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  • Writer's pictureAl S.

Dead Presidents and Old Fossils - The Black Hills - Rapid City, SD to Spearfish, SD

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

A big loop through The Black Hills of South Dakota allows for an up close experience with wildlife, some impressive monuments, stunning landscapes, and national parks.



 

Jun 20

Mileage: 73.7 miles

Odometer Start: 4252.7

Odometer End: 4326.8

Avg Speed: 10.4 mph

Max Speed: 40.1 mph

Riding Time: 7 hrs, 03 mins

Rapid City RV Park & Campground in Rapid City, SD to Wind Cave National Park


I knew I had a busy day ahead of me, so I started early. Today, I was finally going to reach The Black Hills. I was on the road shortly after full light. My first stop was Mt. Rushmore and the roads in the area are full of tourists. I always tried to take extra care when riding in areas where drivers are distracted. Unfortunately, there are a number of drivers that are more concerned about "seeing the view" instead of focusing on the road. I attempted to time my arrival when the fewest cars were on the road whenever this might be an issue.


The first view of Mt. Rushmore from the road leading to the mountain.

I followed Highway 16 south from Rapid City and then picked up Highway 16A out to Keystone, SD. This highway is lined with all of things tourists like... zip lines, roller coasters, outlets, and lots of stores selling trashy souvenirs. Oh, and don't forget the billboards. The road is lined with huge billboards advertising all of these attractions. It didn't fill me with a sense of awe and wonder at the glory of nature.


The other thing that you quickly notice riding through The Black Hills are all of the motorcycles. They are everywhere out there and they travel in packs of 5 to 10. Nothing beats a really loud machine driven by someone celebrating their freedom by not wearing a helmet. I was left absolutely dumbfounded by the number of people riding motorcycles without helmets. Seriously, what are they thinking? I wouldn't ride my bicycle across a parking lot without putting on my helmet... and these guys are going helmetless at 60+ mph down a highway. I'm not sure that I should actually be surprised... if people in this country were truly smart, Trump never would have been elected.


The Avenue of Flags leading out toward the mountain.

I reached the tourist town of Keystone by 9 am. Mt. Rushmore is only about 2 miles from this town. It should be a 10 minute ride... except that the hill from Keystone to the monument is really steep. I would guess the grade of the road is 8% to 10% all the way to the mountain. So 30 minutes later I was pulling into the parking lot of Mt. Rushmore. You know a hill is steep when you ride 4400 miles across the country and a specific hill sticks in your head solely because of how challenging it was. This was one of 3 hills that stuck with me after the ride was completed.


Technically, there is no charge to visit Mt. Rushmore. However, there is a $15 parking fee to use the lot... and there is nowhere else to park... so have your $15 ready. The staff managing the line of cars waiting to pay the fee saw me in line and directed me over to the booth reserved for tour buses. It was empty, so I rode straight up to the window. The woman in the booth complimented me for riding my bike up the hill from Keystone. I told her where I started and she was aghast. She happily informed me there was no parking fee for bikes. Score! I knew that riding my bike 2000+ miles from Baltimore would eventually pay off.


Mt. Rushmore in all its glory.

As you would expect, Mt. Rushmore is overrun with tourists. I spent 2 hours appreciating the sculpture and visiting the museum. There isn't much to be said about Mt. Rushmore that hasn't already been put out there. It is either 1) an impressive monument that shows what an artist with vision is capable of achieving, 2) a scar on the landscape that is a feeble attempt to show that man can control the natural world, or 3) an unmitigated affront to Native American peoples who hold this mountain as a sacred place. You can pick the one that seems the most appropriate to you.


One of the small tunnels on Iron Mountain Rd just south of Mt. Rushmore.

Before getting back on the road, I stopped at the restaurant and grabbed an early lunch. By this point in the trip, I had started referring to this as first lunch. I was always hungry and rarely passed up a chance to grab a meal. That's one of the good things about riding 70 to 100 miles every day... you burn so many calories that you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want. In fact, I ate way too much almost every day and still lost some substantial weight during the trip.


I rode back down the hill from Mt. Rushmore and turned south on Iron Mountain Road. This road winds up, down and through The Black Hills heading toward Custer State Park. The hills are so steep that the road is mostly a series of cutbacks as it makes its way up and down the hillsides. At several points, the road literally goes around in a circle because the only way the engineers could climb the hillside was to make a spiral and then build a bridge over the lower section of road. (Check this location on Google maps to see what I mean). There are also multiple small tunnels that were blasted through rock outcrops. These tunnels are so small that traffic can only go in one direction at a time. I suspect that some of these tunnels were built for the novelty value instead of any engineering reason.


This was one of the most fun roads of the entire trip. The downhill stretches were several miles long and full of fun turns. It was a lot of effort to get to the top of Iron Mountain, but getting back down the other side was a blast.


The end of Iron Mountain Rd drops you at the entrance to Custer State Park. This park is one of the best state parks in the country. It is big, full of wildlife, and set against the dramatic backdrop of The Black Hills. The park is known for a large herd of buffalo that roam through the rolling prairie hills of the area. There are also numerous big horn elk, mule deer, and even a herd of wild burros.


One of the biggest lures for the park is the "Wildlife Loop" road. This road runs through areas of the park where many of the larger animals graze. You can usually get some great views of the animals on this road. I intentionally put this road on my route because I was hoping to see some these beasts.


I rode up to the entrance gate of the park and was prepared to shell out the $20 park entrance fee. I was not planning on staying overnight in the park and was just riding through... but I was still expecting to pay the piper. The staff at the gate was very friendly and chatty. We had a nice little conversation, but they didn't seem interested in taking my money. I finally asked, "Ok, so how much do I owe you?". She gave me a smile and then replied "Oh, it's Fathers Day. We are waiving the entrance fees today. You are all set." Excellent! I'm not sure why she didn't tell me that as soon as I pulled up.


I mentioned to the gate staff that I was going to ride the Wildlife Loop before heading south to Wind Cave National Park. She sort of looked at my bicycle and then told me "Uh, if you run across the herd of buffalo, you should probably try to ride along next to a car and try to keep it between you and the animals." Yes, that is good advice, but I have spent a lot of time in Africa and been on more safaris that I can remember. I am well aware of how dangerous a large wild animal can be. I had no intention of getting close enough to the buffalo where my safety would be in question.


The full extent of the wildlife that I saw in Custer State Park... the "beggin' burros".

The Wildlife Loop does not cover difficult terrain. It is about 20 miles on a gravel road through some rolling hills and grasslands. Aside from the gravel, it is a very nice ride and I spent the entire time with my head up, looking around, trying to spot the wildlife that is supposed to be in the area. Nothing... I saw nothing. The only wildlife that I spotted during the afternoon were some prairie dogs and a herd of the "beggin' burros". So... I saw some donkeys that approach the tourists and beg for treats. Unfortunately, most of the tourists are only too happy to comply and feed these animals all manner of junk food despite numerous signs explicitly telling them not to do that.


Toward the end of the Wildlife Loop, there was a pullout for a rest area with a vault toilet. I decided to stop, hit the restroom, and have an afternoon snack. As I was sitting there, a car pulled into the lot and a woman got out and approached me. She introduced herself and said that she had already passed me twice earlier in the day. She asked if I would like some snacks and some fruit juice... absolutely! She was very nice and explained that she was touring the "highlights" of the west and was spending a few days in The Black Hills. I didn't write it down, but if my memory serves, she told me she was from Florida.


Once I got back onto the pavement of the highway, I turned south and headed for Wind Cave National Park. I planned to stay at the campground in the park, and then tour the cave first thing in the morning. Fortunately, it was a short 12 mile ride down to the park and there were plenty of open spots at the campground. I registered, set up camp, and made myself a nice dinner of beans and rice.


As I was enjoying dinner, a pair of park rangers walked through the campground verifying the registrations for the campers. We started talking and they informed me that the tickets for the cave tours sell out very early. You need to be in line by 6:30 a.m. in order to guarantee that you get a ticket for the tour of your choice. This was quite the surprise to me and meant that I was going to be getting up earlier than normal so that I could be at the visitors center at the crack of dawn.


 

Jun 21

Mileage: 21.6 miles

Odometer End: 4348.0

Avg Speed: 11.9 mph

Max Speed: 35.9 mph

Riding Time: 1 hrs, 45 mins

Wind Cave National Park to Hot Springs, SD


Per the advice of the park rangers, I was up and ready to go before the sun was fully up. It was only a short ride from the campground to the park visitors center, so I was in line to buy tickets for a tour of Wind Cave by 6:30 am. There were only 8 or 10 people ahead of me, so I was assured of getting my choice of tours.


Information for the tourists at Wind Cave National Park.

There was a ranger on the lawn of the visitor center policing up trash, so I walked over and asked him where I could park my bike for a couple of hours. He pointed me to a spot next to some bushes that was out of the way. We talked for a bit and he eventually got around to telling me that "It looks like I'm out here picking up trash, but what I'm actually doing is checking the area for rattlesnakes". He then went on to tell me that he had already found several of them over the past couple of weeks, but the most concerning thing was that they were not rattling... they were just quietly laying in the grass.


Boxwork cave formations in Wind Cave in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.

The ticket office opened at 8 am and I got a spot on the first departure of the morning for the "Fairgrounds Tour". The tour starts by cramming everybody into an elevator and descending about 250 feet into the earth. It takes 4 trips to get everyone down into the cave.


This tour covers some of the most well-known features in the cave including "box work" formations, cave popcorn, and frostwork. The boxwork formations are the most notable feature of Wind Cave. Apparently, this cave has more boxwork formations than all other caves on earth combined.


Boxwork is formed when calcite forms inside of cracks in limestone. Over geological time, water will erode the limestone and leave the harder calcite behind. The result is "boxes" of calcite that are empty inside. (And yes, I had to look that process up to make sure I got it somewhat right. I could describe the basic process, but I could not remember the specific rocks/minerals without cheating).


Curiously, the features that Wind Cave does not have are stalagmites and stalactites. The cave is dry and the water level is almost 500 feet below the floor of the cave. There is not enough water flowing through the cave to deposit the minerals that form these features.


The entrance to Wind Cave National Park just north of Hot Springs, SD.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to get good pictures inside the cave... especially when there are 40 other people hanging around looking at the same features. I was only using the camera on my phone with no professional lighting or lenses and, as you can see, the resulting photo is indicative of that fact.


After the worthwhile tour, I had a quick bite for lunch and then hopped on the bike and headed for Hot Springs, SD. It was an easy 20 mile ride into town with a lot of downhill stretches. I was planning to take a day off in Hot Springs, sleep in an actual bed, and visit a couple of museums in the area.


I was in town by 1 pm, but the hotel would not let me check in until 3. I went next door to Taco Johns and got some lunch. Taco Johns is a chain similar to Taco Bell, but I was hungry and a quick look at the map suggested that the other options were Subway or The DQ Grill. Plus, there was a grocery store next door and I needed to resupply.


After lunch, I hit the grocery store, then rode over to the public library and accessed a computer. I had spent a lot of time during the pandemic looking at my route across the country. However, I had a lot more experience with touring now and I had a much better idea about the kinds of roads that I wanted to ride. I knew that I needed to revisit my plan and make sure I was still confident with my route through Wyoming and Montana. Specifically, I wanted to re-confirm my route from Devils Tower, WY up into Montana, and then across to Bozeman. Google Streetview is a great resource for checking the width of shoulders and getting a feel for the volume of traffic on a road.


Once I was finished in the library, I went back to the hotel and was able to check in. The first thing I did was throw in a load of laundry and then hop in the shower. It had only been 2 days since I showered back in Rapid City, but I was not smelling great. Not only was it a bit warm, I had spent a lot of time in the saddle and riding on dusty roads.


Once I was clean and wearing freshly laundered clothes, I went out and found myself a real restaurant and had a well-deserved big meal.


 

Jun 22

Mileage: 0.0 miles

Odometer End: 4348.0

Avg Speed: 0.0 mph

Max Speed: 0.0 mph

Riding Time: 0 hrs, 00 mins

Hot Springs, SD


Hot Springs, SD is a smallish town of about 3700 people on the southern end of The Black Hills. It is conveniently located near Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and only 70 miles from Badlands National Park.


A Tylosaurus fossil at the World Fossil Finders Museum in Hot Springs, SD.

I stopped here for 2 reasons, the town provides easy access to The Mickelson Rail Trail and I wanted to visit a very interesting archaeological trove known as The Mammoth Site. Also, I wanted to take a day off and a nice museum is the perfect excuse.


I started the day off by riding over to The World Fossil Finder Museum that was a few blocks from my hotel. This is a family owned museum that has a nice variety of fossils from all over the world and from different geological eras. There are some dinosaurs, some giant sloths, crocodiles, and a large Tylosauraus.


"Stan" the T-Rex...

I walked in and paid my entry fee and the woman at the register started peppering me with some questions when she noticed my bike helmet. She was a bit of a talker and just enjoyed speaking with anyone that walked through the door. After a few minutes, I had learned that she used to live near Moncton, MD... about 25 miles from my house. She and her husband had moved out to Hot Springs a couple years ago to be near his family. Apparently, his family are the fossil hunters and also run the museum.


The other really interesting thing about this museum is that they have several docents that will walk around and answer any questions you might have. I arrived shortly after they opened and was the only person in the room most of the time. The docent spent a lot of time providing me with facts and information that was not included on the signage. He was very knowledgeable and answered a lot of questions that I threw at him.


After the Fossil Finder Museum, I headed over to The Mammoth Site. This site is a huge deposit of mammoth bones that accumulated in a very small area. Apparently, several thousand years ago, this site was a small lake with steep banks. The mammoths would approach the lake looking for water, fall in, and then not be able to climb back out. Eventually, the mammoths would drown and sink to the bottom. Apparently, these mammoth bones have not been in the ground long enough to become fossilized. To date, there have been more than 60 mammoth skeletons found at this site.


The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD.

The site is an active archaeological dig. You can stand on the platform that looks out over the site and watch the bones be uncovered. Fair warning, though, this is a very slow process. I stood and watched for about 20 minutes and only saw enough dirt removed to fill the bottom of a bucket.


The site is open to the public as a museum. They have actually erected a building around the site to protect it from the elements and allow the public to get a better view of the work. It is well worth a visit if you are ever in the area. In fact, it is so interesting and compelling that I managed to spend several hours there and forgot to take pictures of the mammoths in situ.



 

Jun 23

Mileage: 56.3 miles

Odometer End: 4404.3

Avg Speed: 10.0 mph

Max Speed: 35.7 mph

Riding Time: 5 hrs, 34 mins

Hot Springs, SD to Rafter Bar J Ranch Campground


I was back on the road this morning. However, before I got out of Hot Springs, I needed to make a stop at the local department store. I had reached the point in my journey where I wanted to pick up some bear spray. There are no bears in The Black Hills. According to one of the park rangers I spoke to, all of the bears in the area had been killed by ranchers decades ago. The closest bear sighting in recent years was over toward Devils Tower. The point is, I didn't need bear spray immediately, but I wanted to plan ahead and pick some up before I actually needed it.


One of the trailheads providing access to the Mickelson Rail Trail in The Black Hills.

I was told by a local to check the Bomgaars at the edge of town. I had never heard of this store before... they don't exist east of the Mississippi. The place is sort of a Lowes-meets-Target for rural America. Not only did they have the bear spray I needed, they also had a nice selection of rifles, ammunition, crossbows, fencing, animal feed, auto parts, tools, etc...


I headed west from Hot Springs and rode about 15 miles to the trail head for The Mickelson Rail Trail. This trail runs 109 miles north-south through The Black Hills. It starts in the south at Edgemont, SD and terminates in the north at Deadwood, SD. It was built on the old rail bed of The Burlington Northern Rail Road that was built in the late 1800s during a gold rush in the area. This is a really nice trail that rivals the GAP in Pennsylvania for quality of the surface. It also provides a great opportunity to ride through The Black Hills without worrying about car traffic.


The Crazy Horse Memorial as seen from the associated museum.

I rode north on the Mickelson Rail Trail through the pine forests and dramatic landscapes until I reached Custer, SD after about 30 miles. This town is centrally located in The Black Hills and allows easy access to most of the major attractions in the area. The town was crawling with tourists, so it wasn't difficult to find a pizza place where I could get some lunch.


After lunch and some Gatorade, I continued north toward the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Crazy Horse Memorial is basically the Native American's response to Mt. Rushmore. The memorial is a huge carving of the Lakota Chief Crazy Horse carved into a mountain. The project is still in progress, but there is a large museum and visitors center attached to the site. Work on the sculpture was started in 1949 but appears to have accelerated in the last 20 years. At the moment, only the head and outstretched arm are complete. The finished work will include the entire upper body of the chief, plus the front half of his horse.


A model of the Crazy Horse Memorial when it is completed.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I was getting close to the entrance to this memorial and there were serious rain clouds gathering and thunder in the distance. I pulled into the parking lot of the visitors center and museum in a light drizzle. I locked up my bike and headed inside just as the skies opened up. There was a torrential downpour while I was walking around the museum. Fortunately, my timing was perfect and I spent the afternoon inside the museum while it was raining. By the time I was finished with the museum, the rain had stopped and I was able to continue on my way completely dry.


I continued north on the Mickelson Rail Trail and found a campground shortly before dark. The Rafter Bar J Campground was right next to the trail and had all the amenities I could want... a flat spot for my tent, running water, real toilets, and a shower. There was even a small camp store where I could pick up a little snack to go along with my dinner. I settled in for the night and enjoyed a good night's sleep.



 

Jun 24

Mileage: 70.7 miles

Odometer End: 4475.1

Avg Speed: 11.5 mph

Max Speed: 33.5 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 08 mins

Rafter Bar J Ranch Campground to Spearfish City Campground, SD


I was back on The Mickelson Trail first thing in the morning. It took me through Hill City, another small-ish town in The Black Hills and home to The Black Hills Railway Museum. I had 50 miles left on the rail trail before it ended in Deadwood, SD and I planned to cover that distance by early afternoon.


One of the short tunnels on The Mickelson Trail in The Black Hills.

As The Mickelson Trail leaves Hill City, there are 2 long uphill stretches and 2 long downhill stretches. One of the uphill stretches goes for almost 20 miles and gains roughly 1800 feet of elevation. That is a substantial amount of elevation gain, but when it is covered over 20 miles, it isn't horrible. However, it definitely slowed me down.


The fun part was reaching the top. Once I started going downhill, I had gravity working for me. I was able to keep my speed above 20 mph for almost all of the last 15 miles of the trail. Sometimes, it is the small things that really generate a lot of joy while touring long distances. Going downhill is one of those small thrills that make it all worth it. I was expending the same amount of effort, but going more than twice as fast compared to the uphill stretch that I had covered in the morning.


I reached the town of Deadwood in early afternoon and started looking for a place to eat lunch. It turns out that Deadwood is a horrendous tourist trap. It is nothing but casinos, souvenir shops, and providers of "The Old West Experience". In fact, while I was grabbing a couple slices of pizza, the town closed off the main street and had a reenactment of a gun fight. I was happy to be on my way once I had finished lunch.


It looked like rain was imminent, but I only had about 20 miles remaining to reach Spearfish, SD. I decided to give it a try. I was hoping my luck would hold and I could beat the rain. My goal was the city campground in Spearfish.


I started out and turned northwest just outside of town. I headed up and over the mountain in between Deadwood and Spearfish. It was a small gravel road, but it was in pretty good condition. However, the further up the hillside I got, the more obvious it became that I was not going to avoid the rain. When I crested the top of the mountain, I could see what was coming so I stopped and put on my rain coat. As soon as I got back on the bike, the skies opened up. At least I was headed downhill.

The trail pass for The Mickelson Rail Trail... $4 per day.

I should not have been riding during this storm. There was lighting and thunder... plus, some absolutely torrential rain. The problem was there wasn't actually any place to stop and get out of the weather. Fortunately, it was a steep downhill, so I only had to hang on and let gravity do the hard work. The hardest part was keeping the water off of my glasses so that I could see the road.


Most problems occur at the most inopportune times. This was no exception. As I reached the bottom of the hill, my rear tire went flat. The rain was still coming down in sheets and there were large puddles all over the road. I had no option but to stop and give it some attention.


I gave my situation a bit of thought before I did anything drastic. I was already soaking wet, so it didn't matter if it rained on me for a few extra minutes. I knew I was only a couple of miles from the campground and it was still raining in buckets. In order to fix the flat properly, I would have to open my panniers and pull out a new tube. Once the pannier was open, it was guaranteed that everything in the bag was going to get wet. This was not a good option. I figured that I could just try to put some more air in the tire and see if it would hold until I reached the campground. Worst case, I would get another mile or two down the road and have to stop again. So, I proceeded to pump up the tire as-is.


Miraculously, I was able to make it all the way to the campground with no additional problems. It even stopped raining before I reached the main road into town. I was at the campsite by late afternoon, had my tent set up, and even had time to change the tube in the tire before turning in for the evening.



 

Jun 25

Mileage: 0.0 miles

Odometer End: 4475.1

Avg Speed: 0.0 mph

Max Speed: 0.0 mph

Riding Time: 0 hrs, 00 mins

Spearfish City Campground, SD


It was raining when I woke up. I checked the forecast and it was calling for rain throughout the morning. The weather was expected to improve the following day... so I decided to take a day off. It had only been 2 days since I took a day off in Hot Springs, but I had noticed that I was feeling tired and just felt like I needed a break. I crawled back into the sleeping bag and enjoyed sleeping late.


Just one of the interesting items for sale at the DC Booth Fish Hatchery gift shop.

The rain eased up late in the morning, so I walked into town and found some lunch at a place serving burritos. I also hit the grocery store and picked up some tasty treats for dinner.


The only thing I did during the day was visit the DC Booth Fish Hatchery next to the Spearfish City Campground. This facility is part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They use this property to raise trout that will be released into the wild. They also have a "show" pond of trout that will never be released... I'm not even sure why they are there except that it gives people something to look at. These "keeper" trout are absolutely huge. Most of them seem like they are 2 feet long. I doubt that you would ever see something that big in the wild.


This hatchery has been in existence since 1896. The site also serves as a museum for the Fish & Wildlife Service. They even have a rail car that was used to transport fish from the hatchery out to lakes and streams before trucks were an economical option.


I spent the rest of the afternoon patching some inner tubes and doing some basic maintenance on the bike. Generally, I was in a state of anticipation because tomorrow I was going to cross into Wyoming and (hopefully) reach Devils Tower.






 







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