South Dakota (Being the Second of Two Parts)

(This is Part 2 of our cycling trip to South Dakota. For the exciting first part, please see the previous post)

It was the morning of Day 4 and there was mutiny in the air.

The ride for today was scheduled to depart from the small town of Hulett, 13 miles from Devils Tower. To get there, we would need to take another two-hour ride in the van. The ride was uphill to the tower. Upon reaching the monument, riders could elect to take a 1.25 mile hike around the base, or ride back to Hulett. There wouldn’t be enough time to hike and ride back. We would be spending the night in Deadwood, about an hour away from the start/end point. There was a fake gunfight in Deadwood at 6:00 and most people were determined not to miss it.

Most of the group was still smoked after the previous day’s oven-like ride. Somebody decided to lobby the group leaders for a change in plans. Instead of cycling uphill to the monument, how about driving us there? We could all do the hike and then cycle downhill to Hulett. This would require everyone agreeing that they didn’t wish to cycle both ways.

Thus my moral dillema.

I was already on record for being officially nonplussed at taking an unearned descent on Day 2. Now we were contemplating cutting the ride in half and keeping only the downhill portion. We were shortening the ride in order to go for a walk and watch a gunfight. This was a cycling tour, right?

It became obvious that everybody was on board with the revised plan. Rather than be the sole holdout, I kept my reservations to myself. Seeing Devils Tower from all sides would be fun and who doesn’t like a fake Wild West gunfight? We piled into the van and drove two hours to Devils Tower.

Devils Tower

The hike was as good as advertised. It was great to see such an odd rock formation up close. The site is sacred to Native Americans, and we saw many “prayer bundles” (usually a handkerchief) tied to tree branches. Fun Fact: the site is called Devils Tower due to a mistranslation. The Native Americans call it Bear’s Tower. The ruts on the rock’s side were supposedly made from the claws of a giant bear, attempting to reach some children at the top.

Ride 4 – Devils Tower to Hulett

I’ll be honest, the climb up to Devils Tower would have been tough. The last mile is at about 6% grade, probably too much for most the group in this heat and altitude, especially considering the tough ride the day prior. So instead of finishing with a 6% climb we started with a 6% descent.

The road around the tower was a little busy so we had to behave ourselves on the downhill. After the big descent, we left the park and found ourselves on Wyoming State Rte 24 (we were actually in another state! Devils Tower is a few miles inside of Wyoming). The route was straight and mostly downhill at 1-2%. Cars were whizzing past at highway speeds but there was a wide shoulder and all was well. It was a great recovery ride.

Heading toward Hulett

After 13 miles, we arrived in Hulett (population 1,500) and surveyed the two places offering lunch. We picked a deli and enjoyed our meal while we waited for the rest of the party to arrive. After our break, we drove to Deadwood, checked into our hotel, and watched the fake gunfight. Everyone was very happy about this.

Our transportation for the week, parked in downtown Hulett
The villain at the gunfight. He had just robbed a stagecoach and was confronting the sheriff.

Ride 5 – The Mickelson Trail

Refreshed after the previous day’s recovery ride, the group was ready to tackle 50 miles on The Mickelson Trail. The trail is 109 miles long and built on top of a defunct railroad. In places you can still see the rails poking through the crushed gravel. The railroad was built in 1880. They laid 109 miles of track, built 144 trestle bridges and blasted four tunnels through the mountains to get the job done in 255 days. When you’re sitting on the world’s most productive gold mine, things move quickly. By contrast, converting the railroad to crushed stone took 15 years, finishing in 1998. The trail is named after George S. Mickelson, a former South Dakota governor, who championed the project.

One of the trestle bridges

The bad news about this ride was there would be a lot of climbing – about 3,000′ over 50 miles. And it would be hot again. At the highest point, we would be over 6,000′ elevation again. The good news was that this trail was originally graded for railroads, so no climb would be more than 4%. Another piece of good news was the trail began a short walk from our hotel, meaning no van ride! There was much rejoicing at this.

The ride was as advertised. The trail was in very good condition. I’m not much of a “Trail Guy,” preferring asphalt over crushed stone, but this was nice. As we climbed, we were treated to views of the town below and remnants of the mining industry on the hills. After only a few miles, we came upon some wildlife – a rattlesnake! We agreed to leave each other alone and continue with our days.

Not the best pic of a rattler, but I chose safety over artistry.

The first 10 miles were a steady uphill climb, so it was a relief to crest the top and begin a long trip down to Rochfort (population 8) where we grabbed some lunch and chatted with the locals. One of our party had a slow flat about a mile from Rochford, but she was able to nurse her bike to the rest stop, where the tour guide got busy repairing it.

More wildlife – this kind was friendlier.
The Rochford lunch stop
Heading into a tunnel

After lunch, it was a short downhill and then another long climb. We were treated to a six mile downhill into Hill City, with Harney Peak, the tallest mountain in South Dakota, looming in the distance. It was a long, hot day in the saddle. This was Maureen’s second-longest ride ever and it was done on gravel while riding a hybrid. Chapeau, Maureen!

For dinner, we ate at a German restaurant in Hill City called the Alpine Inn. If you happen to be in this part of the world, do yourself a favor and grab a meal there. And save room for desert. It was fantastic!

Ride 6 – Custer

Our final ride picked up the Mickelson Trail where we finished the day prior and continued south for 16 miles. A cold front had passed through overnight and the temperatures had dropped into the 50’s. Arm warmers, vests, and jackets were pulled out of suitcases and put to use. It was a very refreshing change.

Getting organized at the start

We chugged along a gradual uphill of about 10 miles and were treated to a view of Crazy Horse Monument. Started in 1947 using only donated money, the crew has so far carved out his face. It is a massive thing. Mount Rushmore would fit inside of his flowing hair. When its all done, they’ll carve out his body sitting on a horse. It will be the largest sculpture in the world.

Crazy Horse

Having gazed upon our last scenic wonder, there was nothing to do but hop on our bikes and coast downhill for six miles to Custer. We took in the town and grabbed lunch before piling back into the van for one last ride, this time to Rapid City, where we said farewell to our guides and fellow tour members.

End of the line


Thus ended our week in South Dakota. We’d covered a lot ground, some of it on bicycles and some of it in the van. It was the longest consecutive days of cycling for Maureen and it tied my personal best – RAGBRAI. The 50 miles on crushed stone was the longest either of us have gone off road.

Apart from personal bests, miles traveled, etc… it was simply wonderful to be back to something very close to “normal.” There were times when I actually forgot where my mask was. It was great fun to hop on a plane, land in an unfamiliar place, and have an adventure. Here’s to more of that.

7 thoughts on “South Dakota (Being the Second of Two Parts)

  1. Who could have imagined that I’d be ready ride reports from actual bike tours this year! Glad you had a good one, even if you were robbed of a couple of climbs šŸ˜‰

    1. America is returning to normal. For how long is anybody’s guess. Please keep the unearned descent information between us, ok?

  2. There is a nice bar at the edge of Devil’s Tower. After 70 miles in hot sun, the local brew (Black Tooth Brewing Bomber Mountain Amber Ale) hit the spot. It was earlier than I normally drink beer, but we had time to kill before our campsite would be available, and there was no ice cream to be had. Beer was the next best thing. Devil’s Tower is another great place to see in early morning light. And if you stay overnight in the campground, they show “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” every night.

    1. I think I saw that bar (there aren’t many around there so I’m pretty sure I saw it). It looked like a cross between hardcore biker bar and tourist attraction. I couldn’t tell from my short inspection which aspect was predominant. Congrats on what must have been a tough steady uphill!

  3. There was a wedding reception going on at the bar, so we could only sit at the bar. I had a beer with two Harley riders, possibly early arrivers for the Sturgis Rally. They appreciated my beer suggestion, as they asked the same question I had asked – “what’s on tap?” to which the answer was “nothing”.The ride there was not nearly as hard as the day before (into Gillette, WY) or the day after (through Hill City SD, where we should have taken the Mickelson Trail instead of the horrible highway).

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