Whatever the season the George S. Mickelson trail offers hikers, horseback riders, cross country skiers, runners, and mountain bikers an opportunity to trek through the history of the Black Hills in Western South Dakota. The gentle four percent grade on much of the trail offers an easy trek through ponderosa pine forests visited by Gen. George A. Custer in 1874. Gold was discovered during his expedition, spiking one of the last great rushes in America, opening the doors to white settlement in this area at the end of the Plains Indian Wars.
The trail is accessed from any of the 15 trailheads located along its 109 miles that take you into the stories of the region. Starting at the north in the historic gambling city of Deadwood where Wild Bill Hickok was shot, the trail takes you south through forests, along streams, over more than 100 converted railroad bridges and out onto the open plains where the trail ends in the railroad town of Edgemont, South Dakota.
You’ll be able to see the huge mountain carving in progress at the Crazy Horse Memorial as you head south on the trail into the town of Custer, named after the famous general who led the first major expedition into the Black Hills. Just beyond this town you’ll follow in Custer’s footsteps and pass by a rock outcropping he named for his beloved bull dog Turk.
Summer’s heat can be escaped if you stick to the higher parts of the trail at the northern end on a hot day. One of my favorite “cooler” sections of the trail is near the Mystic trailhead outside of Hill City, SD. Here mining claims helped bring settlers to the area as nuggets of gold enticed the early development.
Railroad history buffs will enjoy looking at the tunnels carved for the trains along this section of the trail where three of the four rock tunnels on the trail are located. The path travels along Rapid Creek near this trailhead and remnants of the original town site are there to explore. The Mystic area is situated between two popular reservoirs with campgrounds and boating. Deerfield Lake is west of the area and one of the largest bodies of water in the Black Hills, Pactola Reservoir is downstream to the east of this area.
When the temperatures drop in the fall it is better to head further south and enjoy sections of the trail near the Minnekahta Trailhead located just off Highway 18. The landscape opens to meadows and then the trail drops out of the hills into the prairie through impressive red rock canyons. The area is often sun baked in the warmer months, but very enjoyable when the seasons change in the Fall or Spring. My suggestion for this part of the trail is to start at the Minnekahta trailhead and go south, letting yourself enjoy the gradual down slope into Edgemont.
Snow on the trail offers cross country skiers an easy to negotiate, open venue to glide along in the colder months. Most years the snow only covers the path in the northern areas of the trail, but it can be found some winters covering many sections of the trail. This offers adventure, even in the crispy cold, for the hardy souls that seek outdoor fun when the temperatures drop.
The Mickelson Trail is part of the South Dakota State Park System. The trail has a packed gravel surface and is open year around. Each trail head offers water (in the summer months) and toilets for folks using the trail. There are picnic shelters, tables, benches and parking areas at the trailheads. Passes are required to use the trail and can be purchased at the trailheads for $3 a person daily use of $15 for a season pass. The trail passes through public lands, much of it National Forests, and also some private properties.
Wildlife along the trail includes everything from birds like the unique Black Hills race of the Dark-eyed Junco to Elk and deer. Dangerous critters to be aware of include the elusive Mountain Lion and rattlesnakes. Be sure you understand the safety rules for these animals before heading out.
For more information on the Mickelson Trail please go to gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/mickelson-trail. Plan on hiking into the many historic tales of the region with an adventure on the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills or South Dakota.