Tag Archives: Crazy Horse Memorial

Discovering Marvels of Crazy Horse Memorial on Badlands, Black Hills & Mickelson Trail Bike Tour

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Crazy Horse Memorial is sensational, awesome and profound. The carved portrait in the cliff-side, which I first encounter by surprise as I bike on the Mickelson Trail between Custer and Hill City is spectacular enough, but there is so much more to discover. There is also a superb Museum of Native Americans of North America (it rivals the Smithsonian’s Museum in Washington DC) where you watch a terrific video that tells the story of the America’s indigenous people, and can visit the studio/home of the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski. It is the highlight of our third day of the Wilderness Voyageurs “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota.

I rush to join a tour (a modest extra fee) that brings us right to the base of the sculpture. You look into this extraordinary, strong face – some quartz on the cheek has a glint that suggests a tear.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only then do I realize that, much to my surprise, seeing the scaffolding and equipment, that 70 years after sculptor Ziolkowski started carving the monument in 1947, his grandson is leading a crew to continue carving. Right now it is mainly a bust – albeit the largest stone carving in the world – but as we see in the museum, the completed sculpture will show Crazy Horse astride a horse, his arm outstretched toward the lands that were taken from the Lakota.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At 87 ft 6 inches high, the Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving in progress. They are now working on the 29-foot high horse’s head, the 263-foot long arm, and 33 ft-high hand, the guide tells us. The horse’s head will be as tall as 22-story building, one-third larger than any of the President’s at Mount Rushmore. The next phase of progress on the Mountain involves carving Crazy Horse’s left hand, left forearm, right shoulder, hairline, and part of the horse’s mane and head over 10-15 years. The plan is to carve the back side of the rock face as well, which would make the Crazy Horse Memorial a three-sided monument.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When completed, the Crazy Horse Mountain carving will be the world’s largest sculpture, measuring 563 feet high by 641 feet long, carved in the round. The nine-story high face of Crazy Horse was completed on June 3, 1998; work began on the 22-story high horse’s head soon after.

“One if hardest decisions (after two years of planning) was to start with head, not the horse (in other words, work way down),” the guide tells us.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 71 years of construction, there have been no deaths or life threatening injuries of the workers (though there was that accident when a guy driving a machine slipped off edge; his father told him he had to get the machine out himself.)

Four of Korczak and Ruth’s 10 children and three of his grandchildren still work at the Memorial.

On the bus ride back to the visitor center, the guide tells us that Zioklowski was a decorated World War II veteran who was wounded on D-Day, but was so devoted to the Crazy Horse Memorial, he even planned for his death: there is a tomb in a cave at the base of the monument..

Back at the visitor center/museum, the story about the Crazy Horse Memorial is told in an excellent film:

The overwhelming theme is to tell the story, to give a positive view of native culture, to show that Native Americans have their own heroes, and to restore and build a legacy that survived every attempt to blot it out in a form of genocide.

There were as many as 18 million Indians living in North America when the Europeans arrived (the current population is 7 million in the US). “These Black Hills are our Cathedral, our sacred land,” the film says.

Crazy Horse was an Ogala Lakota, born around 1840 on the edge of Black Hills. He was first called “Curly” but after proving himself in battle, earned his father’s name, “Crazy Horse” (as in “His Horse is Crazy”). The chief warned of encroaching “river” of settlers, leading to 23-years of Indian wars. In 1876 Crazy Horse led the battle against General Custer, the Battle of Little Big Horn (known as Custer’s Last Stand, but Indians call it “the Battle of Greasy Grass”). It was a victory for the Indians, but short-lived. Soon after, the US government rounded up the rebels and killed Crazy Horse while he was in custody at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. (See www.nps.gov/libi/learn/historyculture/crazy-horse.htm)

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am introduced to a new hero: Standing Bear.

Standing Bear was born 1874 near Pierre, South Dakota, and was among the first Indian children sent away to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania where his name was randomly changed to “Henry.” In the school, their Indian identity was forcibly removed – they cut the boys’ hair, they were not allowed to speak their language “to best help them learn the ways of non-native.”

“As a result of attending Carlisle, Standing Bear concluded that in order to best help his people, it would be necessary for him to learn the ways of the non-Native world. Somewhat ironically, Carlisle – an institution that was designed to assimilate Native Americans out of their indigenous ways – became a source of inspiration that Standing Bear would repeatedly draw upon to shape his enlightened understanding of cross-cultural relationships, as well as to find new ways of preserving his people’s culture and history.” He honed leadership skills like public speaking, reasoning, and writing, realizing that because of the changing times, the battle for cultural survival would no longer be waged with weapons, but with words and ideas. “This realization became a driving force behind much of his work during his adult life and led him to become a strong proponent of education,” the background material on the Crazy Horse Memorial website explains (crazyhorsememorial.org).

Standing Bear attended night school in Chicago while he worked for the Sears Roebuck Company to pay for his schooling. With feet firmly placed in both worlds, he became heavily involved in the affairs of his people over the course of his life and politically astute —working with Senator Francis Case and serving as a member of the South Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. He led the initiative to honor President Calvin Coolidge with a traditional name – “Leading Eagle,” taking the opportunity for advocacy during the naming ceremony to challenge President Coolidge to take up the leadership role that had been previously filled by highly-respected leaders such as Sitting Bull and Red Cloud.

In 1933, Standing Bear learned of a monument to be constructed at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, to honor his maternal cousin, Crazy Horse, who was killed there in 1877. He wrote to the organizer that he and fellow Lakota leaders were promoting a carving of Crazy Horse in the sacred Paha Sapa – Black Hills.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Standing Bear looked for an artist with the skill to carve the memorial to his people that would show Indians had heroes too and turned to Korczak Ziolkowski, a self-taught sculptor who had assisted at Mount Rushmore and had gained recognition at the 1939 World’s Fair. Standing Bear invited him back to the Black Hills. 

Born in Boston of Polish descent in 1908, Korczak was orphaned when he was one year old. He grew up in a series of foster homes and is said to have been badly mistreated.  He gained skills in heavy construction helping his foster father.

On his own at 16, Korczak took odd jobs to put himself through Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, MA, after which he became an apprentice patternmaker in the shipyards on the rough Boston waterfront. He experimented with woodworking, making beautiful furniture. At age 18, he handcrafted a grandfather clock from 55 pieces of Santa Domingo mahogany. Although he never took a lesson in art or sculpture, he studied the masters and began creating plaster and clay studies. In 1932, he used a coal chisel to carve his first portrait, a marble tribute to Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, the famous Boston juvenile judge who had befriended and encouraged the gifted boy and introduced him to the world of fine arts.

Moving to West Hartford, Conn., Korczak launched a successful studio career doing commissioned sculpture throughout New England, Boston, and New York.

Ziolkowski wanted to do something worthwhile with his sculpture, and made the Crazy Horse Memorial his life’s work.

“Crazy Horse has never been known to have signed a treaty or touched the pen,” Ziolkowski wrote. “Crazy Horse, as far as the scale model is concerned, is to be carved not so much as a lineal likeness, but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse – to his people. With his left hand gesturing forward in response to the derisive question asked by a white man, ‘Where are your lands now?’ He replied, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’.”

There is no known photo of Crazy Horse, Ziolkowski created his likeness from oral descriptions.

He built a log studio home (which we can visit) at a time when there was nothing around – no roads, no water, no electricity. For the first seven years, he had to haul himself and his equipment, including a decompressor and 50 pound box of dynamite, up 741 steps.

Living completely isolated in the wilderness, Korczak and his wife Ruth bought an 1880s one-room school house, had it moved to this isolated property and hired a teacher for their 10 children.

There is so much to see here: The Museums of Crazy Horse Memorial feature exhibits and engaging experiences that let you discover Native history and contemporary life, the art and science of mountain carving and the lives of the Ziolkowski family.  

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

THE INDIAN MUSEUM OF NORTH AMERICA® houses an enormous collection of art and artifacts reflecting the diverse histories and cultures of over 300 Native Nations.  The Museum, designed to complement the story being told in stone on the Mountain, presents the lives of American Indians and preserves Native Culture for future generations. The Museum collection started with a single display donated in 1965 by Charles Eder, Hunkpapa Lakota, from Montana, which  remains on display to this day.  The Indian Museum has about the same number of annual visits as the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Close to 90% of the art and artifacts have been donated by generous individuals, including many Native Americans.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The gorgeous building housing the Museum was designed and built by Korczak Ziolkowski and his family in the harsh winter of 1972-73, when no work was possible on the Mountain. The Museum incorporated Korczak’s love of wood and natural lighting, being constructed from ponderosa pine, harvested and milled at Crazy Horse Memorial. The original wing of the museum was dedicated on May 30, 1973. In the early 1980s, Korczak planned a new wing of the Museum to accommodate the growing collection of artifacts. He did not live to see his plans realized, instead his wife Ruth Ziolkowski and 7 of their children made sure the new wing was built. The structure was built in the winter of 1983-84 and funding came in large part from a $60,000 check left in the Crazy Horse Memorial contribution box in late August of 1983. The contributor said he was moved by the purpose of Crazy Horse, Korczak, and his family’s great progress and by the sculptor’s reliance on free enterprise and refusal to take federal funds

The Ziolkowski Family Life Collection is shown throughout the complex and demonstrates to people of all ages the timeless values of making a promise and keeping it, setting a goal and never giving up, working hard to overcome adversity, and devoting one’s life to something much larger than oneself. There are portraits of the couple and personal effects that tell their life’s story.

Portraits of Korczak and Ruth Ziolkowski, Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mountain Carving Gallery shares the amazing history of carving the Mountain. It features the tools Korczak used in the early years of carving, including a ½ size replica of “the bucket” – a wooden basket used with an aerial cable car run by an antique Chevy engine that allowed the sculptor to haul equipment and tools up the Mountain. Displayed in the Mountain Carving Room are the measuring models used to carve the face of Crazy Horse, plasters of Crazy Horse’s face and the detailed pictorial progression of carving the face. They also detail the next phase in the Memorial’s carving which is focused on Crazy Horse’s left hand and arm, the top of Crazy Horse’s head, his hairline, and the horse’s mane. If you stand in just the right spot, you can line up the model of how the finished work will look against the actual mountain sculpture as it is.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Crazy Horse Memorial is actually a private, nonprofit (they also have a nonprofit college and medical training center that educates Indians), and twice turned down federal funding because “they didn’t believe the government would do it right.” Indeed, Mount Rushmore (which we see on the last day of our bike tour) was never completed because the federal government stopped funding the project. The entrance fee ($30 per car, 3 or more people, $24 per car two people, $12 per person, $7 per bicycle or motorcycle) support the continued carving, the Indian Museum of North America and the Indian University of North America, which assists qualifying students get their college degrees.

Once again, I am so grateful that I am not being pushed along with an artificial time limit by the Wilderness Voyageurs guides, I wander through the vast complex trying to take it all in. I am utterly fascinated.

I buy postcards for 25c apiece and stamps, sit with a (free) cup of coffee in the cafe and mail them at their tiny post-office. There is an excellent gift shop.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is open 365 days of the year, with various seasonal offerings.

(Crazy Horse Memorial, 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD, 605-673-4681, crazyhorsememorial.org.)

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m the last one to leave the Crazy Horse Memorial, and note that the bike of our sweeper guide for today John Buehlhorn, is still on the rack, but I figure he will see that I have gone and catch up to me, so I get back on the Mickelson Trail. He catches me again when I don’t realize to get off the trail at Hill City, where we are on our own for lunch and exploring the town.

South Dakota State Railroad Museum, Hill City, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hill City is really charming and the home of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, where you can take a ride on an old-time steam railroad. The shops are really pleasant.

The Wilderness Voyageurs van is parked there in case anybody needs anything.

Hill City, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ride to the Crazy Horse Memorial was uphill on the rail trail for 8 miles but going down hill isn’t a picnic because of the loose gravel – but not difficult and totally enjoyable.  We ride through train tunnels and over trestles. It is no wonder that the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, which is a centerpiece of the Wilderness Voyageurs’ tour, is one of 30 rail-trails to have been named to the Hall of Fame by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.  We finish this day’s ride at Mystic at the 74.7-mile marker– we’ll ride the remaining miles on another day. Mystic used to be a significant town when the railroad ran here. Now there are just two buildings and four residents.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, Mystic, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I notice the sign tacked up at the shelter: Be Aware: Mountain Lions spotted on the trail toward Rochford within the last few days.

We are shuttled back to Custer for our second night’s stay at the Holiday Inn Express (very comfortable, with pool, game room, WiFi and breakfast), and treated to a marvelous dinner at one of the finer dining restaurants, the Sage Creek Grill (611 Mount Rushmore Road, Custer).

Sage Creek Grill, Custer, South Dakota, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing on March 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.

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Badlands and Black Hills, Buffalos and Bikes: Wilderness Voyageurs’ South Dakota Biketour

Biking where buffalo roam, on Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Black Hills bike tour of South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I find myself mere feet from a swarm of buffalo (or more accurately, bison). I am walking my bike and have wisely chosen to walk between two cars that are essentially stopped as the herd crosses a road in Custer State Park, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. From this vantage point, though, I can shoot photos from the left hill and the right field and feel reasonably protected even though there is really nothing between me and them.

Biking where buffalo roam, on Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Black Hills bike tour of South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is the second encounter today with this herd – the first came as our small group biked from the enchanted Sylvan Lake to our lunch stop in Custer State Park at the new Visitors Center. The herd had parked itself right on the field outside the center, as if orchestrated by our tour operator, Wilderness Voyageurs. (I am told this isn’t necessarily a regular thing, but was a fortuitous occurrence on this day). It is only just one thrilling experience in an incomparable day, in an incomparable six-days of biking through South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills.

In the days before, we biked through Badlands National Park, completely surprised and enthralled by the stark scenery – essentially an ocean floor that had risen up as the Rocky Mountains formed. I had never realized that the Badlands is a gold mine of fossils from about 65 million years ago and from 35 million years ago (with a curious gap of 30 million years) – a transition period from dinosaurs (which went extinct around 65 million years ago) and mammals. Some 600,000 specimens have already been excavated just from this area, supplying every major museum and paleontology laboratory in the world. On this day, in the Visitors Center, we walk into an astonishingly fine Paleontology lab to watch two paleontologists painstakingly chipping away ever so carefully to release fossilized bones from rock.

The captivating scenery as we bike the road through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The fossils are so plentiful – and more are being exposed with erosion – that fossil-hunting should be added to the list of activities that visitors to the Badlands National Park can enjoy. There is an entire “heroes” wall filled with photos of visitors who have made their own fossil finds just this year alone, alerting the paleontologists to their location. One of those visitors from years ago – he is a legend – was a photographer who happened on a couple of fossils; when the paleontologists came, thinking it was an afternoon’s worth of digging, they found a tennis-court sized bone field that so far has yielded 19,000 specimens over 15 years of excavation.

Biking through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each day of biking through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, the landscapes change so dramatically, along with such variety of visual and experience, from nature and natural wonders to heritage to history.

Biking the Mickelson rail trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Over the course of the six days of riding, we bike the entire 109-mile long Mickelson Rail Trail (one of Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s “Hall of Fame” award-winning trails), taking us through ranch land and towns, ending at the historic town of Deadwood (but not all at once – the Wilderness Voyageurs guides have broken up the rides so we get the best ride and the best itinerary); we ride through Badlands National Park and Custer State Park, with the stunning scenery of the Needles Highway, and ride the Wildlife Loop giving us close encounters with herds of buffalo (actually bison).

A buffalo has the right of way outside my cabin at Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The lodgings are also distinctive: after the Badlands ride, we stay at a guest house on a ranch, and after our ride through Custer State Park, we overnight in luxurious log cabins at the Blue Bell Lodge. The attractions are epic: we hop off the Mickelson trail to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (who knew it wasn’t finished, but that decades after the death of sculptor Korczak Ziokowski who designed and carved the head, two more generations have worked on it and it will likely take decades more to finish); and finish our tour at Mount Rushmore National Monument (who knew that famous sculpture of the presidents Washington, Jefferson, TR Roosevelt and Lincoln also was not finished but never will be?).

Coming upon the Crazy Horse Memorial as we ride along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I love that the focus is not on racing from point A to B as fast as possible, but that our bikes are our vehicles to explore, to discover, to immerse, to revel in this glorious landscape and history – the bikes become an endorphin-making machine, filling you with exultant feelings. “This is your vacation,” our guide, James Oerding says more than once. I am so glad that most of the rides do not depend upon us all ending up at the van for a shuttle ride, so I don’t have that nagging feeling of holding up other people by stopping for photos or listening to a ranger talk, watching a film or looking at an exhibit.

“This is your vacation.” Taking a break on the Mickelson rail trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

That attitude, “This is your vacation,” follows into how they carefully the route is constructed for the best possible ride and experience. So we don’t do the Mickelson Trail end to end. We start in the middle and go in one direction, then on another day, are shuttled back to that middle starting point to go in the other direction.

The group – small enough so we all fit in one van – is absolutely delightful. After a dozen bike tours, I have found there is a certain self-selection process that goes into choosing a bike tour – bikers (and especially bikers on trips that involve camping) are welcoming, open, interested, congenial, love and respect nature and heritage.

Riding through the rock tunnel on the Needles Highway in Custer State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The six-day bike tour is spectacular in every way, and once again confirms why bike trips are my favorite form of travel: the pace you travel is ideal to really see things (even stop when you want to more closely observe or explore), but fast enough to provide unending interest. The scenery is certifiably spectacular – the idyllic setting on Sylvan Lake, the stone spires of the Needles, the tunnels cut through stone, the expanse of trees that become prairie. Then there is the wildlife – especially as you ride the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Plus there is that element of physical challenge that gets the endorphins going (not to mention the pure fresh air, scented with pine and the altitude).

Biking on the Needles Highway in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Not to mention the delightful places Wilderness Voyageurs organizes for us to stay – Circle View Guest Ranch and the cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge were so fantastic (more on that later), the excellent food – breakfast at the lodgings, lunch as satisfying as any gourmet feast, usually served from the back of the van on a table under a lean-to, with ingredients fresh from the farmer’s market or store, wonderfully prepared sandwiches and wraps on request, and dinners at the guides’ favorite restaurants (they sure know how to pick ‘em).

We’re going up where?? The more challenging part of the ride through Custer State Park, south Dakota (but it is really worth it) in Custer State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The guides on our trip – James Oerding and John Buehlhorn – are not only experienced and skilled, but take care of us like Father Hens (rescuing me on that dark night at the lodge when a buffalo was on the path back from the restaurant to my cabin). And then there are the companions you travel with – on this trip, there were three couples and three single women from all over the country, who contribute immeasurably to the pleasure of the experience.

Each day brings its own highlights and surprises – such variety and diversity in the experience and the visuals on top of the normal adventures of biking and travel. Biking is its own experience – you are in your own head, in control of your own transportation. Wilderness Voyageurs, a company I became familiar with as the tour operator for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourns on the Great Allegheny Passage (the company is headquartered in Ohiopyle, PA, on the trail) operates the bike tour in an ideal way – we ride at our own pace; the second guide serves as “sweeper” hanging back with the last rider (most often me!). Neither John nor James ever push me along or discourage me from stopping, exploring, taking photos.

Our lunch stop in Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have cue sheets and a Garmin that show us the route, and can download an app that talks the directions (though there aren’t a lot of turns – I still manage to go off route three times). (This style of guided bike tour is not always the case; I recently was on a bike tour with one guide who we had to follow, no cue sheets or directions and plenty of turns; we all had to ride together at the pace of the slowest rider, and if I wanted a photo, I had to ask for the whole group to stop).They also provide wonderful meals including a few dinners at restaurants where we order off the menu. Guided bike tours are not cheap, but there is excellent value in Wilderness Voyageurs’ tour price.

Biking through Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is a part of the country I have never been before. And frankly, it is ideal for anyone – especially international visitors – who yearn to immerse themselves in America’s mythic Western past. The combination of nature, open country, historic and heritage attractions that go so deeply into America’s psyche, is unbeatable. And on top of that is the endorphin-rush you get from biking.

A key part of the tour is riding the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, one of 30 rail-trails to have been named to the Hall of Fame by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Also known as “The Big Mick,” The George S. Mickelson Trail (originally named the Black Hills Burlington Northern Heritage Trail), was dedicated in 1998 in memory of the late South Dakota governor who acted in strong support of transforming the former rail line into a multi-use trail.

Railroads opened up the Black Hills. The 109-mile long Mickelson Trail is built on the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. Work started in 1991 and the full trail was dedicated in 1998. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail follows the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Burlington Northern rail line that passes through the Black Hills and was abandoned in 1983. After strong activism by locals and Governor Mickelson, the first six miles of trail was opened in 1991. Another decade under Governor Jacklow and the trail was completed in 1998 with the help of the US Forest Service, SD Department of Transportation, SD Department of Corrections, the National Guard, SD Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the Friends of the Mickelson Trail and hundreds of volunteers.

There is a strong link between the very existence of this trail and the railroads, and the Crazy Horse Memorial which we will visit, which pays homage to the indigenous peoples who lived here.

Riding through one of the rail tunnels on the Mickelson Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am reminded that the railroads through these Black Hills can be traced back to 1874, when the infamous Lt. Colonel George A. Custer discovered gold as part of an exploration team. This discovery caused an explosion of miners hoping to strike it rich. Within a few years, many other towns were founded and quickly grew. But what led to the development of railroads, was not the need to transport the gold itself, but to move people and supplies.

Along the trail, we see some mining shafts and go through the towns that developed with the railroads, and will even stay in a casino hotel in Deadwood that was re-created from a slime plant (slime is the waste left when they use cyanide to decompose rock to release the gold), that was part of the Homestake Mine, the largest and deepest gold mine; it produced the most gold and was longest in operation, from 1885 to as recently as 2001.

The trail, largely crushed limestone and gravel and beautifully maintained with rest stops and water cisterns, offers wonderful diversity in landscapes as well as attractions. It travels along creeks, across open valleys, and through forests besides ranches; we ride over 100 bridges and through four tunnels. (See more at www.traillink.com/trail/george-s-mickelson-trail)

Over the course of our trip, we will ride the full 109 miles of the trail, but Wilderness Voyageurs has broken it up in such a way as to intersperse attractions and, in a word, make it easier.

Biking the Mickelson rail trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands trip starts in Rapid City where I cleverly organize my trip to arrive the day before, staying at the famous, historic Alex Johnson Hotel (famous on its own, but made eternally famous for the part it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – an autographed caricature of Hitchcock is behind the front desk).

Indeed, the Alex Johnson Hotel is a major attraction in itself (it’s red and white sign atop the building is iconic symbol of the city) – the hotel even provides a walking tour. (Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton, 523 Sixth Street,Rapid City SD 57701, 605-342-1210, alexjohnson.com.)

The next morning, our guides pick us up with the van at our hotels, and we drive 55 miles down the highway (following what seems like hundreds of Corvettes who have gathered in Rapid City for a convention) to Badlands National Park, for our first day’s ride and the start of our Badlands adventure. But first, we stop at Wall, a literal hole-in-the-wall town that rose up to serve the Westward-bound settlers. On this spot, a drug store opened – more of a general store – and this quaint Western-looking town has become a must-see tourist stop. Delightful. I keep seeing a sign for a museum but can’t find it before it is time to get back to the group.

We stop in Wall before beginning our bike tour in the Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness Voyageurs started out as a rafting adventures company 50 years ago, but has developed into a wide-ranging outdoors company with an extensive catalog of biking, rafting, fishing  and outdoor adventures throughout the US and even Cuba, many guided and self-guided bike itineraries built around rail trails like the Eric Canal in New York, Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, and Katy Trail in Missouri.

There are still a few spots left on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Quintessential West Cuba Bike Tour departing on March 21.

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

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