The soggy, recently-graded Mickelson Trail: Hill City to Spearfish
Wednesday May 22, 2013, 62 miles (100 km) – Total so far: 1,445 miles (2,326 km)
I know they’ve been here. I can see their tire tracks softly indented into the surface of the trail. I can see their footprints in muddy sections. Between Mystic and Rochford, there has even been enough of them to have the trail compressed into a fairly hard surface. But in all the miles I ride today on the Mickelson Trail I do not see a single trail-user, except for one guy in the parking lot at the trail’s high point.
Maybe it’s because the weather is still poor. Not un-rideable, but it’s certainly a day that would be perfect for curling up with a good book in front of a fireplace. Instead, the crew will hang out in the panniers all afternoon, and I’ll pedal us 62 soggy miles to Spearfish. The temp is only in the 30s F when we set out this morning under leaden skies and light headwind. Still, we are so happy to be pedaling again after twiddling our thumbs for three days in Hill City.
The trail should be in great shape. The guy at the bike shop says it’s been graded in the last two weeks. That’s excellent in the places where there’s been enough bikes to smash down the dirt into a harder surface. The trail north of Rochford, however, is incredibly soft and squishy with the fresh grading and 3 days of snow, sleet and rain. I’m sure you can trace the path of my tires all the way north, until I gave up and got on the road, since I sank in so much up that way.
The section of trail between Mystic and Rochford has three tunnels and several trestles. At times, it follows along next to a creek. This is the most scenic section of all that I ride today. With the granite hills rising up on each side of the trail and the pine trees towering above, it is a feast for the eyes. I can see why this section is so popular. If it were sunny, it would be gorgeous, indeed.
North of Rochford, the trail has seen considerably fewer users. The tire tracks thin out the further and further north you travel. There is one more tunnel and a couple more trestles, but there are several open sections where the wind funnels down the valleys, the trail surface is rough and the grey of the day make it seem like more effort than joy.
As the day goes on, the headwind picks up and it starts to mist off and on. My slow speed on the squishy gravel hasn’t ever gotten much above 12 mph today. Since Rochford, my average speed has continued to decrease, until at some miserable point in a straight section across a field, I’m only doing 6 mph. It’s like riding through sand on a beach. It is just too soggy to be fun. So the next time the trail crosses the road, I get on the road and immediately gain 4 mph. It feels so blessedly smooth and fast, even on the uphills.
At the trail high point, I meet a man in the parking lot who has just done an out-and-back run in the Deadwood direction. We chat for a good 15 minutes in a heavy drizzle and misty, low fog. He is impressed with the ride and says that he is doing his best to make sure his girls, 8 and 10-years-old, grow up to be strong, independent women who enjoy the outdoors like me. He details all the things he does with them (I think he’s divorced). I tell him it sounds like he’s doing an excellent job and doing all the right things – as those are all the things my parents did with me. He’s a nice guy – I wish him well.
I keep riding on Road 17. This is a good decision. The trail map looks like you can ride on the trail further in the direction of Lead from the trail high point, and still easily hook back into Road 17, but I never see another access point to the trail (except for a sign pointing down the road 3 miles). So should you want to head west on 85/14, instead of heading into Lead, getting off the trail at the high point might be a good idea and save you some climbing.
The thick, on-going drizzle has me pretty well wet by the time I’ve climbed up to the main highway. Brrr… it’s only in the 40s F. I still have a couple miles of climbing on the main highway, but once I pass the ski area, it’s all downhill. There are even a couple miles of 6 percent grade that chill me down as I speed through the mist.
The road down the Spearfish Canyon is a scenic byway, and rightfully so. The upper portion of the canyon has little shoulder, but it improves as you descend. By the time you reach heavier traffic, the shoulder is more than adequate.
There is a restaurant at Savoy that has many cars out front. The smell of hot food on the breeze smells sooo good. But I’m not really hungry and don’t want to spend the money. So I tell my protesting stomach, or brain, or whatever it is that is telling me we need hot, fried foods, to shut up. We pedal on.
The cliffs form sheer walls, at times from road level. In other places, pine grow on eroded talus or soil, right up the slopes to the base of the walls higher up. Pines cover the cliff tops in most places. Low clouds weave in and out of the canyon, creating an ever-changing view. The distant hills recede slowly from view as mist enshrouds the foreground, only to be revealed again minutes later, as the clouds crest a canyon wall.
All the while, the road curves attractively downhill through the canyon. Just next to the road, the creek flows with a crashing, roaring rush. In places, it’s running full. As Australians would say, “it’s running a banker” – meaning it is flowing right to the top of the river banks. The log jams and bent over grasses in other places show where it has been running even higher in the days previous. It’s a pretty impressive sight.
A cyclist out for a training ride slows to ride with me. He confirms the creek usually doesn’t run anywhere near this high. He says it’s a nice payback for me for having to deal with shitty weather. He likes the idea of my ride and is impressed that I’m doing it all alone. He gives me the name of the bike shop that sponsors him and tells me to stop in for a visit as the guys always enjoy hearing stories from the road. Then, he’s off on his skinny tires and light bike, leaving me behind in the spray of his rear tire.
The creek is flooding parts of Spearfish, too. It is humbling to watch the power of the water coursing through town. I spend a little while at the fish hatchery admiring the huge trout, then watching the river as it roars over the rocks in an adjacent and attractive park. After a while though, I’ve got to head on and find some way to get warm.
Several people have told me that Spearfish is a cool town. Whenever they mention this, they always seem to mention the availability of good coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker, but a hot chocolate right now would be great. On my way to finding a good cup of cocoa, I find a cheap motel with rates for $33 a night. It’s less than double the campground price, so I abandon ideas of cocoa and sign up for a hot shower, somewhere to dry all my wet gear and a bed. Another soggy but great day done.