Three Days in the Black Hills, SD
Words and photography by Kayt Mathers
Seeking out road rides in Tuscon, AZ, where I spent a week this winter, sparked my fascination with our country’s National Parks. I began studying the list of and features of our 59 national parks, particularly those between New York City and Portland, Oregon, a cross-country relocation I had planned for this summer. The Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota fascinated me most of all. The extreme moonscape, the native grasslands dotted with buffalo, and the rich pine forest that spans over a million acres were all attractions to me. This corner of South Dakota, of course, is also home to another attraction, Mount Rushmore, which was sculpted to promote tourism in the region. Another, less controversial tourist-attraction scheme in the region: the Dinosaur Park in Rapid City built in the 1930’s, back when they believed dinosaurs were green and smiled. (Side note: the climb up to Dinosaur Park from Rapid City is a nice, short, steep one—with dinosaur sculptures as a reward!)
As with any visit in a high tourist area, I ride early in hopes of beating the crowds. In the summer, there is additional incentive to wake up early: temperatures climb starting around 10 am (they soar in the Badlands, where there is no shade on the roads). While cycling is permitted in Badlands National Park (more information here), the forest and prairie of the Black Hills, I decided, was going to be my main playground for three days.
The free map of the area (available pretty much anywhere) is a surprisingly accurate and practical guide to roads, landmarks and services. On my first ride, I parked in Custer and rode to Iron Mountain Road, a gradual climb that turns into a roller coaster decent, then back up the swooping switchbacks of Needles Highway, before going down again into Custer, about 70 miles. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful and varied, through prairie and forest, past lakes and over streams, alongside horse ranches and small towns with kitschy, hand-painted signage. The single-lane tunnels carved out of the rock give views of Mount Rushmore, intentionally framed just so through each tunnel, which is perhaps more impressive than the site itself.
The roads are pristine, butter-smooth and the traffic early in the morning is very light. Park rangers are always happy to give advice and water, and I was relieved to find services throughout the ride, including visitor centers and campground general stores, which are stocked with food. I felt like I’d landed in cycling paradise, which is why I was so surprised (and a little sad) to see very few cyclists on the road during my time in the Black Hills. The region has a strong reputation for mountains biking, but the incredible road riding opportunities seem overlooked.
I did do one off-road ride, a section of the famed George Mickelson Trail, a 109-mile trail that spans the entire length of the Black Hills. The trail is crushed limestone and impeccably maintained, with a grade that never exceeds 7%. Wells—yes, wells, with a pump and everything--are available every ten miles or so. The northern section starting in Deadwood, I’d heard, was the most naturally diverse, following a stream and bypassing mineral-rich valleys. The Mickelson is recognized as one of the leading examples of rail-to-trail conversion and would probably be a real bore to anyone seeking single track excitement, but on my cyclocross bike it was just right.
One my final morning in the Black Hills, I rode the Wildlife Loop, mostly grasslands where prairie dogs, while tailed deer, bison, and burros (an import), roam and look unperturbed by visitors. The animals are contained within the park so there are occasional cattle guards to cross: approach these like train tracks (with your wheel perpendicular to the tracks) gather speed, sit back on the saddle, and hold your handlebars firmly but with your elbows loose. The Wildlife Loop is rather exposed with very little shade, so getting an early start to beat the heat was crucial, but it also meant more bison sightings, since they tend to move about in the early hours of the day. Bison, I learned, are unpredictable animals, and while they seem sluggish and nonplussed, they can run up to 35mph if provoked. Being there in July meant the baby bison were out in full force, doing acrobatics around their elders and stopped cars.
Three mere days felt like scratching the surface of Black Hills exploration. Even so, it was some of the best riding I’ve ever experienced, in large part because it was such a pleasant surprise. No amount of Tour watching can prepare you for the beauty of riding in France, but it helps. With the Badlands and Black Hills, I didn’t have much to go on from a cyclist’s perspective, and the reward was that much sweeter.
Staying: Accommodations are plentiful, but some of the best options are within Custer State Park (which is within the Black Hills National Forest) and in the small city of Custer itself. Rapid City is a nice half-way point between the Badlands and Black Hills riding.
Between Rides: Visit the Mammoth Site, an active archeological dig and museum where over 60 Mammoths and a prehistoric cat-like bear have been discovered; There are several long, complex caves worth visiting, namely Wind Cave and Jewel Cave; Get your Americana on at Wall Drug, just north of the Badlands.
Best Time To Go: Late May through September