Named in honor of the former South Dakota governor who crusaded for the trail before his death in a plane crash in 1993, the George S. Mickelson Trail runs through the heart of the Black Hills, connecting Deadwood with Edgemont 114 miles to the south. The trail incorporates nearly 100 converted railroad bridges and 4 tunnels, and much of it traverses national forest; however, some segments pass through private lands and users are asked to respect landowner rights.
In many places the trail is notched into the mountains—pressed up against granite walls to one side and dropping off steeply on the other. The granite gives way to slabs of slate stacked haphazardly like tall, thin texts on a bookshelf. Since the trail was completed in the fall of 1998 it has become one of the premier rail-trails in the West, rich with boom and bust history of gold mining, and challenging for bicyclists as it cuts through rugged mountain terrain.
The George S. Mickelson Trail's northern section cuts a curving course through mountains and ponderosa pine forests, over creeks and through narrow valleys by the towns of Deadwood, Lead, Rochford and Mystic. Every few miles it traverses a converted railroad bridge, some over trestles hundreds of feet high. Just south of Mystic, a once-thriving mining town, trail users encounter a 40-foot-long tunnel that was blasted through rock and lined with beams cut to fit the curving contours that give the tunnel its keyhole appearance.
From Hill City south through Custer to the White Elephant trailhead a few miles north of Custer features a gradually changing landscape, from mountains and corridors of ponderosa pine to high mountain meadows and the open prairie. Valleys stretch and cattle graze in the fields. You'll find many attractions close to this stretch of the trail, including the Crazy Horse Monument, which the trail passes north of Custer, and Mount Rushmore, located near Keystone 6 miles east of the trail in Hill City. In Custer, you can take a 3-mile spur to reach Custer State Park, which offers camping opportunities, wildlife viewing, and a replica of an 1874 log fort.
While it took less than 1 year to build the railroad line in the early 1890s, it took more than 15 years to develop the George S. Mickelson Trail (aka "the Big Mick") on the right-of-way, from 1983 when Burlington Northern abandoned what was known as the High Line to the trail's dedication in September 1998. In addition to the support provided by the late governor, the Black Hills Rails to Trails Association was integral in crusading for the railbanking of this corridor by the state and seeing it converted into a multi-use trail. With prodding from the local trail group, Burlington Northern donated the right-of-way to the state in 1989.
There are numerous access points and places to park along the George S. Mickelson Trail. A detailed map of the trail and trailhead information are available on the trail website (www.mickelsontrail.com).