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Adventures with Black Hills Trails
Written By Molly Barari
Shannon Percy, District Park Supervisor for Game, Fish and Parks, is hoping for a snowy winter. “The past two years have been warmer, so it’d be nice if we had a good, snowy year,” he said with a chuckle, realizing that many in South Dakota don’t share his desire for the white stuff.
However, there’s much fun that can be had in the snow – especially on the Black Hills Snowmobile Trails System. It seems many folks have joined the party; Percy said traffic was up last year on the 350 miles of trails designated solely for snowmobiles. The official season runs from December 15-March 31.
“People like our trails because they’re groomed daily,” explained Percy. “We want you to be able to go out and not run into a lot of mobiles – we’re highly rated for that. We also get high ratings for our signage.”
The Black Hills Snowmobile Trails System is maintained through a cooperative effort of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department-Division of Parks & Recreation, the USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Barrick Mining Co., Wharf Resources, Inc. and numerous private landowners.
Along the Trails System, there are many supportive vendors who provide various services, from snowmobile rentals to parking to lodging. Visitors often lodge in Spearfish, Lead/Deadwood, and Sturgis, but there are many additional locations within the Black Hills. At any of the vendors, snowmobile riders can pick up a Trails System brochure. Each trail is color-coded in the brochure, and junctions are clearly marked. This helps riders get from point A to point B easily.
“Black Hills trails are popular here in the Midwest. We have that mountain feel, and we’re not restricted to these trails. We have over a million acres to ride off trail,” Percy said. “We have people come from Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. When folks come visit, they often do a day of snowmobiling, then go skiing, then visit Mt. Rushmore and Deadwood. We’re lucky to have several attractions still open in the winter.”
Percy recommends that in addition to the Black Hills Trails brochure, snowmobilers pick up a Forest Service map. That way, they know where they are, and where they shouldn’t be. On the Trails System, there are a few areas closed to snowmobiling, including active logging operations, winter wildlife range, plowed roadways, developed cross country ski areas and posted private land.
Percy and his crew often need to move trails to ensure the safety of the snowmobilers. “We make sure there are no obstructions, like boulders or tree limbs, and ensure the surfaces are well groomed. We want clear, safe corridors,” he said.
The pine beetle epidemic has been a challenge for Percy’s crew the past five years, causing them to need to move even more trails. “The timber industry comes in to extract timber. Our job is to keep the snowmobiles away from logging operations,” he said. “We move our trails to let those guys plow the roads so we’re not in each other’s way. Motor vehicles, logging trucks and snowmobile vehicles don’t mix!”
Over the years, he’s also learned how to deal with different snow consistencies and how temperature impacts grooming. “It could be 40 degrees at 3 in the afternoon and 10 below by 11 o’clock at night. We have to adapt our speeds,” said Percy.
In the wintertime, Percy hires about 20 seasonal employees who work Thursdays through Sundays for 10 hours at a time. Weekday shifts run from Mondays through Wednesdays, and the shifts are even longer. Employees use six Sno-Cats to groom the Trails System, and they can expect to travel up to 70 miles on each shift. “My team is dedicated and self-sufficient. We look for folks with a strong equipment background,” explained Percy.
Percy works long hours as well. At the start of the winter season, he’s busy closing and winterizing other parks. He’s in charge of the Mickelson Trail, Bear Butte State Park, Spearfish Falls and Roughlock Falls. When spring starts, he shuts down the snowmobile trails. It’s a continuing cycle for Percy. Luckily, he loves his work.
Percy graduated from Black Hills State University in 1996 with a physical education degree. Prior to that, over summer breaks in college, he got into the mining industry. He worked as an open-pit gold miner, running equipment for a few large-scale open pits in the Black Hills. When he finished college, he went back into mining, but the gold level was low. That’s when he applied for a job with the state, working as the park manager for the Mickelson Trail for five years. After that, he scored his current job with Game, Fish and Parks, which he’s been doing for 10 years.
Lee Harstad, executive director of the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, has nothing but praise for Percy and his crew. “If it has to do with a trail in the Black Hills, Shannon is the go-to guy. Outdoor adventure and recreation are more popular than ever, and the extensive trail system in and around Deadwood is truly amazing. The trails not only provide an economic boost to Black Hills communities, but make the Hills an even better place to live and work,” Harstad said.
Percy said he’s enjoyed his role with Black Hills Trails and helping to establish the area as a snowmobile destination. When he’s not working, which is rare, Percy likes snowmobiling (of course), hunting, fishing, and team roping. He lives outside of Sturgis on a ranch, and he spends time with his young adult children – Chelsea, Jackson and Max – whenever possible.
Want to plan your own snowmobiling adventure in the Black Hills? Visit gfp.sd.gov/to-do/snowmobile/docs/black-hills-map.pdf for more information.