South Dakota Sojourn

When Jan suggested a few weeks back that we head over to the Black Hills and ride the Mickelson Trail, I was all in.  I’ve wanted to explore this area by bike for some time now, and the image in my mind of a late September weekend with aspen quaking and sunny blue skies was simply too good to pass up.  Too bad the image was a mirage.  Instead, we were greeted with nonstop rain from the time we arrived in Rapid City until we got home to Iowa late Sunday afternoon.

That said, the weekend wasn’t a total washout.  It was sunny and warm when we stopped in Yankton on the way out.  I had been wanting to ride across the Missouri on the repurposed Meridian Bridge here.  We first crossed this bridge in a Ryder truck sometime in the late 1990s.  We were moving from Minnesota to Colorado at the time and since the rental company charged by the mile, I decided we’d take the absolute shortest route.  That’s how I’m wired.

I hadn’t counted on the Meridian Bridge.  It’s one lane each direction.  Unlike most bridges, the lanes aren’t positioned next to each other but rather one on top of the other.  It was extremely narrow…and high.  I felt like I was threading a needle in that big old truck. To say it was unnerving would be an understatement.

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The Meridian Bridge.  You can see the pilings for the new bridge in the background.
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The lower level of the Meridian Bridge from the Nebraska approach, looking north into South Dakota.  Yeah, it’s narrow!
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The upper deck with Yankton straight ahead.  Perfect for cycling.  Not so perfect for big box trucks unless you like exposure.
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The new bridge to the west carries motor vehicle traffic.  Note the high river level.  The Missouri has been in perpetual flood state since ice out earlier this year.

But we obviously made it across no worse for the wear. This past weekend was our first time back.  Now there’s a new Meridian Bridge just to the west.  The old bridge is reserved for cyclists and pedestrians.  It is absolutely one of the coolest repurposed bicycle bridges I’ve had the pleasure of crossing anywhere.  That’s saying something, as I’ve been across some pretty cool repurposed bridges including the Purple People Bridge near downtown Cincinnati and the iconic Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis as well as the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh.  The Meridian Bridge holds its own against this stiff level of competition.  I highly recommend stopping and riding across if you happen to be out this way.

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That said, there was more to Yankton than the Meridian Bridge.  Local officials and advocates have built an impressive network of bicycle trails and routes around town.  The city is also connected to the nearby Lewis and Clark National Recreation Area via a sidepath.  Once you get out to the park, you’ll find numerous trails hugging the lake.  There are MTB resources here as well and the city is surrounded by hundreds of miles of gravel and minimum maintenance roads on both the South Dakota and Nebraska sides of the river.  Had we known what awaited us further west, weather wise, we likely would have stayed here and explored.  Fortunately, Yankton is a mere three hours from Jefferson so it will be easy to come back for an encore visit.

Black Hills and the Mickelson Trail

I was really disappointed that I didn’t have the opportunity to get more miles in here.   I left our cabin in Hill City on Saturday morning with Mystic, the next trailhead north, as my anticipated destination.  There are several tunnels on this stretch and it was a big part of the reason we chose to stay here instead of elsewhere on the trail.

I picked up the trail on the north end of Hill City and stopped at the self service pay station to purchase a day pass.  The cost is $4…a bargain.  Once the money was deposited, I saddled up and continued north.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  As I pedaled up the steady 2% grade, the rain started falling harder.  By the time I covered five miles, the trail had grown increasingly soft.  It was also very slick in spots because even though it’s billed as crushed limestone there’s more than a little clay mixed in.  Anyone who has ridden on wet clay knows how slippery it can be.  I soldiered on for a few more miles hoping that it would firm up again, but it quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to happen.  Not wanting to damage the trail, I turned around and headed back to Hill City.

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Along the Mickelson Trail north of Hill City.
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Turnaround point.   The trail was soft and getting softer by the time I got here.

When I got back to the cabin, I spent a little time looking at the official trail guide. Interestingly enough, it warns against bringing horses onto the trail when wet but not bicycles.   No matter.  I know what a bicycle can do to a soft trail and I didn’t want that on my conscience.  Besides, it was cold…low 40s…and very wet.  Some things just aren’t meant to be.   I’ve learned to work with what I have. There will be other opportunities to ride here.

And so we spend the rest of the day exploring the area.  We went to Custer and found the South Dakota Outdoor Shop.  They were about to close for the season and so they were unloading all their bike gear at 30% off retail.  We bought a couple of saddles, a feedbag and some other supplies.   In Rapid City we found a couple of superb bookstores (Again and Mitzi’s) and a delightful Mexican restaurant (Que Pasa).  After that, we spent the afternoon in the hot tub back at the cabin.  It was so much fun we’re now thinking we might want one of our own.  Something to think about if you ever want to come visit Iowa and ride with us!

So all in all, it was a very nice weekend in spite of the weather.  South Dakota offers a lot of variety for cyclists.  West of the Missouri (West River) feels like the American West.   East River feels more like Iowa or southwestern Minnesota.  Both offer the opportunity to explore new landscapes and meet new friends.

The journey continues…

 

 

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