Saturday, July 13, 2024

South Dakota: Centennial Trail Day 4 - Sheridan Lake to Rapid Creek

 South Dakota: Centennial Trail Day 4 – Sheridan Lake to Rapid Creek
 6/8/23 – 14.5 Miles

Good morning from Sheridan Lake Campground

After yesterday’s ugly finish, I packed up with determination to push through our plan for the next 2 days: hike 14.5 miles today to Rapid Creek Trailhead and camp nearby, then a half-day hike (6-ish miles) the next day to Deer Creek and detour to Whispering Pines Campground where we’ve sent our resupply boxes. We'll clean up, rest up, chug lots of sugary soft drinks, and camp there. Yes, I can do this!

By the shores of Sheridan Lake

At a trail junction, Flume Trail loop goes right and the CT turns left to cross the dam 

A fancy wooden bridge crosses the lake’s outlet to Spring Creek 

Looking at Sheridan Lake from the bridge

Looking at Spring Creek from the bridge

This bit of trail was an old road bumping along up and down to Dakota Point Trailhead. The popular picnic area is .8 miles away, but we didn’t bother entertaining the idea of checking it out.

After crossing Sheridan Lake Road (Highway 228) we walked along several miles of old roadbeds and cattle trails, taking in the expansive rolling hills and open grasslands. CT 89 trail markers were few and far between.

What storm clouds?

Water reservoirs for cattle – in very dry conditions CT hikers have filtered water here
 (fortunately we didn’t have to)

We stopped for a brief break in prairie paradise, melting into the idyllic scenery, and discovered we both had cell service (don’t judge). As I texted with Jim, Nancy checked the weather and suddenly jumped up: “We’d better get out of here and into some trees.”

Oh, THOSE storm clouds…

Nancy’s lightning tracker app showed a LOT of activity coming towards us. Her serious expression sobered me up as we walked quickly, then sprinted, turning off the exposed trail to run down to lower ground. We looked for a grove of trees of similar height so we could sit apart from each other to reduce the risk of us both getting zapped. (Don't think about it don't think about it don't think about it)

We sat and listened to thunder booming as a light rain fell around us, followed by glimmers of sunshine. Nancy’s app indicated more storms were forming, so we got back on trail, keeping a quick pace as we continued descending. This was definitely NOT FUN.

We moved away from the storms as the trail crisscrossed gravel Brush Creek Road and more single track, passing through brief stretches of pine stands, open fields, and gates to keep cattle in/out.

Dandelions along Brush Creek Road

As I walked the miles between Brush Creek and Rapid Creek, I pondered yesterday’s degree of difficulty, my extreme tiredness, my ill-fitting backpack, and the unnerving dangers of quickly developing lightning storms. What adjustments could I make to do this for 5 more days? Can I just suck it up? Tomorrow this time we’ll be at Whispering Pines. Will a shower and real food be enough to reset?

I felt hotspots on my feet and called a timeout to take a look. Sure enough, several blisters were forming, which hasn't happened to me in years. Hmmm.

Nancy continued to monitor the weather forecast, indicating that rain was coming starting tomorrow afternoon with a total washout the day after. My pondering increased to serious deliberation. I strongly dislike (hate) setting up a tent in the rain. How many adverse conditions add up to discontinuing my hike? Did I just not train enough? Is it failure or is it wise to stop before I do more damage to my body? Do I care if I am judged? If these conditions discourage me, what does that mean? Am I declaring an end to my backpacking life?

Another consideration: Nancy has been incredibly supportive, but she isn’t here just to help me. She is hiking for herself as well. If I decide to stop, she can continue to “hike her own hike,” certainly faster. The sooner I tell Nancy what I’m thinking, the sooner she can make her own plan.

A ray of clarity: being outside fills my soul, but not with a 27-pound backpack in thunderstorms. The inclination to end my hike became a decision and then a resolution. It’s okay to let go of completion goals. Waves of peace and relief came over me and feelings of doubt dissipated. I shared my decision with Nancy and we talked over the logistics going forward.

Ahhhhhh…my load felt lighter already.

Rapid Creek Trailhead at Pactola Basin Road was a welcome sight (hello pit toilets – yay!) but not a good place to camp because of easy accessibility for party people. We scouted around for a protected hidden spot. There was a stand of mature Ponderosa pines right beside the creek, but this didn’t look appealing in the event of another lightning storm.

We crossed Pactola Basin Road in search of a place to pitch tents closer to the water, but there wasn’t enough vegetation to screen us from the road.

Ultimately we decided to camp tucked in under the small grove of Ponderosa Pines, secluded and close by the creek. A curious person would have to walk right up in there to see us. (The pit toilets were still close enough for convenience.)

Nancy boiling water on her backpacking stove

We ate supper relaxing by the creek, entertained by Nature’s show. We watched two trout in a pool, facing upstream and holding steady, as though they were taking a rest. A pair of Canada geese and their brood of six goslings paddled merrily with the flow.

Sure enough, a thunderstorm rolled through around 1:30 a.m. There wasn’t much we could do underneath those majestic tall pines except wait for it to pass and go back to sleep. 

“Thunder on a hot summer day reminds me
 that change happens when we least expect it.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

South Dakota: Centennial Trail Day 3 - Mount Rushmore Overlook to Sheridan Lake

South Dakota: Centennial Trail Day 3
Mount Rushmore Overlook to Sheridan Lake
6/7/23 - 18.4 Miles

Setting up camp close to a trail is usually not ideal, but no one passed by us during the night. Nancy and I were up and out early the next morning because we’ve got big miles today, including…

But first we’ve got to get across Grizzly Bear Creek

Ah, here we are!

Nancy opted to tote her full pack up the .8-mile side trail to see the big guys, but I hid mine behind trees at the junction so I could walk unencumbered both physically and mentally.

Did I mention that walk-ins are FREE?

So much to say about Mount Rushmore. The sheer size and execution of the sculpture is breathtaking. At the same time, it is disconcerting that this mountain that the Lakota people call Tunkasila Sakne Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain, was taken (many say stolen) to create a tourist attraction. Sounds harsh? Read more about the controversies here.

The National Park Service’s attempt to acknowledge and consult with associated tribal nations in the Black Hills can be found here

If you just want some interesting “fun facts” read here.

Hypocrite that I am, here’s my photo at Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is more than just the granite mountain carving. There is extensive infrastructure to support the crowds, from the massive parking lot to the impressive Visitor Center, souvenir shops and a dining hall – and don’t forget the ice cream station. Nancy and I were ahead of the crowds - in fact, the Carvers’ Cafe was not yet open. What, no breakfast? No coffee? But we walked all this way!

After oohing and aahing at the rock, we explored an exhibit at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center depicting the planning and construction of the monument by American sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln, as they directed a team of over 400 men in the work. [The 14-minute film is well worth your time.]

We returned to the now-open dining hall for some sustenance and phone charging and spotty wifi to upload photos and check in at home.  No time now for a full breakfast but we shared a decadent jumbo honeybun loaded with icing (remember, calories!)

Leaving Disney-Rushmore behind, we scampered back to the Centennial Trail, where I reshouldered my somehow-heavier-now backpack. The temperature was rising, as was the terrain, so I knew I would be slowing down. Nancy moved on ahead as we agreed to meet up at a trail junction. I wrangled my sun umbrella into position and was thankful once again for this piece of gear.

Lucky me for the opportunity to chat with this dayhiking group of awesome women,
three generations (proud grandma on the left)

Nancy waiting for me at the junction, demonstrating another great function
of the umbrella: keeping bugs away

We took the spur trail to Horsethief Lake and ate lunch at an unoccupied waterfront campsite. I can understand routing the main trail to bypass the lakes, but I’m glad there are options to get close to the shores. Something about a body of water flanked by trees and reflecting the sky calms my brain, even for a few minutes.

We needed water at this point, although Nancy was not a fan of filtering water from the lake. After we completed the process, we turned around and saw pit toilets and a water faucet. Duh.

From Horsethief Lake, we rejoined the CT as it crosses Hwy 244 at Big Pine Trailhead. From here it’s about 3.3 miles to Samelius Peak Trailhead. The guidebook describes this section as “an easy, quick hike to enjoy typical Black Hills scenery.” By now I was getting tired from carrying a loaded pack, but the terrain winding through open fields was pleasant.

Keeping an eye on trail markers directing us across Old Hill City-Keystone Road

Crossing the RR tracks for the 1880 Train, a tourist attraction between
Hill City and Keystone, SD 

What are the chances that we would encounter the 1880 Train? Pretty good – it runs hourly during the summer season. Nancy loves trains, so we stopped and waved. The tourists loved seeing hikers “in the wild!”

The local neighborhood watch

We heard cars as we walked along a gravel road and Highway 16 appeared. The CT passes underneath the roadway via a tunnel – hoping no critters are in residence!

Near the end of the tunnel is Samelius Peak Trailhead. The CT does not go over the summit; instead, the trail winds around the mountain on the west and north sides. Then the arduous work begins.

Our guidebook casually mentions that we’ll pass over “the highest elevation point of the Centennial Trail” and hints that the level of difficulty is “demanding.” In reality, after going around Samelius Peak, the trail goes over the summit of Mount Warner at 5,889 feet (not named on the maps we were using). Hikers consider this the toughest part of the CT, as in “why the heck didn’t somebody tell me about this part?” [Only later did I study more closely and put together how this section works.]

I pushed hard to get up Mount Warner, expecting at every turn to reach a high point where I would take a break. When I reached the rocky summit, Nancy was sitting pretty and enjoying the view of Black Elk Peak. She’d been there a while, so she moved on while I sat down to contemplate this crazy hiking obsession and the 10,000 other things I could be doing with my life.

Black Elk peak on the horizon

Our plan for tonight was to find a camping spot on the northeast side of Sheridan Lake, about 5 miles further to go. My energy was depleted and the hour was getting late. 

Sheridan Lake

As we descended towards the lake, the terrain was more moderate, but the mileage so far had gotten the best of me. Nancy listened to me sympathetically and posed a question: “Is it okay if I make some decisions for us right now?” Yes, ma’am.

She checked her maps for a closer camping alternative – maybe we could get a site at the campground on the south shore. We turned off the trail onto Calumet Road and began a l-o-n-g walk to the campground. Even on this gentle gravel road I was slow. When campsites appeared, Nancy told me to sit down at a picnic table, drink some water, and wait while she went to find the campground host.

Some minutes (hours? days?) later she returned with the good news that we had gotten the last available campsite – yay! Then the bad news – it’s a couple of miles away on the far side of the property – boo! Then more good news: the host offered to drive us to the site in the back of his pickup truck – double yay!

Smiling through the pain

The sun was sinking as we set up tents after this 12-hour day. I was too tired to boil water for a hot supper. (My appetite was back somewhere around Horsethief Lake.) I ate a Clif bar and some crackers as we looked over maps, formulating a plan for tomorrow.

In the few minutes before I fell asleep in my tent, I thought over how this day began and how it was ending. My attitude and my confidence had slipped significantly when the going got tough. Was it the weight of my new backpack? Not overloaded, but the fit was different than my old pack. Was it the distance – 18.4 miles? My original plan called for roughly 14 miles a day, and we had exceeded that every day so far. For sure my failure to eat properly was a factor. Still, the beauty of the Black Hills was….good night…

"You pick ‘em up, Lord, and I’ll put ‘em down.” 
    Anonymous Tired Hiker

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

South Dakota: Centennial Trail Day 1 – Norbeck Dam to French Creek Horse Camp

South Dakota: Centennial Trail Day 1
Norbeck Dam to French Creek Horse Camp
6/5/23 – 17.1 Miles

New day, new start: Centennial Trail, here we come for real this time! Bridget, our overnight host, trail angel and shuttle driver extraordinaire, drove us to the southern terminus at Norbeck Dam Trailhead in Wind Cave National Park. The ride followed a winding route as part of Bridget’s day supporting folks on the trail. First we picked up a hiker at Bear Butte State Park, the northern terminus, and dropped him at Sheridan Lake. We delivered gear to backpackers at Legion Lake. Nancy and I will be passing all these places on our thru-hike.

Experiencing the “advance” tour with Bridget was priceless. She was full of information and tips, how to act when encountering bison, be sure to ask the camp hosts at French Creek horse camp if we can tent there, on and on. She is a super passionate supporter of the trail and hikers.

Bridget snapped a quick photo, hollered, “Call me if you need ANYTHING!” and was gone.

Here we go! First up, 6 miles through Wind Cave National Park. Since we’re not camping within the park, we skipped checking in at the Visitor Center (I’ll get back to it another day.) Read all about Wind Cave (Is there a cave? Is there wind?) at the official NPS site here, more history and area information here.

The Centennial Trail follows Trail 89 markers…except when it doesn’t. For example, in Wind Cave NP it is Trail 6. If there is no 89, follow the 6.

Fun fact: The Centennial Trail number “89” comes from the date of South Dakota’s statehood, 1889. The trail was built in 1989 to mark the 100th anniversary.

The guidebook cautions hikers to be alert for trail signs. “Buffalo rub against the posts
and knock them down.”

From our very first steps we were captivated by the landscape as the trail wandered through wide open spaces punctuated by tall rock outcrops.

Well, even after reading about tricky intersections in the middle of open prairie, Nancy and I took a wrong turn and went nearly a mile in the wrong direction before stopping to check our maps and apps (I had downloaded offline maps from GAIA and Avenza). We navigated cross-country to get back on track. 

Lesson learned on Day 1: check navigation often!

At Highland Creek, we passed through a gate that separates Wind Cave NP and Custer State Park. Bridget had regaled us with a story about dropping off hikers here last week amid a bison herd swarming the gate – no herd today, thank you very much!

Our long-ago original plan was to hike these first six miles, pass through the gate, and stealth camp somewhere around here. The revised plan meant we had to keep going. This didn’t look like a good place to camp anyway, but we did stop to filter water at Highland Creek.

Water issues can be the biggest challenge of thru-hiking the Centennial Trail. A lot of resources are devoted to identifying water sources and a Facebook page updates the flow – such good trail support, all from fellow hikers and local folks! We never had issues with water, plenty was flowing for us.

Nine miles to go

Custer State Park is a premiere destination in the Black Hills, 71,000 acres, four historic lodges, nine campgrounds, hundreds of miles of trails, and did I mention the bison? Two weeks wouldn’t be enough time to explore and enjoy this marvelous park.

Shortly after we entered the park, we passed through several prairie dog towns, minding our manners to stay on the path and not go tromping around in their communities. The residents popped up from their holes as we walked through, barking warnings to their neighbors that humans were afoot.

The trail changed to a two-lane forest road winding through sparse ponderosa pine ascending, first gently, then more steeply as we left the live trees behind and passed through an old burn area. The grasses have recovered but it’s going to be a long time for the trees.

Heating up in full sun now, no shade anywhere

A prairie rattlesnake – this big fella jumped and so did we!

And a gopher snake, longer than the rattlesnake! Glad Nancy is in front of me.

At last, a patch of woods again

An antelope playing (no deer friends, though)

Looking down at Wildlife Loop Road in the valley (still in Custer State Park), cars were stopped to look at a small bison herd grazing on both sides of the road. The trail took us further down the valley away from the herd where it was safe to cross the road.

Nancy checking in with civilization

Nearing French Creek Horse Camp, I was feeling knackered and a little confused as we intersected with dirt roads (did we stray from the trail?) The camping section for hikers wasn’t obvious, supposedly at the far end of the horse camp? We walked slowly past the corrals, cabins and comfy campsites, and nearly swooned at the sight of a bathhouse with flushing toilets, hot showers and electricity.

The camp host drove by in her golf cart and, remembering Bridget’s advice, we asked if we could set up tents. She kindly pointed out a sweet broad grassy area near the creek, complete with picnic tables. What a relief to end our long first day in such comfort! 

Cooking our first meal on our adventure

On the banks of French Creek (on the other side of the fence)

Day 1 Centennial Trail wildlife checklist: Bison, prairie dogs, two big ol’ snakes, and an antelope.
What will tomorrow bring?

Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

*Original poem “My Western Home”
 by Dr. Brewster Higley
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