Snowmobiling in the Black Hills

September 7, 2010
Filed under Sled Trips

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Dave was stuck.

A half-hour into our first morning of riding, still within sight of the main trail we had left for our first off-trail adventure in the epic Black Hills of South Dakota, my buddy Dave’s MX Z 600 sat with the back end trenched 3 feet deep.

The rest of us flatlanders un-did our chin straps and pulled off our helmets, knowing the depth and angle of Dave’s sled, not to mention the added altitude, meant we’d be working up a sweat getting him out.

“How did you get stuck already? Weren’t you following John’s tracks,” another friend, Steve, teased. Dave wore a sheepish grin. We’d dug Dave out plenty of times before on some Michigan Upper Peninsula trips, so this was fully expected. But, damn, we were just getting started…

Over the next three days, we would all get stuck – in fact, by end of day 3, we would find a vast, completely untouched, powder-filled meadow that dreams are made of. We all got stuck there, and had a riot doing it.

The snowy meadow provided a dramatic end to a trip that was years in the making, yet bound to be repeated soon. For three of the four members of our group, it was a first-time experience riding at altitudes over 2,000 feet. The Black Hills proved to be an absolutely perfect first-trip-west for these guys. It features a wonderful 350-mile trail system with stunning scenery and interesting places to go, yet seemingly unending off-trail possibilities in the 1.3-million-acre Black Hills National Forest. Altitudes are low enough (max 6,700 feet) that our flatlander lungs, 121-inch tracks and Midwestern riding skills could get by.

Now that the western-riding hook has been set, our annual riding trip may never return to the flatlands again.


Eight Years Of Planning

About eight years ago, my sister-in-law’s then-fiancé, Steve, was helping hold down the couch and empty some 12-ounce bottles when he asked about a trip I had just returned from in Utah. He’d been in the mountains skiing before, but had never pulled a rope on a sled west of Minnesota.

I talked briefly about the joys of western riding and then said, “Well, let’s just plan a trip for next winter – you’ll be family by then, and we’ll both be looking for an excuse to get away!” We turned to an atlas and started planning a trip — the Black Hills would be our destination, we decided. It was only about 9 hours away, it would allow Steve to get used to the altitude, and he could bring his MX Z 800.

We were set to go the following March, but the snow didn’t stick in the Black Hills that spring. Instead of canceling the “guys getaway,” we rode instead in Wisconsin and Michigan. We’d go to the Black Hills the following spring, we pledged, and a couple more friends were added to the agenda, including my longtime close friend Dave.

When the next March came, the Black Hills had yet another relatively bad season, and we headed back to Michigan’s U.P. Suddenly, the late winter snowmobiling trip started taking on its own form – northern Minnesota one year, Michigan’s U.P. the next, etc. We had a great time each year, but our original focus was lost. This was supposed to be a grand adventure to the West.

Last winter I made a proclamation: It was the Black Hills or bust. Dave invited Jeff, a buddy from Ohio with whom he served in the Navy 20 years earlier, and the trip was set.

The Trailhead


After Dave and Steve rejetted and clutched their respective MX Zs for the altitude, we left the Minneapolis area and headed west. Nine hours later we picked up Jeff at the Rapid City International Airport and found lodging.

The next morning we woke to light, wet snow that iced the roads for our 21-mile twisting drive from the Deadwood/Lead area to our ride destination, the remote Trailshead Lodge. The drive was white-knuckled, but the scenery was spectacular – taking us past rock walls, fast-flowing open water and occasional wildlife sightings. Still, we were longing to get out of the Suburban.

To snowmobilers, the Trailshead Lodge almost seems like a mirage, it’s so perfect. After a long drive, the big wooden sign out front is the ultimate welcome mat. Outside the long building are a couple gas pumps that are kept very busy on snowmobiling weekends; inside is a snowmobile rental operation and the only decent food for miles around. Beside the building is a repair shop, while seven small rental log cabins are found in back. As the name would suggest, it’s located at a trailhead, with main snowmobile trails taking off in four directions and a huge parking lot filled with trucks and trailers across the street.

Bottom line: We made it! Jeff rented his steed, an Arctic Cat F570, I picked up a Crossfire 800 and Dave and Steve unloaded their MX Zs.

The trails we first encountered were wide and groomed tabletop flat. We weaved between some pine trees for a couple of miles and then spilled out into a wide meadow that was fully marked with snowmobile tracks. While there, we met a uniformed park ranger on a sled. He proved to be a jovial gentleman, confirming us that we could go pretty much anywhere we wanted – the laws in the Black Hills state cross-country exploration is allowed unless an area is marked as closed or private. He directed us to an area where my western first-timers could get their first taste of off-trail fun, then sent us on our way. Little did we know that we’d be seeing more of Officer Friendly later.

At his suggestion, we buzzed down to an intersection of trails, where a powerline intersected the trail and there were some hills to climb. Everything seemed hard-packed and very set-up – until, that is, Dave followed me up one draw and offset my path slightly. After a bit more exploring, and one more dig-out, we decided to catch lunch back at the Trailshead Lodge and plan our afternoon adventure.

The Trailshead was alive with activity. Sleds were everywhere, the gas pumps were backed up with short- and long-tracked sleds waiting to fuel up, and the lunch counter was busy. Inside, there were snowmobilers of all types: newcomers on rental sleds; serious mountain riders with longtrack sleds and the right gear; some loud, testosterone-driven guys debating brands; and some families with kids as young as 2 years old – and everyone appeared to be having a great time. After a quick burger and fries, we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the trails, starting with a visit to the Cement Ridge Overlook, the highest point you can reach by snowmobile in the Black Hills, located just over the Wyoming border.


A trip to Cement Ridge, altitude 6,647 feet, is a must on any trip to the Black Hills. From the top, the view is spectacular in all directions, with a 360-degree panorama of rolling, snow- and tree-covered hills and mountains, plus a view of Devil’s Tower in the distance. The wind tugged at our jackets and high clouds moved in.

Next, we completed the scenic journey by taking in the Spearfish Canyon loop. Here we rode next to towering walls of limestone, followed a meandering path cut by glaciers and river waters long ago, and saw frozen waterfalls on the sides of rock faces. Another must-do was taken care of. After topping our sleds with fuel and our bodies with water at the Spearfish Canyon Lodge, we got back to the Trailshead in the nick of time to return the rental F570 before its curfew. A fun day – but it was only just beginning, as one of the coolest towns in the Snowbelt was awaiting our arrival (see Deadwood sidebar).

It Just Keeps Getting Better

Sunday morning found us back at the Trailshead Lodge. Just a couple of wispy clouds decorated the deep blue sky. Determined to see most of the trail system in the northern half of the hills, we ventured toward the Recreational Hot Springs, our destination for lunch.

Along the way, we encountered a bit of everything. There wasn’t as much exposed limestone this direction, but a lot more rolling, wooded hills that called us to leave the trail frequently to hone our boondocking skills. The Crossfire I was riding made me feel like a hero compared to my friends on the short-trackers, but there wasn’t much they couldn’t do with a bit of moxie and some intestinal fortitude.

One particular backcountry climb that looked oh-so-ominous made Dave in particular especially proud, until the relative newcomer Jeff followed us up there on the gutless-at-altitude fan-cooled 570. Still, we were glad we could all share the moment, and Dave, Steve and I marveled at how different this experience was from our other “guys getaway” trips to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Recreational Hot Springs offered a mildly adequate lunch, then we started working our way back toward the Trailshead. A quick, eventful wrestling match between Jeff and the F570 ended with some dinged up ribs for Dave’s Navy buddy – Jeff wouldn’t be joining our adventure on Day 3.

That night, we stayed in one of the cabins behind the Trailshead. The lodging wasn’t fancy, but the location was perfect. The ice cold beer tasted great that evening as we swapped stories with fellow riders and enjoyed a good meal inside the lodge. We simply couldn’t imagine the trip getting any better – but the best was yet to come.

Black Hill South Dakota: Powder Day

Cold sunshine greeted us Monday morning, and so did Shannon Percy, trails manager for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks, and his friend, Kevin Stolz. The twist? His friend was the same park ranger we met on the trail during our first hour of riding on Saturday.

Before we left Minneapolis, I called Shannon to see if he’d offer us some tips on finding cool Black Hills areas we probably wouldn’t find ourselves. He gladly offered to guide us, noting that a day riding was certainly better than driving his desk chair.

Shannon and Kevin guided us about five miles up the trail, then went straight when the main trail hung a sharp right. For the next four hours, we disappeared into a seeming no-man’s land near where the town of Hanna used to exist, though you could actually find the area yourself if you have the right U.S. Forest Service maps (available at the Forest Service Office at Spearfish – 605/642 4622). Shannon was following narrow forest service roads and logging paths, noted by tiny wooden signs at intersections. That said, we were breaking trail much of the way — bouncing over a few downed trees and ducking occasional low-hanging branches. We spotted a small elk herd at one point, saw a coyote up on a hill, came across some deer and Kevin even spotted a treed mountain lion at one point.


The riding was out of this world. Shannon led us to a massive meadow filled with completely untouched powder. “I can’t believe nobody’s been back here,” he said. We spent the next hour gleefully cutting paths and climbing up a nearby hill.

I gave up the Crossfire to let Dave give it a try while I jumped on his MX Z. Within the first minute I tried a stunt that was working perfectly on the longer-tracked Crossfire, but I slipped off the running board and ended up burying the Doo.

Steve pulled up beside me and asked with a grin, “How did you get stuck already?”

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