During our travels across America, Leah and I have cycled on several amazing rail trails–each one offering a variety of gorgeous scenery, interesting terrain, historical context, and wildlife features. The Black Hills of South Dakota boasts the George S. Mickelson Trail, which checks all the right boxes.
The trail follows 109 miles of Burlington Northern’s historic rail line from Deadwood to Edgemont–
crossing 100 converted railroad bridges…
and pedaling through 4 tunnels.
The result is breathtakingly beautiful.
Named after South Dakota’s governor following his untimely death in 1993, George S. Mickelson’s ardent support was instrumental in creating a non-motorized mixed-use trail,
from his dedication of the first 6 miles in 1991 to the trail’s completion in 1998.
Rather than limiting our linear miles, we rode the trail from Dumont (its highest elevation point at 6240 ft) to Hill City,
and hired a taxi service to transport our bikes back to Dumont.
The trail consisted of crushed limestone and gravel which was perfect for our road bikes clad with all-terrain tires.
While riding the trail was effortless (mostly a slow downhill roll), there were many reasons to stop:
whether to soak up the landscape;
or reflect on South Dakota’s cultural heritage–such as farmers using cyanide lids left over from Deadwood’s Gold Rush days to shingle and side their houses.
All of which made for a glorious outing,
which only adds to the allure of Black Hills lore.
Leah and I deliberately planned our arrival to Deadwood to coincide with the conclusion of the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and for good reason. This year’s 10-day event brought 700,000 bikers to Deadwood’s neighbor town of 7,000 residents amid the highly infectious Delta variant–without vaccination, testing or masking requirements–which from a Covid-19 perspective is equivalent to shoveling 100 pounds of shit into a 1-lb. bag.
Adding perspective to our paranoia, last year’s event qualified as the nation’s #1 super-spreader of the summer when 462,000 gathered for the rally–infecting 649 with Covid, and contributing to soaring hospitalizations throughout the region, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Despite the many Harleys that lingered at our campground beyond the last tequila shots and freshly inked tats, the streets of Deadwood were relatively crowd-free. We weaved around occasional families, and dodged small gatherings of people dressed in leather vests when they were missing masks.
Because we had little interest in repeating the same activities that brought us to the Black Hills 4 years ago–albeit still wanting to be safe in the process–we decided on pursuits that would limit our exposure to the Delta variant, like: cycling on the George Michelson Rail Trail;
touring a gold mine on the edge of town;
and strolling through Mt. Moriah Cemetery…
which I’ll detail now, with the other activity highlights to follow in future posts.
On a clear day, the best view of Deadwood gulch and the surrounding Black Hills comes from Mt. Moriah Cemetery, rising 200 ft. above town. And from the look of early photographs taken from the edge of Deadwood’s Boot Hill, not much has changed.
Thanks to the 23 casinos across town, the revenue taxed from gaming has funded the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission which provides loans and grants for large-scale restoration projects that manage to keep the 19th century vibe alive.
When strolling down Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the likes of Jack McCall sneaking up on Wild Bill Hickok while he played a hand of poker at Saloon #10,
and shooting him dead in the back of the head on August 2, 1876.
Wild Bill’s final resting place is just beyond the cemetery gates.
Calamity Jane, per her dying wish, keeps him company next door.
However, it was widely known that Wild Bill had no use for her and considered her a nuisance, which makes their graveyard union the cruelest of eternal jokes.
There are many distinct sections of Mt. Moriah Cemetery:
A children’s section of unmarked graves calls attention to a time of heartfelt tragedy;
In Section Six, an alter for offerings to departed spirits denotes the thriving community of 400 Chinese immigrants who followed their dream of striking it rich during Deadwood’s Gold Rush. Thirty-three souls were buried in Section Six, but only three remain, with the majority having been disinterred and returned to China;
There is a Soldiers’ Lot of Civil War veterans administered by the NCA;
But most interesting is the Jewish section, known as Hebrew Hill,honoring many Jewish pioneers who made significant civic, commercial and social contributions to Deadwood society, notably:
Harris Franklin, an immigrant entrepreneur from Prussia who amassed a fortune through banking, ranching, mining, and hospitality, and whose son became the the second mayor of Deadwood;
and Nathan Colman, who became Deadwood’s life-long elected Justice of the Peace, and lay Rabbi for the Jewish community for more than thirty years. His daughter, Blanche was the first woman from Black Hills to be admitted to the South Dakota Bar.
Oddly, Solomon Star is missing from Mt. Zion. He died alone on his Deadwood estate in 1917, and was thrown a lavish funeral fit for a king by the townsfolk…but he was buried in St. Louis.
Sol Star was a dedicated public servant, who served on Deadwood’s first town council before becoming Deadwood’s ten-term Mayor. He was elected to the State House of Representatives, and won a seat in South Dakota’s State Senate shortly after. He finished his civic career as Lawrence County’s Clerk of Courts for twenty years.
But if that wasn’t enough, Sol Star was also a long-time business associate of Seth Bullock, the undisputed king of the hill…
from where he shares unimpeded views of the Black Hills with his wife, Martha beside him.
Seth Bullock’s origin story is an essential part of Black Hills lore. He arrived two days after Wild Bill was murdered and was quickly appointed Deadwood’s first Sheriff. He was an imposing figure who got the job done without ever killing a man or woman.
He celebrated his deeply personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt by building The Friendship Tower atop a peak in the Black Hills National Forest 2.5 miles from Deadwood…
and declared it Mount Roosevelt.
All the history that’s baked into the bones of Deadwood’s dearly departed, and all of the iconic imagery that’s scattered among them are references and remembrances of a time when people pulled together and persevered.
Together, they tamed the Wild West. Together, they defeated lawlessness with civility, and went on to create a diverse and inclusive community that was determined to improve their condition through mutual cooperation.
And they accomplished this in the midst of Black Hills, South Dakota…
What better way to escape the summer heatwave than to explore a cave. But Leah and I were literally at a subterranean crossroad of epic proportions. South Dakota’s Black Hills boasts two of the most highly respected holes in the ground anywhere in the world, and we only had time to explore one of them. Would it be Jewel Cave National Monument or Wind Cave National Park? Which cave deserved our business?
The driving distance didn’t matter since only 30 miles separated both locations. But there were other factors to consider when evaluating which cave is the better cave. When it comes to status, Wind Cave wins hands down, since it’s a National Park, and everyone knows that a National Park can’t be Trumped. On the other hand, Jewel Cave is only a National Monument, and monuments can be Zinked at any time.
We had to consider how Jewel Cave’s grand viewing rooms are endowed with a stunning collection of traditional stalactites and stalagmites, while Wind Cave holds 95% of the world’s rare boxwork formations.
As for whether size matters, Jewel Cave ranks third worldwide–four places ahead of Wind Cave at number seven in the world. However, Wind Cave has the most complicated and concentrated matrix of any cave system in the world, with new veins still being tapped.
And then there’s temperature. Jewel’s thermostat is set at 47°F, whereas Wind turns up the dial to 53°F, registering “six degrees of separation”.
And both caves offer an extremely popular assortment of tours that always sell out early on a first come first serve basis. Such a dilemma!
What’s an amateur spelunker to do?
Social media was consulted in deciding the matter, but there was no clear winner. While Jewel seemed to win the popular vote, Wind was preferred by the experts for its unique characteristics and wall structure. Yet, neither side could come together to form a coalition of consensus or compromise. And whose to say if there was voter tampering, or how many were fake views?
If travel maven and cave cognoscenti couldn’t figure it out, then how were Leah and I going to manage. We gave consideration to caves previously visited since starting out on our trip: Mammoth Cave in KY, Kickapoo Cave in TX, and Carlsbad Cavern in NM. But in the end, we settled it by tossing a buffalo head nickel. We figured, either way, we couldn’t go wrong, as long as we got there early!
And the winner was tails…
We were on our way to Wind Cave, and time was of the essence, but try explaining that to the road hogs (bison) blocking the road.
As expected, the Visitor Center parking lot was filled to capacity. I dropped Leah at the entrance crosswalk where she made a beeline for the ticket counter–beating out a Medicare couple, an escort pushing a wheelchair, and a busload of boy scouts.
And it paid off. We scooped up the 11:20 am Natural Entrance Tour (shown in red),
which officially started at a marked clearing, featuring a hole in the ground the size of a ranger hat. Ranger Lisa demonstrated the barometric possibilities with a yellow ribbon: if pressure rose inside the cave, the ribbon would blow outward from the hole; but if cave pressure was low, the ribbon would be sucked inward–making this a cave that “breathes”.
Ranger Lisa punched her secret code into the keypad, and the steel door buzzed open, like a scene from “Get Smart”. We followed a dimly lit channel of steep stairs that snaked through a claustrophobic passage of popcorn-coated walls,
until we reached the Post Office. I can only surmise that its name comes from the butterfly of boxes stretched across the ceiling…
with the names of past generations of visitors posted inside the boxes
We followed Ranger Lisa down another set of meandering stairs along a poured concrete walkway that took Civilian Conservation Corpsmen eight years to complete, hauling inner tubes filled with sixty pounds of wet cement around their necks. We reassembled as a group at Devil’s Lookout to examine a ceiling dominated by intricate boxwork and delicate needle-like growths of calcite called frostwork.
That’s when Lisa cut power to the lights and the cave went dark. We were instructed in advance to turn off all phones and shutter all cameras. Children with glow shoes were warned to stand still or risk an extra minute of darkness away from mom or dad.
The darkness brought giggles and Halloween howls from some of the kids, but for many it was a minute to imagine what it was like to be led by Alvin McDonald on a candlelight tour during the 1890’s, when it only cost a $1.00 to crawl through the dirt.
The tour concluded in the assembly room with a brief discussion about the geologic timeline–when the cave was born between 40 to 50 million years ago as determined by sedimentary layers of rock pressurized in the cave walls.
Finally, the fastest elevator in all of South Dakota whisked us to the surface, and the tour was history.
Dear Trip Adviser, I believe that going to Wind Cave National Park was a good call, ’cause there was lots of really neat stuff on the walls and ceiling, and especially ’cause I got to pinch Leah’s ass when the lights went out.