Last week I had the opportunity to visit western South Dakota to enjoy some of the many outdoor adventures that state has to offer. It was five days filled with hiking, biking, and exploring the wild landscapes that make up that part of the country, which includes the legendary Black Hills, Badlands National Park, and the very impressive Custer State Park. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been there – we held Primal Quest Badlands in South Dakota back in 2009 – but it was my first real opportunity to explore this vast outdoor playground. I did not come away disappointed.
My trip through South Dakota began with a flight into Rapid City, the hub for the region and the gateway to the Black Hills. I’d spent a considerable amount of time there back in 2009, so I was looking forward to seeing how much things had changed. We didn’t stay long there however, as our first destination was Deadwood, a historic town that is probably best known for being the place where the legendary old west gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed.
Deadwood was a boom town due to gold mining in the area, and those roots can still be seen there today. There are various museums dedicated to the city’s history, and a walk down main street features old west saloons and hotels, intermixed with modern gambling parlors, souvenir shops, and various eateries. It was equal parts charming and kitschy, but mostly all in good fun.
We arrived in Deadwood late in the afternoon, but decided there was still time to stretch our legs some before dinner. So, we headed out to a local park to hike a short trail up to the top of Mt. Roosevelt to checkout the famous Friendship Tower. The walk is not a difficult one in any way, but it does take you to the top of a nearby hill that not only reveals fantastic scenery across the region, but also a stone tower built by former Deadwood Sheriff Seth Bullock. The tower was erected back in 1919 to commemorate the passing of Bullock’s good friend, former President Teddy Roosevelt. It still stands there today as a testament to their friendship, although while I was there carpenters were busy restoring the steps that lead into the tower.
The second day of my visit to South Dakota gave us the opportunity to really start to see what the state had to offer in terms of active adventures. After a quick breakfast, we rounded up some mountain bikes and set out on the nearby Mickelson Trail. This route is open year round, and stretches for 109 miles between Deadwood and Edgemont. It is perfect for easy walking and cycling during the summer months, and is open for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling during the winter.
My ride on the Mickelson was all-too brief, but very enjoyable, despite the fact that a gentle rain was falling for much of it. Once you slip out of Deadwood, the trail is surrounded by hills and forests, making it feel very secluded. Traffic was at a minimum, and we only came across a few other cyclists out for a morning ride. I could see how riding the entire length of the trail could make for a fine adventure, and when my introductory ride was over, I was left with the feeling that I wished I could have gone much further. That gives me a good excuse to head back in the future however, as the potential for this trail is fantastic.
After spending the morning pedaling on the Mickelson, it was time to depart Deadwood for our next excursion. We were heading further into the Black Hills to go off-roading on some UTV’s. But along the way we first made a stop at the excellent Miner Brewing Company and Prairie Berry Winery for a few samples and some lunch. Both were excellent venues to grab a drink and relax after the morning’s ride, but my travel companions and I were also eager to see what other adventures were in store for us.
Our next stop was Custer UTV Rentals to pick up some UTVs for the off-roading portion of the day. In South Dakota, there are more than 3000 miles of trails to explore, and UTV/ATVs are actually street legal, so it is not uncommon to see these vehicles zipping around where you least expect them. We took off on a guided tour of the surrounding area, with some riding both on and off-road. It was an incredibly fun way to explore the trails, as we spotted wildlife and took in the rolling landscape that South Dakota is so famous for.
The UTVs are extremely easy to drive, user friendly, and powerful. On an open stretch of road I was able to get my vehicle to exceed 50 mph, and it made short order of steep hills, sloppy mud, rock, and just about every other obstacle that the terrain through our way. Even though we spent a couple of hours out in the field, this was another adventure that was over far too quickly for my liking.
At this point, we already had a full day of activities, and were preparing to retire to our hotel in Custer for the evening. But before we called it quits, we had one last experience to take in to round out the day. The Black Hills are very beautiful, but also very rugged. This makes it difficult to take in everything that they have to offer from the ground. But viewing them from the air grants a new perspective that not everyone gets to enjoy, so, we hopped on a helicopter provided by Black Hills Ariel Adventures to see what we were missing.
The brief helicopter flight was eye opening to say the least. Not only did it take us over the numerous rocky outcroppings that are so prominent in the Hills, we also made flybys of both Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. As you can probably imagine, both look fantastic from the air.
We also flew over a herd of wild bison in Custer State Park, while also spotting an elk mixed in among the crowd. One of the highlights however was seeing a mountain goat atop a high rocky peak that could only be reached by the very surefooted.
The helicopter ride rounded out my first full day in South Dakota, which was very active and fun. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at Bitter Esters Brewhouse in Custer before calling it a day. As the trip was only just getting started, and there were plenty more adventures yet to come.
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