Solo Hiking the Centennial Trail (unabridged version)
17 days ago I finished my solo hike on the Centennial Trail, but I had so much fun and it was an incredible experience I still remember the trip like it was yesterday, hence the short story below, if it’s too long just enjoy the photos instead, turned out I had a lot of time to think out there and I really do love the area for its beauty and geology. It’s so easy to drift off in the day dream world as if I were still on the rugged and sacred trail in the middle of paha sapa (the black hills).
On Saturday May 30 I arrived at the Alkali Creek trailhead, which is 15 miles south of the actual north trailhead located at Bear Butte. It was decided to start here and avoid the grasslands northeast of Sturgis, if I had extra time in the middle of my thruhike, I would explore more of the Black Elk Wilderness area. It was nearly 5pm when I arrived at Alkali Creek, I felt a bit out of place and was not properly prepared to take off on my 110+ mile journey, which I’d hoped to hike in 5 days. I actually didn’t have a clue how many miles I was away from where my vehicle was supposed to be; see my hiking companion dropped me off and then took the vehicle to the south end where he started, supposedly Norbeck trail head in Wind Cave National Park, an estimate of around 110 miles from the maps in hand. I hadn't given much preparation to the trip, just went with a friend who also wanted to hike solo from south to north, thus we’d cross somewhere in the middle and be on our ways. In a weird way we forced each other to just jump in and figure out as we went. I’ve never attempted hiking solo this far but my mind was prepared and I knew that’s what mattered most. I had enough food to keep up with proper nutrition and a uv water purifier to ensure I was hydrated. No idea how much my pack weighed, possibly 40 lbs with my 3 liter hydration pack filled. I forgot an extra pair of shoes which was a bummer at first but added to the challenge, my evo vivo barefoot minimalist shoes were going to take me places!
I went out for a short run/hike without my pack around the Alkali creek area. It was wet, muddy, the creeks were high, if I only knew what was ahead, this was nothing. However there was some beautiful views of Bear Butte from here so I took it in, relaxed and prepared for my solo hike start the following morning. Some locals were also camping at Alkali, we chatted for a bit and I learned where the trail started and shortly crossed interstate 90 through a tunnel. Feeling strong and ready to put on miles I told my camping buddies I would try and make it to Dalton lake tomorrow, nearly 24 miles away and further if I could handle it. I had no idea what was lying ahead, Mother Nature had a grip on the hills and was going to provide a unique and epic adventure over the next 6 days.
Day 1 began with a nice sunrise, coffee (with butter, mct oil, collagen.. my staple breakfast), and yoga to stretch out and prepare for the day. There was fog looming in the area and covering the highest peaks, this seemed to be an everlasting trend for the remaining days. As I hiked north a lady was walking her dog, the trail was slimy with mud, I kept sliding around with my pack on, so out came the hiking poles, it’s never too early to use them in my mind. I met the tunnel under interstate 90, there was what looked to be 18 inches of water to tread through, well just go for it, I knew this was gonna be a wet adventure. So I plunged in, using the poles to keep my balance as the water rushed through the tunnel. As I was almost through to the other side I heard some more splashing behind me, a lady was on morning jog along the trail we said hello and she went on her way much faster than my pace up the hills above us. The trail then climbed and climbed, it actually felt like it climbed all the way to Dalton lake, with little descending in between. The gps unit and a local concurred that hiking the trail from North to South is much more difficult than the other way. The climb to Dalton lake being the most brutal on the trail, however I wouldn’t get there until Day 2. From Alkali Creek to Elk Creek trailhead there were several others out enjoying the beautiful day and views, there were trail runners, bikers, and my first contact with other thru hikers, when I first met Aaron and Jenny they were taking a short break near the trail, I stopped briefly and said Hi before moving on I felt good and wanted to keep moving. However a few miles ahead, just after the Elk Creek trail head, I would meet up with actual Elk Creek which was moving like a mountain spring fed creek! I was humbled upon arrival, there was no way I was going to cross this river alone, it was at least waist deep. So I pulled out my maps, looked for alternate routes, ate some food, and patiently waited for the other hikers that I had passed an hour ago. The only alternate route was a 9 mile out of the way road hike or maybe I could hitch hike with the locals out day hiking. After a brief discussion with the local couple, they were encouraging me to cross the creek, however not just once, the trail crossed Elk Creek 5 times before ascending towards Wonderland Cave. I was still reluctant to cross the river alone but said I would if the other hikers were willing. We could link arms and form a chain to cross the creek safely. Aaron and Jenny arrived shortly after and we continued the discussion of crossing, they were on board even without crossing a creek like this before, knowing the arm link technique, or as I later found out never had gone backpacking before this adventure!! The locals kept encouraging us to go and they would be there for backup, I'm not entirely sure what they were going do if we fell in and floated downstream?. The gentleman had hiked this trail and others around the black hills for most of his life, I could tell from the breadth of knowledge he share with us. I tried to process and save as much as possible for later, while mentally preparing myself to safely cross the river. It was starting to get late and we knew the water was chilly so off we went. I started the chain into the river since I was the only one with hiking poles, it got deep fast up to my waist and then to my lower chest. I was leaning at what felt 45 degrees or more towards the water, using my pack to counteract the current. Slowly I began to shuffle my feet and poles towards the other side, taking my time and making sure not to slip while Aaron and Jenny got the feel for it. I remember pausing in the middle of the creek, just taking it in, what beautiful rapids up stream, I couldn't even look at the banks, just had to hold that stare and concentrate on moving across the stream, it felt like forever to get across safely, but we made it!! There was a whole crowd of people watching from the other side as we got out of the water, but the current was too strong for much conversation and we knew there were 4 more crossings to go. So we waived and got on our way.
Maybe a mile down the trail the second crossing, where we met up with two mountain bikers trying to cross the creek, we helped them get across and wished them luck on the next one. Our adrenalin was flowing and we felt confident on these next 4 crossings so we plunged in without much hesitation and started to cross the creek, it was no more than waist deep. Aaron found a stick he was using for a pole, that worked until ¾ the way through the stick broke and he plunged into the water, the chain held and he got his footing back before we continued. The other crossings were right in a line, so off we went, the third and fourth were as deep as the second, and not much to fret about, there was also tree limbs to grab if all else failed. As we approached the last and final crossing everyone was getting cold (my merino wool top was soaked but still providing warmth) and it was starting to get dark, the surrounding limestone was beautiful, but I had my camera packed in my dry bag so no pictures to share. This crossing looked difficult so we spotted a bit easier approach a few feet up stream and there was an aspen limb to guide us across. In we went, the current was really strong, we made it about half way when things started to look bad and wondering if we should backtrack and try again, we talked briefly and decided to keep moving across while trying to walk further upstream. I kept losing my footing and relying heavily on the hiking poles. Jenny lost here footing a few times, we were almost at a stand still, every move I made was taking all of my mental and body strength. The battle continued, I lost my footing and quickly grabbed the tree limb, that was close..the chain allowed me to get my footing again and I just went for it, moved quicker grabbed a tree on the other bank and helped the others get out as well. Whew that was an experience of a lifetime!! We quickly grabbed a snack and filtered some water before climbing another 2 miles away from the creek up towards Wonderland Cave where we were told to camp for a nice sunset and sunrise overlooking the valley, so that is what we did. In all that was a tremendous day, 16 miles with 5 major creek crossings, what would the Centennial Trail bring in the upcoming days?
Day 2 I stared early, getting up to see the sunrise over Elk Creek, it was inspiring. Practiced yoga on a limestone cliff and finished with some meditation to mentally prepare for the day. After having coffee, packing my stuff, and saying goodbye to my new friends from Michigan, I was off to tackle the large climb up to Wonderland Cave and eventually Dalton Lake. The climb had amazing views of the endless pine trees and limestone cliffs surrounding the valley walls. With my poles out and a good nights rest I was cruising along the trail, my first break was at Dry Elk Creek, which had water in it now, the black hills were shaping up to be the wettest and most green I’ve ever seen them. Once atop, near Wonderland Cave it was beautiful, I was reluctant to go look for the 13 waterfalls nearby as a thuderstorm was staring to build up on the horizon. So I continued, descended a bit before climbing up another few miles and then down into Dalton Lake. This stream fed lake was nice, I found a spot nearby and took an extended break, first soaking my feet in the cold water, making some lunch, taking a short nap, and stretching; it would have been nice to take out a book and spend the night here, but I was already behind schedule and chose to keep moving. The next section of trail would be the worst as motorized use had been allowed on the trail as well, it was rough, muddy, and a lot more climbing! After a long battle with the trails I approached roads near Nemo SD, upon crossing one I passed a trailer house with 3 large St Bernarnds outside, of course they started barking and were coming to chase me away. I held my ground being a dog person and tried not to show fear, but they just got closer and kept barking, I relaxed once I realized there was no worry to be had, they were just doing their job, their owner called them back and apologized for the roadside entertainment. After Nemo, I hiked more multi-use trails and eventually ran into another gravel road that led towards Boxelder Campground, there was a creek here and large granite outcropping with 60 degree dip, it looked amazing. A thunderstorm was getting closer and I could see a rainbow, this led into a downpour which I then took cover under a large spruce tree, hoping the bows would keep me dry. The rain got heavier then it turned into hail, plunk, plunk, plunk I could hear the hail hitting the stream, pieces were getting through the tree limbs and falling on me but did not hurt, sizes were up to an inch in diameter, this continued until the ground was completely white! Then back to rain and finally quit altogether. I was soaked, so was my bag and everything around me. Instead of continuing down the trail I decided to hike a mile up the road and stay at the Boxelder campground. By dark I had my tent set up on some gravel and was eating hot food, the full moon was inviting as I watched it pass across the skyline. I tallied 19 miles for day 2, making it 35 miles and 7600 feet of climbing combined for the first two days. If this pace continued I’d never make it to the truck in 5 days! The morning brought enough sun to dry out my gear on a clothesline prior to setting off on day 3.
Day 3 was wet again (notice a trend) and probably my hardest day of the hike, why I’m not sure it could have been the soreness setting in from previous days, or staying up too late the previous night. I had waited around camp until noon to let everything dry properly, had a good conversation with the camp host, and hoped that the trails would dry up a bit. The ATV trails continued out of Boxelder towards Pilot Knob, but they were in better shape more sand than mud. It was a climb up towards Pilot Knob with rewarding views upon getting there, I continued down and to the actual trailhead where there was a nice bridge over the creek where the trail continued south to Lake Pactola. Another storm was brewing and it started to rain as I approached Smoker’s Gulch, so I took cover under some schist outcrops and waited the rain out. Then I continued into CCC bottoms, where hundreds of young men once lived, it was a neat valley with several side trails and a wide track to follow. I was getting tired as I approached Lake Pactola, even though I had not been on the trail nearly as long as previous days or hiked many miles. I found a neat bluff overlooking the lake and decided to make camp there. After settling in catching the sunset, eating some hot food, the rain started, then the thunder and lighting, and harder rain. The lightning was so close it was blinding with my eyes closed! The wind picked up and at one point I had to hold my tent poles in fear of them falling and wrecking the tent, this must have lasted an hour before the storm completely passed and I fell asleep. I’d hiked 50 miles in 3 days to this point, 60+ to go and it was already a journey of a lifetime.
Day 4 started with an easy hike to Lake Pactola where I found a ramp into the water and decided it was time for a swim. The water was a balmy 50 degrees but felt great to wash off the first 3 days of grime and prepare for the following 3. After my swim, I hiked across highway 385 and took a gravel road down to Rapid Creek. One of the locals prior had told me not to try and cross Rapid Creek it would be too high so just take this gravel road. I was going to continue on the gravel road to Tamelius trail head but I met up with a day hiker that had just came from that way and said it was no problem. He was right however it was water the whole way, and not just to Tamelius but all the way to Brush Creek was like walking through a stream always ankle to knee deep. It was nice to have a trail partner for awhile though, we kept the same pace to Tamelius then we started climbing, I ended up being a bit faster on the climbs with my trekking poles, so continued on my pace until Brush Creek, there I took a break and let my feet dry out. The day hiker showed shortly after and we chatted for 90 minutes about backpacking and traveling while you’re young, all the good stuff. Most people you meet out in the boonies backpacking are great people and those conversations will always be cherished, I don’t see them as a time burden but rather a source of trail wisdom. From Brush Creek trail head to Flume trail head was a wandering route through prairie over rolling hills with small creeks and lots of mud. The trail wandered through Gold Standard Gulch, I did not have a gold pan with but the outcropping schist looked to be promising for both past and future prospecting. Approaching Flume trail head I first had to navigate around Sheridan Lake, the largest of lakes along the Centennial trail. The spill way was open and water was rushing down the creek, this was the highest water I’d seen and luckily there was a bridge to cross. Sheridan Lake had shear granite cliffs surrounding the trail side, locals were cliff jumping and swimming in the water, it looked fun but I still had more miles ahead. The more lake I could see the more people were out enjoying the nice evening, kayaks and canoes, a few fisherman, lots of water to be explored. I arrived at Flume trail head near dark but wanted to continue with hopes of camping with my friend that started from the other end. So I started the climb out of Sheridan Lake towards the Elk Wilderness area. The climb was difficult and it was getting dark, out came my headlamp, I was in the zone and peaking at flow stage, cruising up the hill taking stops to catch the sun setting on Sheridan Lake. Once reaching the top of that hill I couldn’t go much further, I found a nice green spot next to a rock outcrop, it started to sprinkle a bit (here we go again), so I set up my tent and got some hot food before the thunderstorms rolled in. The storms lasted most of the night and into the early morning, I fell in and out of sleep. The lightning was even closer than the previous night, I could hear the voltage from the bolt and the thunder shook my tent, the outcrop was providing shelter from the wind gusts, it was enlightening to feel so comforted under a millimeter thick tent wall from the brute force of Mother Nature! My tent by the way is a Lightheart gear from a small company in North Carolina, it weighs under 2 lbs and uses my hiking poles as the tent poles. Awesome tent, providing shelter from thunderstorms, rain, wind, and plenty of room for me and my gear. I made it 22 miles on day 4, the pace was picking up and the terrain was getting a bit easier to navigate.
On Day 5, prior to leaving camp my friend arrived, I was getting a late start as the surrounding area was covered in fog, I couldn’t see more than 50 feet away and had no idea what I was getting into if I continued to hike. We shared trail notes, and I found out that I would need to make 2 more creek crossings at French Creek that were going to be tough. He provided tips on where to make those crossings, which proved to help a lot! We also decided to extend the hike another day giving me at least 6 days total and half of a 7th if needed. From Sheridan Lake to Big Pine Trailhead there was lots of pine trees and outcrops of rocks to keep me occupied along with good trail marking to keep my mind at ease. Then I stepped into the Black Elk Wilderness section it was muddy, wet, and downed pine trees were everywhere from the storms that went through in the previous days. It was slow moving for the first 6 miles either going over the tree or up and around, this continued past Mount Rushmore, through a decent creek crossing then started to climb. Harney Peak was about 5 miles from here but I did not have extra time to make that day hike. The outcrops and float rock began to amuse me, I was picking up black tourmaline crystals embedded in potassium feldspar and quartz. Upon evening I entered Custer State Park, it was much easier terrain following a sandy road, 3 miles in I decided to make camp and get some rest for the final push on Day 6.
I started day 6 early, there were no thunderstorms so I had a good night’s rest. I was off and hiking by 6:30 am and had 25 miles until I reached the truck, I set my mind on those 25 miles and knew I could make it! I took off and hiked fast towards iron creek, it was foggy but easier terrain than what I was used to at this point, soon after I climbed a peak in Custer State Park and was entirely surrounded by fog, could have been some great views from there, however plenty of other beauty awaited as I hiked on. The trail got really rough as I approached French Creek, I had to climb up a ¼ of mile before descending down into the valley, this descent was horrible, loose rock for footing, and steep, I was just happy finally being able to descend instead of climb, it had to happen at some point! Upon reaching French Creek it was deep and flowing fast, I didn’t waste much time after my previous experience with Elk Creek. I found the island to cross, the water was chest deep and the current moving fast, the creek pushed me backwards at least 10 feet before I got to the other side, was much more difficult solo vs. a chain of people. At this point getting wet was just something that happened, and I was dripping wet again..the second crossing was also daunting, I found the alternate crossing upstream a bit, two day hikers were approaching so I waved to make sure they saw me crossing the creek, think they were in a bit of shock when I came out the other side. We chatted briefly as to warn them not to cross without a stick and some experience or courage! I took a quick pit stop at the French Creek horse camp where plenty of cowboys got to stare down another thru hiker, seeing people along the trail always provides me with happiness and some additional energy whether I talk to them or not. So they stared and I picked up the pace towards Wind Cave National Park. Upon reaching the gates for the national park a ranger stopped to chat and make sure I had a permit for backpacking and camping it was free but they wanted statistics. When he left my side it started to downpour once again, I really could care less at this point and knew I was only 8 miles from my truck so I put on a rain jacket for me and my pack and walked on in apparently the wrong direction, oops! I had followed a road instead of the trail markings, feeling brave I looked at the map and wandered in the direction of the trail up and down a few hills with additional creek crossings until I found it, that was relieving to actually find again and not have to back track, my energy for the day was dwindling. There wasn’t much for trails in Wind Cave National Park, however there were trail posts often enough to stop and look for the next, spot it and move on. I didn’t cross any bison in my path, figured they fled for the storm which I just walked on through. I was nearing the truck but feeling exhausted, this was the only day I did not take a lunch break and allow my feet to dry, but I wanted to finish it out, I added another reward to the pot, the ziploc bag of cookies from my aunt, that's even better than a beer at this point! My mind was wandering and I spotted some neat rock on the trail, it was a skarn, red, orange, white, green colors swirled together kind of like marble but more like opal (the rock heads know what I mean). I noted its location and continued on. There were some neat caves now that I was back in limestone country. And bridges over the streams, at this point that was laughable, part of me wanted to just cross the streams, but I utilized the bridges instead, realizing I was nearly back to reality. The truck was in sight, one more hill and I was there. I had finished the hike from Alkali Creek to Norbeck Dam, the gps showed 116 miles with over 22,000 feet of climbing, not too bad for a 6 day adventure. Day 6 turned out to be a 12 hour moving day, hiking 25 miles.. I ate the bag of cookies, a can of sardines, had a few shots of whiskey and passed out early in my truck. Morning allowed some more time to hike in Wind Cave National Park, so I went back and located the skarn deposit before returning to the truck and tracking down my hiking companion near pilot knob. Which we then ensued burgers and beers in Merritt, SD at the sugar shack, highly recommended!