ride the roads south back to our starting point. Grand total mileage for the three weeks was a measly 313 mi, but I found this to be one of the more difficult tours that I have ever done.

We drove to Edgemont, SD, which is the southern extreme of the trail. After 12 hours of driving, a shower was important! As it happened, the Edgemont community theater was performing in the campground, and the shower room was also serving as the dressing room for the actors as well as serving as a restroom for those needing to relieve themselves between the acts. Showers, although interrupted by a stream of visitors and spectators, were taken. Unbeknownst to us, Edgemont is a major railway hub in the area and the pursuing night’s sleep was interrupted numerous times by railroad activity. I have always felt the seduction of a distant nocturnal train whistle, but not from the mere distance of a couple of hundred feet.

We arose with the sun, prepped the bikes, and set forth on the three-week odyssey. Edgemont is at 3400 feet elevation. Our destination for the day was Pringel, 32 miles up the trail with an elevation of 5000 feet. The ride up the canyon was beautiful, but the numerous cattle gates and the gravel, which often engulfed our 35mm tires, impeded our progress. By mid-day we had covered 16 miles and the temperature was in excess of 106F. We had plenty of water on board, but absent any shade, we were seriously dehydrated when we arrived in Pringel around mid afternoon. The mileposts are conspicuously marked along the trail, and from MP 22-32 I made it a point to measure progress and assess my status one mile at a time. Upon arrival in Pringel, we found the grocery store to be closed because the proprietor needed to transport his grandmother somewhere. We settled on the local bar for our evening meal and rehydration, and after considerable time we set out for the final two miles to our destination for the evening. After erecting the tents, I was immediately in the sack while my partner stayed up to watch the sun set and enjoyed the coolness of nightfall.

The next day was relatively easy. It was only about 10 miles to Custer over rolling terrain. We arrived early and set up camp, but the previous day’s dehydration and my inability to quickly recover due to a medical condition had taken its toll and I was really sick. At this point we decided to modify our plans, which meant we would ride on alternate days which would allow me sufficient time to recover and replenish the muscles with glycogen.

Following a rest day in Custer, which was spent getting acquainted with the town and what it had to offer, we set forth on another 10 mile jaunt to Hill City over rolling terrain. Arriving early again, we set up camp. This was a rather unusual experience in that the campsites were very close together, and once we had laid our money down we were told not to camp on the grass, but rather, in the mud which surrounded the tufts of grass. Following our ride-on-alternate-days philosophy, we spent the next day in Hill City watching people and soaking up the local culture, which was becoming dominated by the forthcoming motorcycle rally. It rained that night and we arose to a sea of mud which had caked itself to the lower portion of the tents. I would have rolled them up mud and all, but my partner insisted on cleaning them thoroughly.

We set forth on the day with a rather indeterminate destination. It was drizzling and the temperature was in the high 40sF. I knew this was going to be a tough one because my partner is as sensitive to cold as I am to heat. We have dealt with her hypothermia on other tours, and I prepared myself for the prospective possibility. There is little civilization for 30 miles north of Hill City on the trail, but this is the most spectacular portion of the trail. As we cranked over 6300 feet we passed through 4 hard-rock tunnels, and crossed numerous gorges. It started drizzling rain, which turned the limestone trail into a consistency similar to that of newly poured concrete, but we pressed on at about 6mph. By late afternoon we had made it to our destination, a small campground/cabin establishment, and took a cabin for the night so we could dry our stuff and warm ourselves with the furnace. We really enjoyed this bit of civilization with its heat, warm showers and hose to clean the caked mud off the bikes and equipment.

We arose later than usual and set out on our descent into Deadwood. Somewhere enroute the trail abandons the 3-5% railroad bed and we had to brake more than I ever braked since descending the Trail Ridge Road in Colorado years ago. My partner is recovering from CT surgery, and she was in as much agony with the braking and weight on her hands as I was climbing in the heat with my metabolic disorder. We were passed on the descent by a pack of hooples in team kit, and as we rounded a turn we came upon and overtook them again as they had stopped for a comrade who had missed a curve and ended up over the edge, down a steep embankment and into the creek. He seemed to be OK as he was obviously strutting his road-rash to all who cared to observe.

Having arrived at our destination in Deadwood, we abandoned the trail ASAP. It was nice to be riding on pavement, and the 20% climb to our campground was a relief compared to pushing the loaded bike up a 5% grade over wet crushed limestone.

Deadwood is a town with very little for an economic base other than its casinos. It was interesting to wonder about wishing folks the best of luck, knowing in fact, as did they, that reality was stacked against them. The guy in the bike shop in Deadwood was very helpful in helping us chart the next stage of our journey. We decided to rest a day before tackling the Terry Peak Pass and then riding down the scenic Canyon into Spearfish.

Leaving Deadwood and heading to Lead which is a mile beyond and 1000 feet higher would suggest a 20% grade for a mile, but it didn’t seem so severe. In retrospect I would say that the grade was no more than 19.5%.:) Beyond Lead, the road continued to climb for another 4 miles, but less severely, at perhaps a 7-9% grade. Upon cresting the pass it was an immediate 7-12% descent for about 3 miles. Actually it was about 6 half-mile descents because my partner was suffering severe pain in her wrists from the braking and weight shift and stopped frequently. Then we entered Spearfish Canyon, which is about the prettiest, most pleasant 20 mile ride that I have ever done. We stopped at a picnic area for lunch near the exit of the canyon and were soon joined by a family of 5 who asked if they could join us at the table. We looked at each other in utter amazement, then gave them the table as we hastily departed. Upon arrival in Spearfish we climbed about 1400 feet to our campground, but by this time the climbs were virtually unnoticeable and simply part of the tour’s reality.

We had planned to spend two days in Spearfish, but ended up spending four because my partner’s trailer was demolished by an inattentive motorist while it was parked in the campground. We had to have a new one overnighted to us. Overnight express is great, but can involve several days when the timing isn’t precisely planned. After 4 days of overdoing Spearfish we headed out for Custer’s Crossing. The route took us back over yet another hump, through Deadwood and over Strawberry Mountain’s 7-9% grade. The next day we continued on US 385 to Hill City again where we squandered another two days in decadent behavior. We continued down the road to Custer where we spent a couple more similarly decadent days. We spent our last night on tour in a dude ranch south of Pringel where they rolled out the red carpet for us.

The last day we continued our descent back to the truck, which was left at the campground in Edgemont. Upon arrival, we tossed our stuff and loaded our bikes into the truck and hit the road for home. In the comfort of the truck we retraced our route to include the Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, the Wildlife Loop of Custer State Park and Sturgis during the rally. We had originally planned to tour these areas in day-trips on bikes, but the locals discouraged us because of the traffic and its inherent dangers. We were wise to give credence to their advice, but had been told by a motorcyclist days before in Deadwood that ” it’s nice to see real bikes out here during the rally”.

Our last night on the road we stopped at a campground on the Missouri River that was said to be a stop during the Louis and Clark Expedition. My partner’s 3 season tent was destroyed by 80+ mph winds during a severe thunderstorm. In such weather my 4 season tent is superb, but it’s awfully hot under all but the most severe conditions.

Post Script:
1. We are an elderly pair. My partner, who typically averages about 15,000 miles per year, has recently undergone surgery for carpel-tunnel syndrome, hence her recent difficulty with descents. She also has visual problems due to cataracts which are in the process of being surgically addressed as I write this. As for myself, I now average less than 5,000 miles per year. I find that I ride a loaded bike more strongly on tour with a rest day on alternate days due to type two diabetes.

2. Our research suggested that we should do this tour on the trail from north to south. We chose to do the opposite because we like challenges, are somewhat oppositional by collective nature and we would prefer to do the major descents on the paved road rather than on the gravel trail. For those inclined to use a shuttle service: It would be much easier from north to south because of the 30 mile climb in semi-desert conditions between Edgemont and Pringel. However, be advised that the relatively short but steep climb out of Deadwood would not be for the faint of heart.

3. We do not travel light. I haul a modified Burley Cargo and use front panniers and a rack trunk. My partner pulled a Burley Cargo, which, due to our misfortune, became a Burley Nomad at mid-tour. She also uses a rack trunk.

4. We have done a 3-4 week tour each summer for a number of years. Ten years ago we would average 75-100+ miles day after day. As the years gained on us we have reduced the mileage. Last year we averaged 30-50 miles per day while on tour. Yet this year, with the climatic extremes, the limestone trail surface and the relatively steep grades was among our more difficult tours despite the fact that our daily mileages were in the 10-40 mile range.

5. Next year we’re tentatively planning an out-and-back on the Katie Trail, but we have our research ahead of us. Any input from the group would be appreciated.

That’s all folks,


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