Just 6 hours southeast of Billings lies one of the west’s greatest destinations for history, recreation, and western culture. South Dakota’s Black Hills offer all of this and more. If you have lived in Billings for any period of time and still have not visited Mount Rushmore, than you are desperately in need of a vacation. For those of us who have visited the hallowed tourist trap a few times, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of future trips to the region, thinking that we have ‘been there, done that’. As I recently discovered, there is much more to this region than a few sculpted mountains.
I was given the opportunity this past summer to visit the Black Hills again. This time, I would be joining a guided tour given by Austin-Lehman Adventures, a Billings-based adventure tour company that has been honored time and again by Travel+Leisure Magazine as the world’s best travel company. This would be an interesting trip for me for two reasons. First, I usually have an aversion to guided tours, preferring to plan my own trips. Second, the trip included a 109 mile bike ride along the Mickelson Trail. I don't care who you are, that sounds like a lot of miles on a bike, particularly if you are like me and the bulk of your bike riding experience was gathered on the back of a Huffy.
Once I finally began the trip, I was blown away by the experience I had. Our guides, Cory and Carrie, were not only knowledgeable but fun to be around. The trip took us to some of the most well-known Black Hills destinations (Deadwood, Sturgis, Mount Rushmore), as well as some lesser known stops (Bear Butte State Park, The Mammoth Experience). Then there was the Mickelsen Trail. The trail itself is definitely "bucket list" worthy. It is basically a 109-mile bike tour through all the icons of the wild west. During the trip we saw plenty of deer, antelope, bison, prairie dogs, hawks, eagles, and, yes, even cows, many of which were right up on the trail! We rode through dry, weathered ghost towns and watched a reenactment of a shoot-out in the streets of Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in a saloon holding the now famous "Dead Man's Hand", Aces and 8's. The kind of beauty which exists along this trail can only be experienced in the Black Hills.
Our guides split the trail into manageable daily increments, with checkpoints and lunch stops along the way. Perhaps part of what motivated us the most during our rides was the knowledge that once we reached that checkpoint, our guides would have a surprise waiting for us in the form of a tray full of fresh fruit, or yogurt with granola, or special Mexican Coca-Cola that is made using real sugar. Each day one of the guides would ride along with the group on the trail while the other drove the van to the checkpoints and to pick up the group at the end of the day’s leg. At this point we would need only to park our bikes and climb into the van. Everything else was taken care of for us.
For me, what surprised me most about my experience with Austin Lehman was the relationships that I built. I'm usually a pretty antisocial guy, but the environment created by our guides made everybody feel at ease. By the second or third day, my travel mates felt more like old friends than strangers. We would even spend our free time with the group rather than exploring on our own. In fact, maybe this is what makes an Austin-Lehman adventure so memorable. Beyond the trip planning and little surprises and general pampering you receive, somehow Austin-Lehman manages to create an environment where you, and the people around you, can just be yourselves and get the most out of your vacation. No matter what kind of traveler you are, whether you prefer to blaze your own path or would rather let somebody else do the planning, I agree with Travel+Leisure Magazine when they say that you should definitely consider Austin Lehman for your next travel adventure.