It took 1,000 people just 255 days to build the Burlington Northern rail line in 1890. A century later, it took 15 years for the rails to trails project to convert the abandoned rail line into the Mickelson trail.
The founders of the original Burlington Northern rail paved 114 miles from southern Edgemont to northern Deadwood, blasting four tunnels and erecting more than 100 railroad bridges to accomplish the task. The booming railroad carried everything from logs and sand to livestock and passengers.
Almost one hundred years later in 1986, shortages of cargo and high maintenance costs closed down the railroad entirely.
It was after Burlington Northern donated the land back to the state that local enthusiasts came up with the idea of converting the railway into a non-motorized trail. Governor George S. Mickelson was in office when the concept of the trail was born, and he was the first big supporter.
The project took the collaboration of many organizations and years of labor. The wooden bridges needed to be replaced or given new railings, additional material was needed to support the path’s crushed limestone surface, and fences were put up on stretches of private property.
The first 6-mile stretch of the trail opened in 1991 and the trail was named after Gov. Mickelson following his death in 1993.
The entire 114-mile trail takes travelers on foot or bike directly through the heart of the magnificent Black Hills. It offers a wide range of scenery, starting in Edgemont with expansive stretches of prairie and changing to more rugged terrains of canyons, forests, and even views of Harney Peak.
Remnants of the trail’s history are still evident along the trail. The trail travels through the 1878 historic town of Rochford, where one of the town’s three saloons is still open. In the abandoned town of Mystic, travelers can still see the depression in the ground where a roundhouse allowed trains from Rapid City to return from where they came.
Other treasures along the way include views of old mines, log buildings, an old whistlestop, telegraph poles, and the four rock tunnels and 100 railroad bridges still in existence.
Tourists love the low grade of the trail, which never rises above 4 percent. Several other amenities add to the ease of the trail: 14 trailheads along the path offer parking with easy access to the trail, restroom stops, picnic shelters, and water. Bike rentals are also available near certain trailheads.
Every year the Mickelson Trail Trek draws enthusiastic crowds. During the three-day stretch, bikers ride the entire trail.