Tag Archives: Wilderness-Voyageurs

Deadwood, South Dakota Resurrects Wild West Past at End of MicKelson Trail

“Calamity Jane” in a daily shootout on Deadwood, South Dakota’s historic Main Street © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com m

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It strikes me as somewhat ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that Deadwood, South Dakota, so famous for being the place where Wild Bill Hickok was killed in a saloon playing poker, after being mining boomtown and a virtual ghost town, has been reincarnated as a casino gaming mecca.

Our hotel, the Deadwood Mountain Grand Resort, actually reflects both these traditions: it has one of the biggest casinos and the building has repurposed what used to be 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 Homestake Mine was the second-largest gold producer in the United States and the longest continually operating mine in US history, operating from 1885 to as recently as 2001.

We’ve arrived at Deadwood at the end of biking the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail, a bike trail converted from a former railroad line named to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame, which we have covered in three days of the six-day Wilderness Voyageurs “Badlands and Mickelson Trail” bike tour of South Dakota.

A buffalo strolls over to my cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My day begins at the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park, with a buffalo strolling up to the porch of my cabin. We then are shuttled in the Wilderness Voyageurs van to the Mystic Trailhead, to ride the remaining 34 scenic miles of the Mickelson Trail into Deadwood.

Biking the last miles on the Mickelson Trail from Mystic to Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Biking the last miles of the Mickelson Trail to its end, in Deadwood, South Dakota at mile 109 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s already about 3 pm, and armed with a list of activities that take place which I have obtained from the concierge (the shootout on Main Street at 6 pm, for example), I quickly drop my things to rush out to get to the Mount Moriah Cemetery which I remember the Alex Johnson Hotel manager, Ross Goldman, telling me about. Though the concierge and the visitor bureau guy discourage me from walking up there (there isn’t a public bus and the bus tour which makes a quick stop at the cemetery doesn’t make sense, I head out anyway – the hike, up 4,800 ft. to a high ridge overlooking Deadwood Gulch – the highest point in Deadwood – proves no big deal (especially compared to the hills we biked yesterday in Custer State Park) and takes just about 20 minutes.

At the entrance, they provide an excellent map with information and location of the notable graves of the important people who are buried here for you to do your own self-guided walking tour.

The major lure – and why there is a line of people – is the side-by-side plots of James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok and Calamity Jane, whose legends continue to animate Deadwood even today.

Wild Bill Hickok’s gravesite is a major tourist attraction that brings hundreds to Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to the guide, James Butler Hickok was murdered in Deadwood on August 2, 1876. He came, along with so many others, to the Deadwood gold camp in search of adventure and fortune. But his true passion was gambling. While playing a game of cards, he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall. “Wild Bill’s colorful life included service as a marshal, an Army scout and other tasks which called for a fast gun and no aversion to bloodshed.” (Later, you can see the re-creation of the arrest of Jack McCall, and then a re-creation of the hastily convened miners’ court, by the Deadwood Alive troop.)

Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary (1850-1903) also had a colorful life, which she largely created and which may or may not be true. “She worked on a bull train, performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and was a prostitute.” She claimed to have been Wild Bill Hickok’s sweetheart (and even that they were married and had a daughter). Her grave marker calls her Martha Jane Burke because she married Clinton Burke after Hickok’s death. She is known for acts of charity and willingness to nurse the sick. In 1903, Calamity Jane died in the Terry mining camp, her dying wish, “Bury me beside Wild Bill” was carried out.

Calamity Jane’s grave at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The cemetery was established in1878 and actively used until 1949. There are some 3,627 people buried here including a children’s section with 350 who died in of scarlet fever and diphtheria epidemic 1878-1880; a Civil War section, a Jewish section (surprisingly large) and a Chinese section (there is even a Chinese altar and ceremonial oven), and several notable and colorful characters who are described in the guide with directions to their gravesites.

I am struck by the wrought iron gates at the entrance which have symbols representing the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Freemasonry and the Star of David. Indeed the name Mt. Moriah was chosen for its religious affiliation with both the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah (Mount Moriah is located within Jerusalem, the site of Solomon’s temple.)

It takes about an hour to visit. ($2/entrance, 108 Sherman St., Deadwood 57732, 605-578-2082, www.cityofdeadwood.com).

Deadwood, it turns out, was named for the dead timber on the surrounding hills, not for its shoot-outs. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought thousands of new people to the area. 

I get back down to the historic Main Street in plenty of time for the 6 pm “Main Street Shootout”, featuring a fantastic Calamity Jane character.

“Calamity Jane” cavorts with tourists on Deadwood’s Main Street before the shootout © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are free shows throughout the day on Historic Main Street (reminiscent of a theme park’s re-creation of a Wild West town): Deadwood’s True Tales; a 2 pm Main Street shootout; a Rootin’Tootin’ Card Game for kids and old-thyme musical show; Dr. Stan Dupt’s Travelin’ Medicine Show; 4 pm Main Street shootout; 4:30 Old Thym Hoe Down; 5:45 Deadwood’s True Tales on the steps of the historic Franklin Hotel.

Getting ready for the shoot out on Main Street, Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After the 6 pm shootout, I check out the shops and grab a burger with another couple from our bike tour who I meet up with on the street, and come back for the 7:30 pm “Capture of Jack McCall” outside Saloon 10 (there is the “original Saloon 10 where Wild Bill was actually shot).

From there, we all march up the street to the Masonic Temple for the 8 pm “Trial of Jack McCall”.

The Trial of Jack McCall has been performed regularly since 1925, one of the longest running plays in the nation but each night in Deadwood with new twists because of audience participation. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The Trial of Jack McCall” has been performed steadily, I am astonished to learn since 1925, making it one of the nation’s longest running plays. It began as an annual presentation during Statehood Days. The script is based on news accounts of the actual trial which took place in the mining camp of Deadwood after Jack McCall murdered James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Wild Bill was playing poker in Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon No. 10 and was shot in the back of the head while holding Aces and Eights, forever known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”. (People leave the cards at his grave.). Though based on fact, it is done with great humor (if a murder trial can be fun). “It has to be accurate,” any “Cookie” Mosher who plays John Swift, Clerk of the Courts and Executive Director of Deadwood Alive, tells me because Deadwood Alive, a nonprofit, is supported in part by Historical Preservation Society. (It reminds me of the “Cry Innocent,” recreation of a Salem Witch Trial, in Salem, Massachusetts).

They even recreate the edition of the Black Hills Pioneer which reported the story of Hickok’s murder, on August 3, 1876. “A dastardly murder was committed in Deadwood gulch yesterday afternoon. The fiendish murderer who shot him in the back is in jail. The dead man is Wild Bill Hickok, whose prowess with the pistols is known far and wide. Single-handed, he captured robbers and trouble makers in the south, at Dodge city, Abilene and Hays, Kansas, in Nebraska, in all the south. Men feared him, feared his quickness on the draw, the deadly and accurate aim which send more than one roustabout sprawling.

“But on this terrible, bloodstained afternoon in the wild gold camp of the Black Hills, Wild Bill never had a chance.”

A jury of “minors” at “The Trial of Jack McCall” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is a family-friendly show where the selected members of the audience participate in the performance serving as jurors in the trial- the jury of miners is made up of “minors” – kids who get to wear various hats and sit on a bench). The show is held nightly Monday through Saturday with the schedule as outlined below.

It proves extremely entertaining as a trial for murder could possibly be.

In 1876, Deadwood didn’t have a courthouse so the trial was held in Deadwood Theater (the narrator/court manager explains they have to wait for auditions to finish – so there is music provided by Calamity Jane as the audience files in. The theater was tearing down from the previous week’s show and getting ready for the next, so you see various props.The trial was held just the day after McCall’s arrest.

“Jack McCall” takes the stand in his trial , recreated nightly in Deadwood, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A boy is given the role of sheriff; wearing an oversized cowboy hat, he seems just itching to shoot the toy gun he hold on McCall.

They call “witnesses” and John Swift, the clerk of Courts (played by Mosher) goes into the audience and pulls somebody up – then after jokes (swearing on “Bartenders Guide” instead of bible), “sneaks” them a script. He grabs a guy as a witness who is wearing shorts so he puts shawl over his leg for modesty; he grabs a woman to play McCall’s’ employer and pretends to flirt.  (It’s very Shakespearean the way they go in/out of character and talk to audience.)

Audience participation makes “The Trial of Jack McCall” especially entertaining. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One witness says Wild Bill asked him to move his chair so Wild Bill could sit with his back to wall, and he refused.

The “minors” on the jury pretend to sleep during Defense’s summation.

As in real life, McCall was found Not Guilty. Then, in an epilogue, the Clerk relates that McCall was driven from town but bragged about killing Wild Bill over a game of cards. The federal government said that because the crime was committed in Indian Country the feds still had jurisdiction to try McCall without violating the rule against double jeopardy. McCall was rearrested in 1877, got a new trial, was found guilty and hanged.

Deadwood Alive has been entertaining visitors for over 20 years with Main Street shootouts and regular performances of the Trial of Jack McCall. The Deadwood Alive troupe of superb actors consists of over 10 characters and provide entertainment throughout the year including daily shootouts, guided walking tours, musical performances and the famous Trial of Jack McCall. Deadwood Alive is managed by a non-profit board of directors and employs up to a dozen individuals each summer to re-enact several historically accurate incidents of Deadwood’s past and make a visit to Deadwood so entertaining for people of all ages (($6 adults, $5 seniors, $3 children, 800-344-8826, www.deadwoodalive.com).

The actual Saloon No. 10 where Wild Bill Hickok was killed by Jack McCall while holding a poker hand of Aces and Eights, forever known as the “Dead Man’s Hand”. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I enjoy the charm of the Main Street. I stop in to the Franklin Hotel, opened since 1903, a beautiful, elegant hotel, now with a casino in the lobby.

Deadwood actually offers a lot of history and attractions, which unfortunately, I do not have time to experience): The Adams Museum (554 Sherman St); Days of ’76 Museum (18 Seventy Six Dr), and Historic Adams House (22 Van Buren St.). (DeadwoodHistory.com, 605-722-4800).

Deadwood preserves its Wild West charm © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

More visitor information at Deadwood South Dakota, 800-344-8826,www.deadwood.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.

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

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands & Black Hills, Buffalos & Bikes: Close Encounters with Wildlife in South Dakota’s Custer State Park

A herd of buffalo (bison) take over a field just outside the Custer State Park Visitor Center, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I didn’t think I could be wowed more than yesterday’s bike ride along the Mickelson Trail to the Crazy Horse Memorial. But today’s ride through South Dakota’s Custer State Park, starting on the Needles Highway, and riding the Wildlife Loop for incredibly close encounters with the state’s famous animal life, finishing at a rustic (but luxurious) lodge in the woods, is over the moon.

The Wilderness Voyageurs guides shuttle us in the van from the town of Custer to Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park to start our ride through South Dakota’s first and, at 71,000 acres, its largest state park. Like the town, its namesake is the infamous Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who in addition to being the army commander who brutally fought Indians (meeting his master at the Battle of Little Big Horn), was an “explorer and fortune hunter”. In 1874, Custer found gold in these Black Hills, prompting a mad gold rush that resulted in the Indians being displaced from their sacred lands. But be that as it may, the park, which preserves and protects the precious buffalo (actually American bison), and so much more, seems a measure of justice.

Family goes off for rock climbing at Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The scenery is spectacular, beginning with this first view of the enchanting Sylvan Lake. There is the Sylvan Lake Lodge (35 Lodge rooms, 31 cabins and a specialty “Cathedral Spires Cabin” that sleeps 20), one of a few lodges in the park, a superb hub for people who have come to fish, kayak, hike, rock climb or like us, bike through Custer State Park and the fabulous Wildlife Loop.

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

We bike along the Needles Highway. “14 miles of winding turns, granite spires and rock tunnels, the Needles Highway is a marvel of engineering,” a marker reads. “Peter Norbeck [South Dakota’s first governor, U.S. senator and a conservationist] walked and rode the future highway on horseback, laying out a route many deemed impossible.

“Norbeck asked his engineer, Scovel Johnson, ‘Scovel, can you build a road through here?’ Scovel answered, ‘If you can furnish me enough dynamite.’ It took 150,000 pounds of the explosive, and the highway was opened in 1922.”

Before long, we find ourselves in the midst of a section known as The Needles, with monster spires (fantastic for rock climbing).

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride through the Needles Eye tunnel – carved just wide and high enough to accommodate the van (they have to take off the bikes) and soon after, the Cathedral Spires. The breathtaking scenery makes you contemplate your place in the natural world.

Needles Eye Tunnel, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

James Oerding is the guide today (while John Buehlhorn drives the van), and once again, I am last, lingering to take in the view, which means that James pretty much accompanies me. James is a master wildlife spotter and sees a pair of mountain goats on a spire and then we see their kid they are trying to convince to jump across a cavern between the spires. They seem genuinely puzzled how to get down, though I can’t figure out how they got up to this promontory in the first place.

Mountain goats, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We find a place where we can climb down to get a better view.

James let’s me bike at my own pace and doesn’t hurry me along.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

No sooner does the landscape change completely from the tall spires to plains, than we come across a whole herd of buffalo (actually, American bison) just where we get to the Visitor Center, where John has lunch for us. Traffic has stopped where the bison have chosen to cross the road.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There seem to be a hundred bison gathered on a large field just in front of the Visitor Center, and people are casually picnicking (like us) within arm’s length – a surreal scene for a city kid.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Custer State Park Visitor Center is a stunning modern building, offering an array of exhibits, including a large interactive map, a 20-foot scale model of the Cathedral Spires and displays describing the natural world of the Park – as well as warnings about how not to interact with the bison (a bison can run 35 mph; if it lifts its tail, it is getting into fighting position; bison communicate to the herd with their tail). There is a wonderfully comfortable theater which offers a not to be missed 20-minute film narrated by Kevin Costner who reminds us that this was the very land (in fact used in the film) of “Dances With Wolves.”

“The buffalo – tatanka – are an enduring symbol of the Old West symbolizing abundance, strength, power and an enduring symbol of Indian culture.”

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the Lakota language, the word “tatanka” is translated as “buffalo” or “buffalo bull.” But native Lakota speakers say the literal translation is more like “He who owns us.”

“The Lakota and other tribes believed that a white buffalo is the most sacred living thing on earth. … The American buffalo or bison is a symbol of abundance and manifestation.  Tatanka is the root of all life.”

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Custer State Park, “the spirit is Tatanka,” the film intones. “71,000 acres….towering granite spires… an incredible American landscape. Choose your own path.”

The park sits between Crazy Horse Memorial at one corner, Mount Rushmore National Memorial at the other.

The park’s history dates back to 1897; but it was officially named a state park in 1919; the Needles Highway was completed in 1922; by 1924, the bison herd totaled 100. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife spent three months at the Game Lodge. The park was expanded in the 1930s as part of FDR’s government works projects and became one of largest state parks in the United States. By 1966, the park received 1 million visitors; now, some 2 million visitors come each year.

A buffalo wallows in the dirt, creating a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff, and helps mix the nutrients in the soil. Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The park has played a vital role in saving the American bison. There were 30-60 million bison roaming North America in the 1500s when Europeans first arrived; by the late 1880s-1890s, fewer than 1000 were left. In the early 1900s, the Yellowstone herd was protected; then the Custer State Park herd. In 1914, 36 bison were purchased and by 1924, the herd totaled 100. Today, there are some 500,000 bison in North America, with 400 born a year here at Custer State Park.

Each September, there is a Buffalo Roundup which this year, brought out over 19,440 visitors for the 54th Annual roundup, to watch as 60 horseback riders wrangle the herd of 1,400 bison into corrals for their annual health check. The annual roundup helps the park manage its herd; some 445 bison are sold at the annual auction. The park also hosts a three-day arts festival in conjunction with the roundup. (Upcoming Buffalo Roundups will be held on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, and Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.)

From here, we get back onto the road to bike on Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Encompassing 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, Custer State Park, is one of the best places in North America to see a range of animals in their natural habitat.

Along the Wildlife Loop, there are buffalo (bison), deer, elk, pronghorn antelope (the fastest land animal on the Continent; 12 pronghorn were brought here in 1914), burros, yellow-bellied marmot, prairie dogs, big horn sheep – native to Black Hills – unique in Custer State Park. And before the end of day, we will see just about every one.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just beyond the visitor center, where the herd has now moved on from the field, all the cars are stopped in both directions to allow the bison to cross the road. I put myself between two cars which I think will give me some protection.

I’ve never been in a situation like this, so close to these fearsome creatures without any barrier between (well except for the time I biked in tall grass in the tiger reserve in India). I am in their habitat.

Bison are the largest terrestrial animal in North America, standing up to six feet tall. A male can weigh upwards of a ton and a female can weigh 900 pounds, according to the National Wildlife Foundation. Bison fight by crashing their massive heads or horns together. Both male and female bison have short, curved, black horns, which can grow to two feet long. American bison like to live and travel in groups. For most of the year herds are divided by sex, with females and calves in one herd and males in another herd. When the breeding season begins in the summer, many males temporarily join the female herd and begin looking for a mate. 

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Standing on the road, waiting for the buffalo to cross the road, is an opportunity to study their behavior. It occurs to me as I watch, that unlike dolphin which seem to show great emotion with their expressions and interactions, the buffalo don’t seem to have the means to show emotion, except perhaps a flick of a tail or their blue tongue. I wonder how one seems to emerge as a leader that the rest follow.

It strikes me how little interest or interaction there is among buffalo – except for a mother close with her calf, the buffalo don’t seem to have any connection, communication with each other, except all facing same direction and walk almost together. They all turn in one direction and move in one direction – who is leader? How is the leader selected?  I later learn that one way they communicate is with their tails.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It turns out that bison, who are almost constantly moving, actually vote on the direction they will travel, orienting their bodies in the direction they would like to go, and eventually choosing to follow an “initiator”; they communicate through grunts and growls, from smells and hearing, I subsequently learn from Scientific American.

Prairie dogs play an important role in the ecology of the prairie. Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are also mountain lions in the park (we don’t get to see any), which are monitored with radio-collars and tranquilized for routine medical testing. James tells me that once he came upon the medical staff tranquilizing a mountain lion in order to take its vitals.

We’re going up where?? Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Now we come to the toughest ride of the trip – of the 39 miles we bike today, it seems three-quarters are uphill; there are lots of long, steep ascents and sweeping downhills too. This is the difference between a road and a rail trail. I plug through.

At one point, I lose momentum altogether and wind up walking the bike the equivalent of a city block and am annoyed with myself. But I make the remaining ascents, including the final half mile steep, corkscrew rise at mile 37 to the Blue Bell Lodge. I have a strategy of stopping where the road levels a bit, then resetting my concentration. (The van is available to drive people who choose not to bike.)

Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Lodge is so beautiful – 30 gorgeous log cabins among the pines (a specialty Ponderosa Cabin accommodates 20).

I have my own cabin – fireplace, deer head, two double beds, dining table/chairs, tv, kitchenette, porch with 3 chairs. Heaven.

Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wilderness-Voyageurs makes all of this it possible – you couldn’t do this itinerary on your own because it isn’t contiguous. They shuttle us to starting and ending points so we have the best route. We aren’t carrying our own gear from inn to inn.

The guides, James Oerding and John Buehlhorn, make a big difference – their knowledge not only of the trail, the route, but the places we will experience, the animals and sites we see, down to lunch recommendations. And SOOOO helpful – like father hens.

Good humored, patient, interesting. “You’re on vacation,” they say. They don’t rush us along or show impatience if we are slow or stop a lot. And they cheer us on to get through the touch climbs. Not only in their knowledge and experience but extremely helpful, patient, kind, considerate – go out of way to help guests – which is really clear this day. Van is there to help if necessary.

The trip is organized with pit stops, snacks, breakfasts and most lunches and hosted dinners, (just one lunch and two dinners on our own) as well as the admissions to sites.

Tonight, we dine at the Blue Bell Lodge’s Tatanka Dining Room (locally known as the Blue Bell Lodge Dining Room) – a lovely western themed (obviously) room. We order what we like from the menu (booze is on our own), which has some distinct items: rattle snake and buffalo sausage (tasty!); buffalo tenderloin.

Custer State Park, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The historic Blue Bell Lodge was originally a hunting lodge for friends- named (it is believed) for the telephone company, now run by Regency Hotel Management. A nightly chuck wagon dinner is offered that goes out 5-8 pm, with a ride to the valley; live music, dinner, dancing, for as many as 100 people.

Horsing around at the Blue Bell Lodge, Custer State Park, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.

I stay behind at the lodge to look at my email when I get a call from James telling me a giant buffalo is just off the path in the pitch darkness. I see it when a car comes by and lights up the buffalo.

James offers to drive the van over to pick me up – I insist on finding a way to walk the short distance, and he tries talking me through but I have trouble  finding  the path. Finally, I find the path and see James and John walking over to rescue me.

The stars are gorgeous. I can see the Milky Way.

The lodge and Custer State Park, are open year-round. I can imagine how spectacular it is in winter.

(Open year round, Custer State Park, 13329 US Highway 16A, Custer, SD 57730, https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/ 605-255-4515,  800-710-2267. CusterStatePark@state.sd.us)

Day 5: Finishing the Mickelson Trail in Deadwood

I wake up early to sit on the porch of my cabin at the Blue Bell Lodge with a book and a cup of coffee, thinking this is the ultimate in luxury, but the peace of the moment is soon broken when I spy the buffalo from last night right outside. It lumbers toward my porch and takes a drink from a puddle.

Buffalo strolls by my cabin at Blue Bell Lodge, flicking its blue tongue (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

James and John – not wanting to chance any confrontation with the buffalo – call us to tell us they will drive the van to pick each of us up at our cabins at 8 am. We drive back to Custer for breakfast at a cute café before starting today’s bike ride.

Day 5 of the Wilderness Voyageurs Badlands and Mickelson Trail tour is our final day on the Mickelson Trail. We ride the last miles all the way to Deadwood, a true wild west town made famous by the murder of Wild Bill Hickok.

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

We are shuttled back to Mystic where we left the trail two days ago, and ride 18 miles up hill, and then down the slope, for a total of 34 miles to end of Mickelson at Deadwood, at mile 109.

Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coyote spotted off the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

John comes to pick us up with the van, making back-and-forth trips from the trailhead to our hotel, the Deadwood Mountain Grand Resort, which has an enormous casino (it seems fitting for a town that was born out of the gold rush and made famous by a poker game).

We are on our own to explore Deadwood and discover its many charms. Fortunately, I’ve had some tips from the Alex Johnson Hotel manager in Rapid City, and head straight out to the cemetery.

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.

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

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Badlands, Black Hills & Mickelson Trail Bike Tour Offers Unexpected Experience on Guest Ranch

Note the slope at the end of the gravel road up to the Circle View Guest Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The steep gravel road to the Circle View Guest Ranch proves too much as I slip and slide with my hybrid bike and I wind up walking the bike a short distance (only one of us managed to ride it), at the end of our 28 mile ride through the Badlands National Park, South Dakota on this first day of our six-day Wilderness Voyageurs bike tour. The guest ranch, set on a mesa surrounded by 3,000 acres, with beautiful views, is delightful. I drop my bags in my room, wonderfully decorated in a Western motif, and go out just in time to see 11-year old Katie Kruse feeding chickens and her brother, 10-year old Jacob, being chased by an aggressive calf anxious to get at the bottle he is using to feed it.

Young guests at Circle View Ranch get to bottle feed a calf © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 A stay on a guest ranch in South Dakota, just beyond the entrance to Badlands National Park and adjacent to Indian lands, is an unexpected bonus experience of our six-day “Mickelson Trail and the Badlands” bike tour of South Dakota.

Philip Kruse was born and raised on the ranch and opened it to guests in 2000 to give visitors “a glimpse into life on a real, family run cattle ranch.” It is very much all of that.

Katie shows me where 17 eggs have been “hidden” by the hens to prevent them from being taken by the farmer so they can hatch. The secret nest had been hidden by high grass and only revealed when the grass was cut. The hen had apparently walked off to get some water, revealing the eggs. Katie lifts up one of the eggs – I can still feel the warmth.

“Sometimes they hide an egg in a tree and abandon it. Sometimes you will see one chicken with 10 chicks following. They sneak in to lay eggs that won’t be collected.” On the other hand, the hens that do hatch the chicks aren’t necessarily maternal. “They don’t show the young ones where the water is.”

I am amazed to contemplate the strategy and teamwork that these hens, which we assume are just dumb creatures, to create a collective nest, hide it from the farmer, and designate one of the hens to sit on it.

Now the farmer uses his wits to outwit the hens. “We don’t want the chickens to hatch their own because we will not have control over whether they have roosters or infertile chickens. So in the night when they sleep, we will steal an egg and replace it with a hatched chick so she will think it is hers.”

There’s a pecking order, she tells me. The older, bigger hens sleep on top; younger ones on the floor. She says that young chicks lay one egg a day; older ones lay fewer and fewer, maybe one in two or three days.

“Here, we don’t kill the hen when gets old but another lady butchers them – after she chops off the head, they can still run around for 5 minutes – she has machine that spins to take off feathers.”

I find all of this utterly fascinating.

Burros on the Circle View Guest Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I watch how aggressive the calf is chasing after Jacob who is trying to bottle feed it. The calf was born prematurely and would have been abandoned by its mother. There are a slew of chicks and peacocks all about, as well. And burros.

We enjoy a sensational dinner prepared by Amy Kruse, served family style along long tables inside and outside on the porch. Tonight’s menu is Mexican tacos, prepared with such fresh ingredients including cherry tomatoes from the garden as sweet as candy.

At Circle View Guest Ranch, see a hen defying farmer by sitting on secret nest with 17 eggs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning before breakfast, I walk out to see if the hen is sitting on the nest. Sure enough. But as I walk back, my head in my notepad, I look up to see a crowd of kids frantically gesticulating at me and yelling, pointing to my right. As I move, they stop, so I keep moving in that direction. I assume they are directing me to watch them feed the chickens. No, they are warning me not to walk up the path because there is a rattlesnake that had been discovered by their dog. “That’s why we wear cowboy boots,” 10-year old Jacob tells me. “Rattlesnakes can’t bite through.”

Later at breakfast, Philip Kruse, shows me his jar two-thirds filled with rattlesnake rattles (they are only about an inch long and quarter inch wide) collected over two generations on the ranch.

10-year old Jacob bottle feeds a calf at the Circle View Ranch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The breakfast that Amy Kruse prepares is a triumph: fresh eggs from the farm (of course), whole wheat blueberry pancakes, tater tots with bacon, white chocolate and raspberry scones (sensational), granola made of sour cherry, pistachios, vanilla yogurt.

We get to experience much of what the Circle View Guest Ranch offers – free wifi, beautifully appointed rooms, seeing the various animals, feeding chickens, including burros, enjoying scrumptious breakfast (included) and dinner, access to the guest kitchen, and the game room. But we don’t have the time to really experience all it offers longer staying guests: horseback rides, bon fires, hunting rocks and fossils, and exploring the 3,000 acres. There are also cabins including an original 1880 Homestead cabin.

Western vibe at the Circle View Guest Ranch, Badlands, South Dakota © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But even with this short stay, it gives us a first-hand glimpse at family life on a ranch.

The ranch is open year-round, as is Badlands National Park.

Circle View Guest Ranch, 20055 E. Highway 44, Interior, South Dakota 57780, 605-433-5582, www.circleviewranch.com, cvgrphil@gwtc.net.

Biking the George S. Mickelson Trail 

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

It’s just the second day of our six-day “Mickelson Trail and the Badlands” bike tour. We pile into the van and are shuttled from Badlands National Park to the George S. Mickelson Trail. Over the course of our trip, we will ride the whole 109 miles of the rail-trail. Today, instead of starting at mile “0” in Edgemont and riding uphill to Custer, we start at the Harbach Park Trailhead in Custer (mile 44.5) and bike mostly down a slope to Edgemont (mile 0), where we are picked up and shuttled back to Custer for the night.

Such different landscape today from biking the Badlands – we ride through a pine forest with the smell of pine.

Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes along the Mickelson Trail, South Dakota (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Minnekahta, where we have an amazing lunch that our guide, James Oerding, pulls out of the van and sets up under a lean-to (28 miles into the ride) at the rest stop, is just off the highway that looks just like the country road in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “North by Northwest” – that famous scene of Cary Grant running from the crop duster that is trying to kill him. There is even the same sound of silence broken by the wind and growing scream of a truck as it comes out of the distance and barrels down road. There is that long view of the road disappearing into the horizon, white clouds in blue sky, hay bales in the fields on either side (in the movie, they were corn fields). Surreal. I still wonder if this is the very location where Hitchcock filmed that scene.

Highway evokes scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” which was filmed in the area © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lunch stop on the Mickelson Trail at Minnekahta Trailhead © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
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 Mickelson Trail is wonderfully maintained – mostly crushed limestone – with rest facilities and water cisterns along the way and great signage. On this first day, we are immersed in ranch land with broad vistas, dramatic cloud formations, hay bales, cows.

Custer relishes its frontier heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From Edgemont, we are shuttled back to Custer, a pleasant, modest Western town, with art of decorated bison on many corners. We will be here for two nights at the Holiday Inn Express. Tonight we are on our own for dinner, but tomorrow we will be hosted at a fine-dining restaurant.

Custer relishes its frontier heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next morning, Day 3 of our trip, we ride out from the hotel directly onto the Mickelson Trail at Harbach Park Trailhead (thankfully, our guide, John Buehlhorn, has caught me again going onto a wrong spur and bringing me back to the trail).

We are now in the Black Hills National Forest – a lot of trees with black bark, which I presume gives the forest its name.

From Custer, we bike along the Mickelson Trail, 8 miles up a gentle grade (one of the advantages of a rail trail versus a road which can have much steeper slopes and corkscrew turns), with lovely scenery, beautiful rock formations, grassy plain and pine trees, when all of a sudden, the Crazy Horse Memorial comes into view. I am entranced by it when John, the Wilderness Voyageurs guide, again catches me missing the turnoff for us to ride to the Memorial for our visit. (Biking up the very steep hill proves the most challenging part of the day, and I am delighted with myself that I make it.)

That first view of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the Mickelson Trail is mesmerizing © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial is a revelation.

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 onMarch 21 (yes, Americans can still visit Cuba).

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

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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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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© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

Biking through the Pinkerton Tunnel on the Great Allegheny Trail on the way to Confluence, PA © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Our first day on this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn biketour on the Great Allegheny Passage and the Montour Trail, 140-miles biking over six days through Western Pennsylvania, brought us from Deal to Meyersdale with a side-trip that brings us across the Eastern Continental Divide (with gorgeous murals on the tunnel depicting the story), to the Mason-Dixon Line and a striking monument. It is a relatively short ride that brings us to the tented city we create at Meyersdale’s community park. We have time to explore, and to enjoy the town’s gracious hospitality with a dinner at the firehouse and pancake breakfast, complete with Meyerdale’s famous maple syrup, in the gym of the former high school. 

Meyersdale, PA © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 2: On the second day, we also have an option: to cruise an easy 31 miles downhill to the Confluence Outflow Campground, riding through an enchanting tree tunnel, or taking an on-the-road route to ride up to Pennsylvania’s highest point, Mount Davis. 

The forecast of rain all day makes the choice an easy one: the easy tree-tunnel route through tranquil forest. Despite some shelter from the trees, we get soaked, but it is a warm rain, and the amount of good cheer keeps us warmer still. The rain stops just as we arrive at Confluence, where we are greeted with two representatives of Confluence in period dress, inviting us to follow the balloons lining a route into the town center for free bike washes at the local cycle shop (and a gift!) and ice cream at the gazebo on the village green. Confluence, I am told, has a population of 700; for these two days, the census swells by 200 more. That evening, no one complains about the rain.

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners are welcomed to Confluence, PA © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The campground is absolutely magnificent, literally at the base below the enormous dam, constructed in 1944 to control flooding and more recently, to generate hydroelectric power. It is a popular place for fishermen.

Just after our evening “talk” (a workshop on repairing our bike), and sitting around waiting for phones to recharge, we get word that there is a major storm at Ohiopyle, about 11 miles away. We have 10 minutes before it hits us. Sure enough, small drops start to fall as I am just steps away from the tent. By the time I get there, rain is coming down in sheets. 

The Rails-to-Trails Sojourn campsite in the Outflow Campground, beneath the dam at Confluence, PA © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 3 is our “Fun Day” when we don’t cycle (unless we want to), but instead have a choice of activities: Fallingwater tour (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), Kentuck Knob tour (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), a rafting trip on the Middle Yough Class 1 – 2, or, the one I choose, a class 3 whitewater rafting trip on the Lower Yough.

In fact, 81 of us choose this option, organized by Wilderness Voyageurs, the same company that organizes the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn rides including this one (the company has a catalog full of bike tours). I’ve done a fair amount of white water rafting trips in the past, but this one on the wonderfully scenic Youghiogheny River was absolutely the best – truly thrills and chills, especially since this is the only Class 3 rafting experience offered as a “guide-assisted” instead of having a guide in each raft. That means we are arbitrarily put into rafts and we “elect” a captain. This proves a great challenge and  a great experience (I lasted about 5 minutes as captain, exactly one set of rapids, when one of our four rafters got bounced out and we all decided to go into other rafts, leaving one of the guides to portage the raft to a point where he could deflate it and pick it up later). Getting bounced out of the raft – going for a “swim” – is not unusual and we have been cautioned to only wear what can get wet or lost.

We aren’t really on our own – one guide positions himself on a rock and gives us hand signals how we should “attack” the rapid, where to enter and so forth (though the instructions are for naught when inexperienced paddlers can’t follow directions, forget which is left and right, or are being bounced so high, they can’t reach paddle into the water); other guides in a kayak and in a raft are there to pick up anyone who is bounced out, and three of the rafts have guides in them (that’s the one I go into). Over the course of the trip, several of us get tossed out of the raft; one fellow gets a bit beat up.

A view of a portion of the lower Youghiogheny River where we had our class III whitewater rafting trip just the day from the overpass on the Great Allegheny Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is one point, though, where we come to an ominous sign warning that anyone who doesn’t want to raft through this particular set of rapids can portage their raft around it. The reason is because there is an underwater cavern, and if you get bounced out here, it is possible to be sucked down under. (Our guide says that most people die of heart failure rather than drowning. Small comfort.) The lead guide says that if any one of us in a raft wants to portage, the whole raft has to. We are in the lead raft and get to watch everybody coming through, cheering them on. Everyone makes it through.

We pull in for lunch at a small lagoon – we fill pita with chicken salad (fantastic) or tuna, cheese, lettuce and tomato, and have a wonderful time before continuing on down the river.

I don’t even know how long we are on the river – it all goes by so fast. But we are back at the campground by around 3 pm.

Storyteller Pennsylvania Jack © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

A few of us climb up to walk across the dam – the lake that was formed is popular for swimming and boating.

That evening, we are regaled by Pennsylvania Jack, a storyteller, and there is a campfire with s’mores.

Day 4 is our longest ride – 58 miles on the schedule (albeit mostly downhill), but with an option that increases the distance to a touch over 62. This section of the Great Allegheny Passage, between Confluence and West Newton, where we camp, is the most scenic, with much of it going through the stunning Ohiopyle State Park (Pennsylvania’s largest in land area). We ride along the river for just about the entire distance. When we reach the Ohiopyle State Park Visitors Center, about 11 miles into the ride, I go off the trail to do a hike that I had heard about the year before: Cucumber Falls. I had seen a painting of it in the Visitors’ Center, where there is an excellent historic exhibit, and heard about a hike starting a short walk from the center, and always regretted not doing the hike then.

Biking the Great Allegheny Passage, Confluence to Ohiopyle © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Follow the yellow feet on the sidewalk,” they tell me. The hike is just about 25 minutes each way – a little over a mile – and proves absolutely enchanting: you follow yellow markings on trees and rocks, do some scrambling, and then, you make a turn and there ahead of you is the most magnificent falls, tucked into the woods. I felt as if I were John Muir coming upon Yosemite Falls for the first time.

Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA, reached by an enchanting hike scrambling through the woods, along the Youghiogheny River from the Visitors Center © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The lighting is perfect – just a touch of sunlight hitting the waterfall. It is a magical experience and I am transfixed.

(I heartily recommend this hike, which should add 1 to 1 ½ hrs to the day’s ride time.)

Climbing up behind Cucumber Falls © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m calculating the extra time, as I get to mile 25.9 (not even halfway), when we have another option: to steer off about 2.1 miles on the Sheepskin Trail connector off the GAP, to go into the tiny town of Dunbar. Having visited last year, I knew this was an off-trail visit not to be missed, especially when you come in this way, off a back trail (even worth the half-mile over a rocky unimproved section). (See: Pascal Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar) 

The sculpture and the rest of the historical society is really worth seeing (www.dunbarhistoricalsociety.com).

Dunbar, PA, once a glass-manufacturing center that depended upon railroads, now seeing a new lease on life with rail-trails and the Pascal “Seated Torso” sculpture, donated by Donald Trump, on view in the historical society © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The train tracks come straight through the middle, as if a main street. On the village green is a coke oven and a memorial to those who died in a nearby mine accident.

RTC has basically adopted Dunbar as an example of how a town can be revitalized through tourism and culture.

Dunbar, PA was a bustling town a century ago, © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 5: This proves our most challenging day – not just because it is 48 miles of cycling after yesterday’s long ride, but I suspect because of the humidity and also because much of it, it seems, is uphill. But it also proves very interesting, as we leave the GAP after 17 miles (just after Boston, PA, where the trail becomes very urban, bringing a certain culture shock after such pastoral scenes.). To get from the GAP to the Montour Trail, we ride six miles on urban streets, through a small town of Glassport (where we are treated to snacks and cold water at a church), ride over a bridge to Clairton that gives us an eyeful into what I expect defined Pittsburgh just a couple of decades ago: a humongous pile of coal dwarfing the trucks scooping it up, and across the railroad tracks, a giant carbon materials and chemical plant. We finally get to the beginning of the Montour Trail, which includes several places where you are on/off the trail, on/off a shared road.

Culture shock as we leave the pastoral Great Allegheny Trail, ride through Clairton, on our way to the Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At one point, I ride around a bend and find myself in a different time zone or the Twilight Zone – a hodgepodge of train cars, trucks, firetrucks, gas pumps and signs from the 1940s or so, as if they were just left there.  After a rocky start, the Montour Trail becomes as idyllic as the GAP, nestled in trees. A highlight is the 600-foot long National Tunnel.

Biking through the National Tunnel on the Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We finally arrive at the small town of Cecil, where we camp at the Cecil Township Ballfield Park, and are treated to an absolute banquet (no kidding), Sierra Nevada beer, and finish off with a talent show.

It pours during the night (I am snug in the Comfy Camper tent), but amazingly stops just in time for breakfast. We are told to expect a break in the rain from 8 to 11am – exactly how much time we need to go the 26 miles to the end of our ride, including the last mile of the Montour Trail (actually an added mile that goes beyond the zero-milepost that they are working to improve), which is very definitely “off road”. The trail is really nice – it is wonderful to see how local communities show their pride and appreciation for the trail with beautiful gardens and rest stations. It also offers an example of the serendipity that takes place on the trail: I suddenly come upon what appears a depot of antique trucks, cars, gas station pumps and signs – either the historical society or a warehouse for theatrical props.

Local volunteers worked to improve rail bridges for bikers on the Montour Trail © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This last day’s ride also lets us see some of the “hybrids” and innovations in repurposed multi-use trails – a section of the Montour is a trail-beside-a-rail – the multipurpose trail is carved out of the right-of-way beside the active rail line.

We also literally ride over the “Panhandle” Trail which goes to Parkersburg West Virginia, with the connector that ultimately will allow bikers to cycle from Pittsburgh to Parkersburg (PtoP).

As for the rain, sure enough, as I pull into the parking lot at 11:15 am, the drops turn into deluge in a matter of moments.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Washington, DC 20037, 202-974-5150, Railstotrails.orgTrailLink.com. 

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn is a wonderful introduction to bike touring.

Wilderness Voyageurs, which operates the Sojourn on the GAP for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, offers Ride the GAP trips with bed-and-breakfast accommodations (they portage luggage from inn to inn), as well as a full catalog of guided bike tours that includes Colorado; Missouri’s Katy Trail; Idaho’s Hiawatha & Coeur D’Alene; South Dakota’s Mickelson & the Badlands; the Erie Canal, Finger Lakes, and Adirondacks in New York; Shenandoah and the Civil War; Gettysburg & the Civil War; Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay; Pittsburgh to DC on the GAP & C&O; Pennsylvania’s Amish Country; Kentucky’s Bike & Bourbon; Georgia’s Gold Coast; and a biking trip in Cuba. (855-550-7705, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com)

See also:

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Pascal Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

 

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