Probably the best way to get a feeling for the real Paha Sapa is to attempt to escape civilization by taking to the trails. There are lots of trails that run through the hills. On one of our first drives into the hills, we spied the George S. Mickelson Trail next to Highway 385. This rails-to-trails project was started by a group of local residents in 1983 when the Burlington Northern pulled out. Named after Governor George Mickelson, a strong supporter of the trail, it was completed in Fall 1998. Accessible by 14 trailheads, its 109 miles traverse 7 towns, 4 tunnels, over 100 bridges, numerous old mines and historic structures, the ghost town of Mystic, and the old townsite of Redfern. At the trailheads are toilets, water, and self-registration stations to pay the $2 daily registration fee for the required trail pass. You’ll also find water fountains, shelters with picnic tables and benches, and interpretive signs along the trail. Foot and bike travel is permitted year round, horseback riding only when the trail is dry, and snowmobiling in winter from Deadwood to Dumont, on 16 miles of trail. The only disadvantage to this Cadillac of trails is that it does parallel the roads and highways fairly closely, as the railroad did, so you don’t fully get away from the sounds of cars. You can download a trail map, see photographs, and check on special events at the Mickelson Trail website. The state Department of Game, Fish & Parks publishes an excellent brochure about the trail available at visitor centers. Mickelson Trail Affiliates also publishes a brochure describing visitor facilities and services in the towns on the trail.
Passing through more rugged country is the 111 mile long Centennial Trail. Beginning in the prairie grasslands north of the Black Hills, Centennial Trail cuts through Black Elk Wilderness (only foot and horse travel allowed) west of Mount Rushmore, and continues south through the entire length of Custer State Park, ending in Wind Cave National Park. You’ll find a variety of developed and primitive campgrounds along this trail. The agencies involved publish a trail users guide you can find at visitor centers. The Mickelson and Centennial trails are but 2 of 38, covering 465 miles in the Black Hills National Forest. Its 1.2 million acres contain 31 developed campgrounds, and they also allow dispersed camping in most of the forest. Pactola Reservoir, Deerfield Lake, and Sheridan Lake allow boating, fishing, swimming, picnicking, and camping.
We took a number of scenic drives through the Black Hills. Iron Mountain Road, running 17 miles southeast from Keystone to Highway 36 in Custer State Park, features 3 "pigtail" bridges and 3 tunnels. These unusual wooden rustic bridges were conceived and designed by self-taught architect and builder C. C. Gideon. Each bridge loops around to a tunnel, a picturesque method of dealing with a steep elevation change. The road also splits up into one-way lanes on occasion, making its way through stands of light barked birch trees. At the summit, there are far views of Mt. Rushmore, Peter Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, and Black Hills National Forest.
We drove Needles Highway at waning light, bathing the dramatic spired granite peaks in warm evening colors. Thankfully, there were many pullouts. Around every bend, the views of these pointed igneous granite formations change. Their core is believed to be 10 miles deep. The "Eye of the Needle", pictured below, was formed by the forces of wind, rain, freezing, and thawing. Both Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway are part of Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, a loop drive through the heart of the Black Hills. Thankfully, no billboards have been allowed to be placed on the best parts of these drives.
Purple bee balm was blooming in every meadow and alongside the roads. Looking up, we’d often see solitary hawks or eagles sailing in the high breezes. Off road, we saw striped squirrel and tiny chipmunks. If we’d gone out further on the trails, we might have seen white-tailed and mule deer, although some white-tails occasionally visited the campgrounds. The hills are also home to coyote, bobcat, elk, and mountain lion. White mountain goats were introduced to the Black Hills in 1924, and like to climb the peaks around Rushmore and Harney.