Family Bikepacking on the Mickelson Trail
This guest post is from Matt Armstrong, a super impressive dad, cyclist, and fellow Salt Lake City resident. After I wrote about my family’s experience bike camping, Matt one-upped me with the story of his 6-day self-supported bikepacking trip on the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota.
The Mickelson Trail is part of a Western Spirit trip I recently wrote about, but instead of using a tour guide, Matt and his wife, Sarah, managed this adventure on their own with three children in tow! Their story is entertaining, informative, and inspiring. Chances are that by the time you’re done reading, the Mickelson Trail will be on your bucket list.
Family Bikepacking on the Mickelson Trail
Thoughts of self-doubt started to seep into my brain at mile marker 2 and I began to wonder if we could pull this off. A trip conceived 9 months earlier, we planned on riding the entire 109 mile Mickelson trail one-way over 5 nights/ 6 days self-supported. The trip wasn’t going to be easy given the elevation gain and gear loaded on our bikes. It was time for a real test of the Armstrong family; two mid-thirties parents (Matt and Sarah) with a 10 year old boy (Sean) and two girls (Madison and Isabel) ages 9 and 5 on the ride.
We took one day to drive the eight and a half hours from Salt Lake City, UT to Edgemont, SD; staying Saturday night at a vacant RV campground on the south side of town. I knew the campground was right next to railroad tracks but was hopeful trains wouldn’t be passing through at 30 minute intervals throughout the night. I was wrong. Sleep was scarce that night but the location allowed for a quick start the following morning.
We had arranged to meet our shuttle driver, Bill with Discovery Tours, at the Edgemont trailhead at 9 am Sunday. Discovery Tours was the only tour company I could find willing to drive our car from one end of the trail to the other. I chose our direction of travel after researching the trail and realizing that the North end (Deadwood) had much better lodging/scenery when compared to the South end (Edgemont). I stopped counting people telling me we were riding the trail the “wrong” (hard) direction after 10. Going South to North meant non-stop climbing the first two days on the trail which wore on our bodies and minds.
As the mercury on the thermometer rose on day one, so did our intolerance for one another. Sean had been sick with a 24 hour bug the day before driving to South Dakota. This left him feeling low on energy and grumpy which slowed our efforts. Seeing a rattlesnake on the trail didn’t help his demeanor either. He managed to push through while Sarah and I searched for every ounce of empathy we had to offer. Taking longer than expected due to many stops for water and snack breaks, we finally reached the point where we left the trail for country roads that led to our campsite. Unfortunately, the 3 miles of dirt roads to our campsite were uphill which further flared our tempers.
We finally arrived at Country Charm Cabins, south of Pringle, ready to get off our bikes. Their facilities were great, a kitchen/living room attached to the bathhouse allowed some respite for our tired family. After getting changed out of our riding gear, we set-up camp and rested our tired bodies. In the first of many kind gestures during our trip, a family staying there invited us to join them for s’mores that evening while the owner of Country Charm gave our kids rides around the pasture on his four wheeler. Our heads hit the pillow hard and we all slept well that night. Feeling refreshed and hoping our 2nd day wouldn’t be as difficult as the first, we hit the country roads returning to the trail Monday morning.
After climbing with tired legs early on, we finally reached a short downhill into the town of Custer. We rode off the trail into town, stumbling upon The Black Hills Burger and Bun Company. The long line outside was a good sign so we put our name on the wait list and perused the shops along Main Street. A delicious burger, cold beer (coke for the kids) followed by a visit to the ice cream shop rejuvenated the whole family. After grabbing a few groceries in town, we rode a mile and a half uphill to our campground for the night, Fort Welikit.
Fort Welikit caters to the RV crowd which wasn’t ideal but our campsite was situated above a nice grassy area with playground which worked well. The kids made new friends, burning energy they said was devoid earlier in the day while we pored over the trail elevation map. Things were looking up, the following days would contain less constant climbing and more varied terrain (i.e. some downhill cruising). Private bathrooms with showers at the campground provided relief for our sweat/sunscreen soaked, salt encrusted bodies.
Tuesday felt like we were in more of a rhythm with less stopping along the trail and more consistent pedaling from the kids. The trail began to steadily climb but seemed easier than before given the change in scenery. We rode amongst tall pines, providing much need shade in the early summer heat. It wasn’t long before we reached Crazy Horse monument, stopping for a distant view from the trail. The monument was also the signal that we had roughly nine miles of downhill into the next town, Hill City. While somewhat wobbly at times due to loose areas of the trail, we managed to reach Hill City in short time with no crashes.
Our first stop in Hill City was Krulls Market, the only grocer in town. We needed to re-supply our food stock. Lunch was enjoyable, consisting of summer sausage, cheese and crackers at the train station under shade trees. A visit to the only bicycle shop along the trail, Rabbit Cycles, was in order. We needed to purchase a bicycle water bottle to replace one left behind at the ice cream shop in Custer. Getting back on the trail brought some groaning from the kids as they were ready to get off the saddle. The four miles to High Country ranch wasn’t easy but brought smiles upon seeing the facilities, especially the pool. After getting camp set-up, we took a swim, “pre-rinsing” our bodies in the pool.
That evening we attended the Circle B Chuckwagon Dinner/show at the High Country Ranch. The entertainment consisted of many fun activities for kids along with a mock gun fight, followed by dinner. The food, while not gourmet was delicious given the hunger our bodies felt after riding that day. Sarah and I were highly entertained by the post dinner music show, unfortunately our tired kids didn’t appreciate the talent displayed by the band. We walked back to our tent with full bellies and warm hearts from the kindness shown by the Circle B Chuck wagon crew.
We originally planned to ride every day of the trip, until completing an overnight “shakeout” ride near Salt Lake City. Realizing how tiring the Mickelson adventure would be; we decided on a layover day in the middle of the trip. It was decided that High Country Ranch would be the place to rest, taking a day to relax without having to pack our gear and hit the trail. The children woke early Wednesday, excited for their 9:30 am horseback trail ride. We had spoken with the head wrangler upon arrival the previous day, getting approval for Isabel to join the ride even though she didn’t meet their minimum age requirement (6). While Sarah and the kids rode horses, I cruised to Hill City for a laundry/grocery/beer run.
Our timing couldn’t have been better given the choice to take a layover day on Wednesday. It happened to be the only day during the trip in which we experienced on/off again rain throughout the afternoon. We managed to get more swimming in, woodcarving lessons for Sean from woodcarver Doug Ladd at High Country Ranch and played plenty of card games. That evening we enjoyed the Circle B crews’ gunfight once again, before retreating to our camp to eat “Charro” beans and rice burritos for dinner. “Charro” is the term we gave our dehydrated beans after burning the bottom, resulting in burnt pieces interspersed throughout. The evening was capped with some Frisbee in the grassy meadow near our tent.
Thursday morning brought excitement as we hit parts of the trail deemed most beautiful by the locals, fresh legs moving us along. The trail hugged a fast moving stream broken up by four railroad tunnels, providing cool pictures and temperatures while inside. Along the trail that morning we met several other riders at each of the stops we made. Some were headed to Carsten Cottages, telling stories of the accommodating owners and their farm animals.
Lunch was a planned stop at the Moonshine Gulch Bar & Grill in the small, middle of the hills town of Rochford. Moonshine Gulch was established in the mid 1800’s during the Black Hills gold rush era. It now serves handmade burgers accompanied by cold beer to those riding the Mickelson trail and others cruising the area on Harley Davidsons. Our plan for camping the last night on the trail was still somewhat unknown. The trail guide purchased online suggested the possibility of camping at the Moonshine Gulch Bar & Grill. The next camping possibility along the trail was Carsten Cottages, 10 miles further up the trail near the Dumont Trailhead.
Over burgers at the Moonshine Gulch, we decided to keep riding the 10 miles to Carsten Cottages. During the previous night; I had exited the tent to relieve myself and returned, pulling our rainfly zipper completely off. While breaking the tent down the following morning, I managed to pull the other zipper closure completely off the rainfly. While we could have McGuyvered the rainfly to somewhat protect us from the rain that fell later that evening, it wasn’t going to be pretty. Knowing this, we were hopeful a cottage would be available for rent at Carsten.
I’m not sure if it was the scenery or the excitement of farm animals but our family knocked out those 10 miles uphill like we would riding around Salt Lake City with no camping gear on our bikes. The kids sang along to music played over our portable speaker while spotting marmots near the trail. We arrived at Carsten to find those we met previously on the trail already unwinding and sharing stories of their day on the trail. Though the owner wasn’t around, we managed to contact her through Facebook messaging and secured a cottage for the night. Seventy Five dollars later we were all happy as clams with a cottage roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in that night. We even managed to place a grocery store order with Joyce at Carsten Cottages since she was in Rapid City and would be headed back shortly.
Each camp location we visited served its purpose with scenery and likability growing each night. Carsten Cottages didn’t disappoint and felt like it was meant to be. The owners, Dan and Joyce, treated us to a tour of their barn and introduction to the animals. Their mini farm included a horse, lamas, alpacas, donkeys, hens/roosters, peacocks and geese. They were such gracious hosts, allowing our children to feed and pet the animals while enjoying the beautiful surroundings. Later that night as a quick moving rainstorm passed through, we were extra thankful that things had worked out and we weren’t relying on safety pins to keep the rain from soaking our belongings.
On day 6 we moved slowly, knowing that we had only 3 miles of uphill before coasting the last 15 miles to our car located in Deadwood. We were at the crest before we knew it, hitting the downhill all smiles while riding the brakes to avoid any falls into the gravel. We took our time, stopping to take pictures and put our feet in the stream along the trail. I had mixed feelings as we coasted into Deadwood about 1 pm. On one hand, I was overjoyed that we had completed the trip we weren’t confident could be pulled off while sad it was ending so soon.
Reaching Mile Marker 109 signaled the end of a big adventure and a rush of emotion, proud that my family accomplished such a challenging ride. Hungry and excited to check into our hotel for the night, we snapped a few pictures at the Deadwood trailhead before loading gear/bikes into our van. We spent the next two nights in Deadwood eating well at the Casino restaurants, resting our sore muscles by staying off the bikes and car touring the local attractions. Words can’t express the respect and admiration I have for my wife and three kids. While we weren’t all smiles through the trip, we managed to accomplish something most wouldn’t dream of attempting. As a result, we are all stronger in both mind and body while being more appreciative of all that we have in our home. It keeps us grounded and provides a safe, warm shelter that’s often taken for granted.
The George S. Mickelson (Mickelson) Trail runs right through the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The former Burlington Northern rail line goes from the town of Edgemont to Deadwood. It’s one of the longest rail trails in the west and certainly doesn’t lack in scenery. The trail is well maintained with 14 trailheads offering parking, vault toilets and access to water. The trail covers 109 miles with a surface consisting of crushed limestone and gravel. Because the trail is a former rail line, the grades do not exceed 4 percent except for a few miles.
Our trip certainly wasn’t conceived overnight and left me fighting to sleep peacefully months before as I considered all the hurdles to overcome. How would we transport our cargo bike to the trailhead? Where to camp? Can we even fit all our gear on bikes? Could our family ride 25 miles/day, 5 days in a row with loaded bikes? We had some of the gear required for a bike packing trip but there were many pieces of gear we still needed to acquire (touring bikes and panniers, lightweight Thermarests, backpacking tent, stove, and cooking gear).
Pre-planning as a team with a continually running gear/food/itinerary list, training rides around the city and resources for the trail found on the internet made the trip seem doable. We began buying the gear we needed 6 months in advance with a bicycle for Sarah, 5 man backpacking tent and Thermarests under the Christmas tree. We purchased gear already on sale, utilizing on-line retailer coupons to drive the cost down further and make things somewhat affordable.
Not knowing how things would go, I abandoned my usual tendency to over plan and didn’t book any campsites along the way. Our only goal was to reach Deadwood in 6 days since we had a hotel reservation waiting for us. I had scoped out campsites for each night with directions to on hand. My general feeling was that surely someone wouldn’t turn down a family of five with all their gear on bikes, especially given our small footprint (tent campers). While things worked out swimmingly for our family this trip (campsites/cottages available), I wouldn’t attempt the same during a busy time of year for the area (i.e. Sturgis Motorcycle Rally).
Weekends with decent weather in the fall and spring were spent cruising around town with our kids, trying to log 20+ miles without burning them out. Our kids’ interest in riding was kept in check by having rides with a destination, whether it be Red Iguana for lunch, a new burger place downtown or a trip to the library to check out books. We had planned to complete a “shake-out” trip a few months prior to ensure we could pull the trip off. Unfortunately, our son broke his ankle skiing in March, delaying such plans. Once healed with only one week prior to the real trip, we attempted an overnighter in nearby Provo. We began in Lehi, UT; riding the Murdock Canal trail south to the Provo River trail. Once on the Provo River trail we rode up Provo canyon to Nunn’s Park where camping is allowed. The trip went well, allowing us to re-evaluate a few things (food qty.) and refine others. The Murdock Canal trail is an excellent place to begin bike packing as it runs right through towns allowing easy support should something go awry.
I’ve provided the gear list we prepared below. We had many items that didn’t require use during our trip (tools, raingear, down jackets) but regardless should be taken. We never felt like there was something we needed but didn’t have.
|The essentials||Personal (per person)||Toiletries||Kitchen||Bike tools||Electronic & Misc.|
|Knife||Pair shorts & chamois & jersey||Contacts/|
|Bowls, cups/mugs, fork/spoon (5)||Helmets & Bike gloves (5)||Camera/ charger|
|Lighter||2 pair underwear & socks||Toothbrush (5)& Paste||Coffee dripper/filters||Brake & Shifter cables||Cell phone/ charger|
|Flashlight||Shorts & swimsuit||Toilet Paper/wet wipes||Collapsible Pot & Pan set||Chain lube||Speaker/ charger|
|Multi tool||Beanie||Bug Spray||Spoon||Lock/cable||Zip ties, rubber bands, tape|
|Lip balm||Long pants||Body Towel||Stove & fuel||Pump||Water bottles(5) & 10 L bladder|
|Sunscreen||T-shirt||Shampoo/ Conditioner||Food, Coffee||Tire levers|
|Tent & groundcover||Warm jacket||Bar Soap||Granola bars||Patch kit|
|Sleeping Bag (5)||Rain jacket & Pants||Cleaning supplies||Stan’s/injector/core removal|
|Sleeping Pad (5)||Shoes or sandals||Hand towel||Tubes|
|Route guidebook||Sunglasses||Garbage sack|
|First Aid – bandages, Neosporin, rash cream|
Many food options exist for bike packing, whether you purchase dehydrated meals from the store or create your own using a little ingenuity. We opted for the latter, using store-bought items that just required adding water and in some cases freshly bought ingredients. The Mickelson trail travels through towns with grocery stores at regular intervals, allowing bike packers to travel with only a few days’ worth of food and purchasing of fresh ingredients. Additionally, a meal purchased at a local restaurant always nurtures the soul and gives everyone extra pedal power. Stopping for ice cream frequently gives kids something to look forward too and replaces all those calories being burned on the bike.
For dinner, we brought instant mashed potatoes which we then mixed with dehydrated chives, bacon bits and a few chopped cheese sticks to make an easy, quick baked potato like dinner. Another evening we made rice/bean burritos using dehydrated refried beans. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal which gets old after 4 days but it quick, easy and light. Lunches were simple too, cheese with summer sausage, crackers and mustard were a staple. Additionally, we had a large bag of snack foods (cliff bars, beef jerky, granola bars) for quick eating along the trail.
The plan for what bikes to ride was the first order of business when planning this trip. We had recently acquired a Yuba Mundo Cargo bike which was a sure part of the mix. The Mundo is designed to carry heavy loads with a stretched rear frame, large pannier bags and a deck for additional cargo. The real obstacle would be how best to ride with our five year old. She could have ridden on the cargo bike but that limited gear carrying capacity. Riding her own bike that distance wasn’t an option. We decided upon a Burley Piccolo trail-a-bike that would be hooked to a rear rack on my wife’s bike. This meant a new touring bike for her, a Salsa Marrakesh outfitted with a front rack and panniers.
I diligently searched the local classified ads looking for a suitable bike for our 10 year old to ride. Something that could handle gravel while also having braze-ons for rack attachment. I lucked out, finding a lightly used, small frame Novara Buzz. Adding a rear rack and panniers gave us lots of gear hauling capacity without overloading him. My middle daughter ended up riding her 20” wheel mountain bike with no cargo. While it worked for her, I wouldn’t suggest attempting such long distances with a wheel size any smaller.
|Saturday 6/4||Drive to Edgemont||N/A||Edgemont RV Campground|
|Sunday 6/5||28.8||1,660||Country Charm Cabins & Campground|
|Monday 6/6||24.6||1,368||Fort Welikit|
|Tuesday 6/7||23.1||1,070||High Country Ranch|
|Wednesday 6/8||0.0||N/A||High Country Ranch|
|Thursday 6/9||28.4||1,961||Carsten Cottages|
|Friday 6/10||18.8||590||Deadwood Springhill Suites|
Lots of people have asked what I would have done differently after the fact. For the most part, I wouldn’t change much but there are a few things to consider. Taking more time for such a long trip would have been better, allowing more time to enjoy the small mining towns and attractions in the area. I wouldn’t break the riding days (mileage) up any smaller but rather stay at each camp a bit longer. Additionally, it would have been nice to have a cottage/house type rental in the middle of the trip. While the camping element was a big part of the trip, after tent camping for 5 nights we were beat. Lastly, I would have forced Madison to ride a 24” bike to make things faster. She slowed our pace somewhat but it wasn’t due to lack of effort on her part. Its just hard to keep those smaller wheels rolling.