Join us on our biking trip across the Black Hills! This trip log is about the Heetland family riding mountain bikes across the Black Hills of South Dakota in July 2011, along the Mickelson Trail. Team Heetland consists of 2 adults (Karen & Brent) and 2 kids, ages 13 (girl) and 11 (boy). The log is written by Mom (Karen Waldman-Heetland), and the slideshow below is a pictorial version of the log.
This trail is a great entry-level route for touring with kids. It was long enough to provide the experience of a multi-day bike trip, yet short enough that it didn’t wear out the kids too much. It is a well-maintained trail with (mostly) gentle grades. We chose to ride the trail from north to south, as the elevation maps show more downhill than uphill in that direction. It was a good decision.
Our ride was in the middle of July, when average highs in the Hills are in the upper 70s / low 80s. But, our dates happened to fall exactly during an unusually hot four days, with temps in the upper 90s. We were all well-prepared physically for the ride, but the heat was hard on me and the kids.
We broke the 109-mile trail into 4 days, mostly based on where we could find places to stay. The days were reasonably evenly balanced when you take both difficulty and mileage into account. Because of the heat, I don’t think we would’ve wanted to go much further in any one day than we did.
Total Duration: 4 days
Length: 115.1 miles
Total Time actually riding: 12:40
Total Time including stops: 20:00
Avg Speed: 9.1 mph
- More water, less food –We brought way too many snacks for the trail, and purchased too many groceries for the cabins. We each ended up gaining about 2 pounds during this ride! Water was mostly okay, but I worried a lot about it anyway, especially with the heat. We learned within the first 3 miles that the map we had was not accurate with locations of water sources, so it was unclear whether there would be any water at each next stop. Given the research we had done before the trip, we started out with one water bottle apiece, plus one extra. If it hadn’t been so hot, this probably would’ve been sufficient. We ended up carrying an extra 4 Gatorade bottles filled with water. Gotta love those bike jerseys with the pockets in back.
- Make sure to have the most up-to-date trail map – We thought we had the most recent map, until we reached the end of the last day and met a trail ranger. She gave us the latest map, which would’ve helped us a lot on the trail. The maps are not available at the trailheads, so be sure to get one beforehand. The older map was not very accurate in terms of water locations and elevation changes. The new map is much better. The water availability at the Trailheads does seem to be accurate with the new map, but still isn’t shown for the shelters. It was a bummer to reach a Trailhead that showed water on the old map, but did not actually have any water. And telling the kids that we’d done the last uphill for the day (based on the map), when there were in fact several more, didn’t go over real well.
- Best time to ride – September – we chose July because the kids were out of school for the summer, and it worked out with everyone’s busy schedules. If we had it to do over again, we’d think more seriously about taking the kids out of school anyway. September would be a great time – cooler, yet before the snow flies.
We decided to do this bike trip in the summer of 2010. Karen grew up in the Black Hills and knows the area well. We visit Karen’s folks at least once a year and typically bring the bikes. The Black Hills is a wonderful area to bike – not too crowded, lots of trails, good weather. Karen and Brent have biked several segments of the 111-mile single-track Centennial Trail, which runs through the Black Hills from Bear Butte in the north, to Wind Cave National Park in the south. Once the kids were ready to ride longer distances we decided to try the Mickelson Trail, with its gentle grades and wide gravel paths. On a ride in 2010 Karen jokingly asked the kids if they’d like to try riding the whole trail next year, and the kids surprisingly said “yes”. After that it was just a matter of setting a date.
We briefly discussed pulling a bike trailer with our camping gear and food, to be fully self-sufficient. We decided that for our first multi-day trip with the kids we’d book cabins and/or hotels. It was more difficult than we expected to find lodging. There is plenty of lodging toward the middle of the trail, in the Hill City and Custer areas, but there is very little lodging at the northern and southern ends of the trail. Through some Internet searching we found Carsten Cottages close to the Dumont TH (north end), and Country Charm Cabins south of the Pringle TH (south end). After we booked those places, we found several references to them on other trip logs (wish we’d have perused those first!).
Planning started in earnest in March 2011. We picked our dates, reserved our lodging, and bought the necessities. We met with a few friends who had already done touring trips (Meiners & Pessot/Badian). We needed very few things beyond what we already had: padded biking shorts for the kids, two racks, and one pack. Brent and I each rode with a rack and pack, plus we strapped another pack on top of each of those. Each bike had a seat pack with an extra tube. We brought only 1 extra shirt apiece, and washed our shorts most nights. We had one very small bag to hold the shared deodorant, comb, toothpaste, shampoo. We each had a book and a set of “normal” clothes for the evenings. We brought cards, but didn’t use them.
Brent’s pack + rack = 20.1 lbs
Karen’s pack + rack = 14.5 lbs
Day 1: Deadwood to Carsten Cottages (just south of Dumont TH)
Total mileage: 16.3
Time actually riding: 2:20
Terrain: almost all uphill, a little downhill at end
Today was a short day, mileage-wise, which was a good thing because of the difficulty. It was all uphill and very hot. There were long distances with little shade. There are two different routes to get through this part of the trail, one much steeper than the other. We had intended to take the less steep route, but ended up taking the steep route, with grades up to 20%. We had been mislead by another biker at the trailhead, who either misspoke or didn’t know what he was talking about. This same biker had told us there was water at the Kirk TH, and there wasn’t. The kids did great with the steep grade, and only one of them had to walk uphill once.
The day started in Rapid City, at my folks’ house. We wanted to watch the morning’s Tour de France coverage, so we didn’t leave RC until about 9:30 am. My folks drove us to the trailhead in Deadwood and we set a time for them to pick us up at the trailhead in Edgemont in 4 days. We were very lucky to have them as our shuttle drivers, as it helped in the planning considerably. We were finally riding by 11:30 am.
The uphill was gentle except for the section from Kirk to Englewood as mentioned earlier. The trail has well-kept shelters between trailheads, each with a picnic table and shade. We stopped at all the shelters, just to get out of the sun. Some have water, some don’t, and water for the shelters is not marked on the map.
Carsten Cottages was a nice spot to spend the night. Quiet and peaceful, with only 4 separate cabins. The kids enjoyed the animals and the lawn games. They have a community kitchen and bathhouse. The cabin itself had a microwave and mini-fridge.
Day 2: Carsten Cottages to Hill City
Total mileage: 32.6
Duration: 5:45 (including tube change & a couple detours)
Time actually riding: 3:30
Terrain: 15 miles down, 8 miles up, 8 miles down (downhill seemed gentle, uphill was little more steep)
We awoke to the rooster crowing and the peacock making all sorts of interesting noises. After letting the kids sleep in, we were on the trail by 10 am. Today’s ride was my favorite section of the trail. Everything was beautiful, with creeks, meadows, tunnels, flowers, trees. We went through four old train tunnels, one of which was very tall. The cool air in the tunnels was quite welcome. Don’t stop for long, though, because there are lots of flying bugs to eat you up.
The first 15 miles were great – a gentle downhill, along the north fork of Rapid Creek. The Creek starts out only about 2 feet wide up by the cabins, and gets wider as you head south. We stopped in the little town of Rochford to get some sarsaparilla at the Moonshine Gulch Saloon. The uphill started about a mile north of the Mystic TH and lasted about 8 miles. Brent got a flat tire on the uphill. While getting that changed, we all got eaten by the mosquitoes, despite the bug spray. Our son is allergic and had welts all over his legs by the time we were done riding today. Coupled with the heat rash and sunburn, he looked pretty bad. Poor kid. Thank goodness for Benadryl.
The uphill section of the trail by Mystic was much easier for the kids this year than it was last year, thanks to the training we did in prep for this trip. The final downhill 8 miles into Hill City were fast. We were thrilled that it had clouded up, and thrilled to see a momma deer and her fawn right alongside the trail.
We stayed at Comfort Inn, right along the trail. They had a cellar to store our bikes, about 10 feet from the trail. Handy. The pool was freezing cold, but that didn’t stop the kids. My parents drove up to Hill City to meet us for supper. We ended up going to the Bumpin’ Buffalo. Food was okay, beer was great. We had the Moose Drool (brown ale). With a TV in the room, we didn’t even miss today’s stage of the Tour de France. Our son fell asleep within minutes of getting back to the hotel after supper.
Day 3: Hill City to Country Charm Cabins (south of Pringle)
Total mileage: 37
Time actually riding: 4:15
Terrain: a mix of long uphills and long downhills, all gentle except for the ride from the trail to the cabin
Today was much harder than expected. The map we had did not show the elevation changes in enough detail, and today’s ride was quite a bit more uphill than we were led to believe. By the end of today, we had a family of grumpy people. The thought of calling my parents to have them pick us up a day early crossed my mind during one of the last steep uphills when the sun was beating down on my burning and itchy heat rash. The extra 15 pounds on my bike made the uphills tougher than I was expecting. Great on the downhills, though.
The day started with a filling breakfast at the hotel. We had to wake the kids up to make it to the breakfast before they shut it down. We were on the trail around 10 am. The trail went uphill to Crazy Horse, then downhill into Custer. This part of the trail was pretty, with creeks, hills, and granite outcroppings. Today the kids really started to understand the physics of drafting. Our little peloton got going pretty fast heading into Custer.
We stopped for lunch at Subway. The 3 or so miles of uphill out of Custer seemed long and hot. Little shade, lots of pastureland, pretty in its own way I guess. When we finally reached Pringle, low on water, we were dismayed to find that the water shown on the map did not actually exist. We divided the one last bottle of water, hoping the last 8 miles would go quickly and maybe have some shade. It turned out that the final 3 miles were the biggest test of the day. We left the trail to follow hilly, steep, gravel roads for those last 3 miles to the cabin. What a relief to finally reach the cabin and water. We were really proud of the kids today. It was a tough day, and they pulled through without much complaining.
Country Charm was sufficient for our needs. The “cabins” were adjoining, with little insulation, and our neighbors seemed to be night people. The hum of the A/C came in handy to drown out the noise. The kitchen and bathhouse were well-kept and had everything we needed. After a shower and good meal, we all felt much better and ready to face our last day of riding tomorrow.
Day 4: Country Charm Cabins to Edgemont
Total mileage: 29.2
Time actually riding: 2:35
Terrain: mostly downhill, little-to-no shade
Today was our easiest day, though no shade, so it did get hot and dirty. We were all up early today, anxious to get going on our last day. The 3 miles from the cabin back to the trail were the hardest part of the day, going back up and down all those steep hills. Once on the trail, the kids again got to experience the joys of drafting, as the first 10 miles were a fast, gradual downhill. The rest of today’s trail was downhill too, but the headwind put a dent in our speed.
A short section went through Sheep Canyon, with a bit of shade and tall canyon walls. That was the most interesting part of the trail. The final descent into Edgemont was particularly hot, dry, windy, and dirty. The bank thermometer on Main Street in Edgemont showed 105 degrees when we went by. We arrived earlier than expected, but my parents were early too, so we only waited about 25 minutes. Mom brought cold pop, which was much appreciated.
Great Ride, Team Heetland!
- We were well-prepared physically. Nobody got sore, just tired at the end of each day.
- The daily mileage was just right for us. The heat got to us, but we couldn’t have predicted the heat.
- The kids learned the importance of pacing themselves.
- The trail and shelters are very well-maintained. Kudos to the trail crew.
- The new map is much improved from the previous version. Again, kudos to the trail crew.
- It was nice to have a hotel, with pool, in the middle of the ride.
- Groceries – we had some waste and spent about twice what we expected. It was hard to decide well in advance what we’d need, down to the butter and mustard. Since we had to have someone else shop for us, we couldn’t be too picky, but it also led to buying too much. We didn’t know how to buy a half-loaf of bread, a half jar of jelly, or a few tablespoons of butter. Next time, we’ll try harder to plan for food items that are easier to finish.
- Having someone shuttle us to and from the start/end was extremely helpful.
- We were surprised about the lack of shade while riding. Some sections were shady, but there were long sections with none unless you got off the trail.