Exhausted but unable to sleep, I wrote this piece while on a flight home last night:
I’m writing while headed home after back-to-back, 6-day Wilderness Voyageurs bike tours in South Dakota. I normally would have been co-leading tours with my partner Lisa in New York, but “duty called” and I subbed for another leader who couldn’t make it as planned out to the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. This tour is brand new this year, and I had the honor and privilege to go out early, meet my co-leader James, and “scout it out” for a few days before running it twice.
After getting picked up at Denver International, James and I hammered out a 7 hour drive to Rapid City. The list of challenges started with getting 25 rental bikes cleaned and prepped for THREE upcoming tours, two of which James and I were to run, and another one in Colorado to follow just a week later. We had a boat-load of bikes on board on the way out, but we didn’t have enough in stock at our remote location in Denver, so our boss-boss Eric drove the rest out from headquarters in Ohiopyle PA and we had a bike-swapping rendezvous in the parking lot at Wall Drug, of all places. With a full load, and after scouting out the Badlands loop, we headed back to Rapid City to get some bike service. A big shout out to Acme Bicycles in Rapid City for their over-the-top cooperation, service, and storage of bikes in between tours.
After stocking up supplies, prepping our rig, and getting familiar with our stops and services along our planned route over a few days, we were ready to welcome our first group of guests!
Day One of our Mickelson/Badlands tour is nothing short of spectacular! Yes, you may have driven it in the family car while on summer vacation with the kids, and uttered a few oohs and aahs, but I’m pretty certain nothing compares to the experience of riding it at bicycle speed. It isn’t really much slower by bike, but the freedom to stop for photos, turn around, speed up and slow down, see the critters, colors and shapes, and experience the twists and turns, climbs and descents, and tailwinds as well as headwinds is too hard to describe. It’s as much a biking adventure as a viewing pleasure, and reminds me why bike touring is the best way to really SEE and FEEL what you travel through.
Almost as cool as the day’s bike ride is where we stay that night! Nestled deep in the convoluted spires and ridges of the Badlands is this great little plot of cabins which face a beautiful stretch of spires, providing a gorgeous display at sunset. Oh! And at sunrise too!
Day Two starts with a shuttle out of the Badlands and on to the Mickelson Trail that runs 109 miles in length and spans nearly the entire north-south length of the Black Hills. Day Two covers the southern third of the trail through the Black Hills from Edgemont to Custer. Based on feedback from the first week of tour “beta-testers”, we adjusted a few things for the week two group, to improve the experience. And a shout-out to that wonderful group on week one who endured some not-so-great weather and still happily shared their ideas which benefitted week two.
The “Big Mick” as it’s known, is a rail trail of the highest quality and is listed in the Hall of Fame with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. No surprise why. It passes thru some really brilliant scenery, has well cared for trailhead services, and hits the coolest little towns in the hills like Pringle, Custer, Hill City, and Deadwood. Day Two ends with an overnight in another group of gorgeous cabins in Custer, and I think the dinner/libations at the “Buglin’ Bull” go over pretty well.
Day Three, we stay on the trail out of Custer and within five miles, we reach the Crazy Horse Memorial. Worth the stop. Just do it. It’s downhill on the trail from there to Hill City where a variety of eating places get you fueled up for the climb up, and back down to the Mystic Trailhead. We picked up our peeps there, and shuttled them to the night’s stay at the Sylvan Lake Lodge, waaaaay up in the mountains next to the lake of that name.
The lodge is within, and owned by Custer State Park … the second largest state park in the USA. (Hehehe … we New Yorkers know who has the #1 largest state park in the USA, but who’s braggin’, ‘eh?)
Day Four! Oh heck yeah, Day FOUR! My Favorite Day of the tour. Right out of the gate (ok, the front door of the Sylvan Lake Lodge), we start riding the Needles Highway. This is one rock and rolling ride … with lotsa rock. The Needles are rock formations not like anything I’ve seen before, and there are some pretty tight little tunnels to weave through, adding to the beauty of the ride. You might not be able to resist letting it go on the downhills after a couple “short but stiff” climbs, but you should, so that you can get the photos you’ll really want going through there. Really … take your time here.
We take a lunch break after a few miles of gentle downhill riding, but turn up the heat again on the Wilderness Loop that follows. Another great bit of riding, but this time, punctuated by “encounters”. Burros, prairie dogs, pronghorns and bison populate the black hills but they seem concentrated here, and are hard to miss. In fact, even though you should never approach wildlife, the burros here render that point moot by approaching YOU.
We wrap up a fabulous riding day with a fabulous overnight at the Blue Bell lodge cabins. This is MY fave overnight. The cabins are “The Best”, the service impeccable, the Buffalo Meatloaf (my choice … Twice) is fantastic (nearly as good as a certain person’s salmon meatloaf dish … but not quite), and you can’t beat having deer, wild turkeys and even bison wandering through the cabin grounds like they own the place. (They do … Live with it!)
Day Five. Back to the Big Mick and the final section of the trail between Mystic and Deadwood.
This might be the favorite section for some people because although it hits the high point of the entire trail, it also offers perhaps the coolest downhill section as well before dropping you right into the downtown of Deadwood, a historic monument that includes the entire town! Wild Bill Hickok may have something to do with that, but perhaps it’s because it simply must be the highest concentration of casinos this side of Vegas. I dunno, but after weaseling past a cacophony of slot machines, I was able to find some great food in the back of a couple places.
Overnight is in the Deadwood Mountain Grand hotel. Very very nice rooms and more casino stuff, complete with tables (funded by a few of our guests) and I wish I could stay a spell. I saw the schedule of concert events and regret missing upcoming visits by the Little River Band, America, and …. Three Dog Night!!! (Insert teen girl squeal here) Uh-oh … ’70’s flashbacks again!
Day Six wraps up with a visit to iconic Mount Rushmore, of course. Time permitting, options might exist, but we have to return to Rapid City to catch flights home.
Wrapping it up, James and I returned to Acme Bicycles to gather our unused bikes from storage. It was a sardine packing operation to get them all on-board the rig, but we killed it, and scurried to the airport to drop off James just in time to catch his flight home to St. Louis, and a tour on the Katy Trail just a couple days later. Busy Guy!
Thanks again James … You rock buddy!
My next goal was to get back to Denver by 10:30am the following day to do a hand-off of bikes and rig at the Denver airport to the next team of Wilderness Voyageurs guides who are running a “Rocky Mountain High” tour in Colorado. I made it, but a storm like I’d never seen before almost stopped me in my tracks in the middle of nowhere (aka Wyoming). That was … Interesting.
So, I’m on the plane home, getting sleepy. I can use a rest, and I’ve got one coming! A whole WEEK off … Yeah … before TWO more tours in my backyard of the Upstate NY / Finger Lakes Region, that is.