29 Mar 2017 Biking the Black Hills
Being a Midwesterner, and having driven to vacations in Montana, I had drawn an unfair opinion of South Dakota. Making time on the highways, I crossed this state getting only a taste of that grand ole’ west I was thirsting for, but not long ago I went through the Bad Lands and into the Black Hills and I just got drunk on that stuff.
EXPLORE SOUTH DAKOTA’S TWO EPIC OUTDOOR WONDERLANDS!
The southwestern corner of South Dakota is home to Badlands National Park and 1.2 million acres of Black Hills Nation Forest. If you’re in your car and heading west, you can see an exposed sea floor surrounded by hills of volcanic ash in the Badlands, and within two hours be deep into a lush mountain side teaming with wildlife and granite formations. Such unique geology is due to continental plates colliding, mountains being formed, and a sea drained. So if we remember grade school geology, the Great Plains were once a shallow sea, but when the plates collided and the Rocky Mountains were formed, all this land being pushed up caused the sea to drain elsewhere and expose a sea floor. This sea floor was eventually covered with volcanic ash which is now slowly weathering away and we call it the Badlands, we’ll start there.
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK IS A DESERT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PRAIRIE.
So after the aforementioned plate tectonics, and multiples of millions of years, we are left with this crazy result we have made into Badlands National Park. It’s a unique mix of sea bed and sediments. Exposed fossils offer a display of our last 100 million years while the hills behind them are eroding at an average of one inch a year. The park itself consists of less than 250 thousand acres and has the largest mixed grass prairie in the United States, while being surrounded by a rainbow of dried mud-like volcanic ash hillsides. This place is called the Badlands, and it is seemingly riddled with contradictions, but it is harmoniously gorgeous! The summer storms can be wicked and the heat fricken hot, but the position of the sun changes the hue of the hills, and the wild rock formations seem to play in the shadows of some fascinating sunsets! This place is amazing.
THE WILD GEOLOGY OF THIS PLACE PARALLELS THE AMOUNT OF ITS WILDLIFE!
Within the Badlands, I will guarantee that you see one hundred prairie dogs, 5 pronghorns (some call them antelope), and at least one bighorn sheep. There are also bison, mule deer, coyotes, and ferrets, but seeing these may not be guaranteed. Being a prairie, there is plenty to eat and the critters show up and you can’t miss them. Just another interesting contradiction in this hot, dry land with an abundance of wild life.
THE BADLANDS IS AN IMPRESSIVE CYCLING ADVENTURE!
I know early on that I spoke of driving through here, but riding a bike through the Badlands is way more fun. The speed limit is conducive to cycling, and being a national park it is frequented by vacationers and sight seers, so they are not blazing through the park. The main drag through the park has plenty of places to stop and take in the amazing oddities of this place, and I would recommend giving it a shot, and remember water.
SO NOW, INTO THE BLACK HILLS.
I got off the beaten path in the Black Hills and I’m going to have to start with the critters on this one. I got to the point where I’d say,
“Oh, there’s another deer.”
“What’s that, like ten turkeys?”
I saw so many animals out there, I just got used to it. It became routine to see all kinds of our four legged friends, and they all looked healthy; I saw a coyote and I though it was a wolf. Where I’m from, coyotes look like scraggly, malnourished dogs who appear guilty of something. This guy walked proud, had a thick coat, and looked well fed; he was big! And the turkeys are big, the deer are big, as well as the bighorn sheep, but they all look healthy. They all look clean and have beautiful coats; even the cattle! Being outside in the woods is always a treat, but I was just ‘wowed’ by the abundance, and grandeur, of all these creatures. This place is seriously special.
THIS WAS MINING COUNTRY.
The Black Hills are famous for a bunch of reasons, but historically speaking, gold has probably been its biggest draw. The gold rush is what first populated this area with white men, but miners also came for the zinc, lead, gypsum, tungsten, and silver. Mining still takes place in the Black Hills, but nothing like it used to.
I was lucky enough to continue my cycling prowess and rode down an old rail line made into a pedestrian path calledthe Mickelson Trail spanning from Edgemont, SD to Deadwood, SD. This is a perfect getaway from the highways and way to see some real backcountry. In doing so I witnessed several abandoned mines, and passed through towns that were basically created and deserted based on the availability of surrounding ores. Towns such as Edgemont went from populations of 100 to 10,000 within a week when gold was found nearby, and as soon as the gold supply dwindled, the town was back to its original 100 people. Edgemont is not alone, this happened often in this part of the country. Not all the old mining towns have dwindled, though.
When cruising down the Mickelson Trail, you will pass through several mining towns that are still thriving. You can’t deny the old west taste here.
These are towns made famous by Wild Bill Hickoc, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp.
Reckon they were all brought out here for the gold, too, or at least the theft of it, but there are other forms of rock that fill these hills, like granite. Not far off the trail, and just outside of Sylvan Lake, we find the Needles Highway, also very bikable, and features granite ‘needles’. Granite formations shoot out of the ground and straight up into the air like a bunch of clumsy needles maybe 20ft wide at the base and 100ft tall, and they are all over. I’ve never seen anything like these before, similar maybe to formations out in some of Utah’s parks, but possesses a truly unique flavor. Needless to say, there’s a huge granite face called Mt. Rushmore not far away, either, and the Crazy Horse Monument, too. Geologically speaking, southwestern South Dakota is a smorgasbord.
SOUTH DAKOTA’S TRAILS AND TERRAIN WILL IMPRESS EVEN THE MOST SEASONED CYCLIST!
I almost hate to write about this place because it still holds a quiet demeanor. When out there wandering around, I did not feel crowded. I didn’t feel like another tourist waiting on the next person to pass by before it was my turn to look at something. This place is still kinda untamed, still kinda left alone and real. Old mines are still exposed, old deserted towns still have churches standing like they may be used again someday, and people are friendly and respectful. There is much more to South Dakota than highways cutting through the plains; just look to the southwest corner. It is filled with wonder and history, it’s exciting and relaxing, and it’s exactly the grandeur of the west that I long for, maybe in different ways, but undeniable ways nonetheless.