August 27: Cottonwood Springs Lake Campground to municipal campground, Edgewood, S.D.
Miles: 24 miles
Elevation gain: 400 feet
It was surprisingly chilly when I woke the next morning. I donned a Merino-wool long-sleeved shirt and rain shell, but still shivered as I started down the paved road at 5:50 a.m. I soon turned right to follow dirt Erskine Road west-northwest, uphill and past alternating patches of forest, mini-canyons and pastures dotted with distant cattle.
High, patchy clouds reflected the rising sun as I hustled along, making good time and stopping only to look at a small cemetery. I turned south on Valley Road and was soon continuing my shoulder-walk along Highway 18. At 8:20, I reached the George S. Mickelson Trail, a 109-mile rails-to-trail, gravel path between Deadwood and Edgemont, used mostly by bicyclists.
Stopping at the Minnekahta Trailhead, I was pleased to discover that the Mickelson features cisterns filled with drinking water at regular intervals, from April 30 to Oct. 1. That meant I could offload some heavy water for the 16-mile walk to Edgemont and fill up at the Sheep Canyon cistern in about 10 miles.
I reveled in the flat, even surface as I headed south and the day began to warm. Heading down the long valley known as Chilson Canyon was pleasant and easy. Soon the trail turned west and crossed under Highway 18S, snaking between two beautiful, dry Deadhorse and Sheep canyons. I stopped at the cistern to fill a water bottle and switch out my Altras for sandals in an effort to relieve my feet, which were hot and sore after the first 17 miles of my day.
After a short, gradual climb under hot blue skies, I could see the glittering telltales of my destination off to the southwest, looking tantalizingly close. Alas, the trail veered off to northwest, dragging me two miles away from Edgemont before turning south to descend the mesa and parallel follow Highway 18.
Cruddy approach to town, I grumbled in my journal. Junky shit yards and abandoned rail cars for literally a mile and a half.
By the time I got to Edgemont, I was beat. Hot, tired, thirsty and hungry. I followed 2nd Avenue to the southern terminus of the Mickelson trail in a humble little park, where I sat for a minute to sort myself out. The municipal campground lay just a couple blocks to the south, but I was ravenously hungry and needed a resupply. I hoisted my pack and walked into the small, free local museum. The woman behind the counter was thrilled to have a customer, then disappointed when I asked her for directions to a restaurant or anywhere to buy food. I promised I’d come back after I’d eaten and made camp.
Walking nearly a mile back through town, I passed through neighborhoods where small, occupied houses stood next to boarded-up mansions. Edgemont had seen better days.
I was most grateful to find a restaurant, micro-casino and gas station that also had a small grocery store. Before shopping, I drank about 70 ounces of icy Coke and mowed through a grilled cheese, fries and salad. Among the items I bought while shopping were two mini bottles of tequila and some strawberry Gatorade, which would make for a possibly disgusting cocktail.
I trudged back to the campground, where a note had been posted instructing prospective guests to call a local number. I left a message, then set up my tent on a grassy lawn across from a small cluster of pickups and large camp trailers, temporary homesteads for employees of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Then, I kept my promise and returned to the museum.
Edgemont was born a railroad town, it seems, and fought mightily to convince the BNSF to continue using it as a major yard for coal trains between Montana, Wyoming and points south. And from 1942 to 1967, the Black Hills Ordnance Depot south of town provided many jobs, but it was now a ghost town. The town was now very much in decline, with many houses and businesses mournfully boarded up and abandoned.
Back at my tent, I had to zip myself in to fend off clouds of aggressive mosquitoes. It seemed odd, here in such dry country, but the buggers were everywhere.
Toward sundown, an SUV pulled up next to my tent and the camp host rolled down her window to confirm I was the camper who had called. I told her I’d put my $10 in an envelope up at the shower and restroom building, which also doubled as a community theater space. She said the bathroom was now unlocked, so I headed up the hill and enjoyed a long, hot shower.
Although it was tattered and a little sad, I liked Edgemont. Hikers were virtually unheard of, but they had welcomed Mickelson cyclists with open arms and there were just enough amenities to make for a good resupply and rest point.
Clean and walled off from mosquitoes, I lay back in my tent and drank my faux strawberry margarita, which wasn’t as gross as I’d imagined. Several people had warned me about the racket made by trains, but I found the clacking of steel wheels and lonesome whistles a pleasant lullaby as I fell asleep.
August 26: The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs, S.D. to Cottonwood Lake Campground
Miles: 6 miles
Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
I woke before 6 a.m. and saw that it had rained overnight. After a first quick breakfast of coffee and Frosted Flakes, I dressed and walked a block to the Heaven Scent Bakery, where I had a much more satisfying second breakfast of eggs, toast, orange juice and coffee.
With many chores to handle, I planned to take a nearo — a short day on which a hiker walks just a few miles, usually so he or she can do laundry, resupply and the like — in this pleasant little town. I had a six-mile road/dirt-road walk to the day’s destination, the U.S. Corps of Engineers campground at Cottonwood Springs Lake, which meant I could spend a leisurely morning in town.
First order of business was to pack up and walk a half mile to the historic Evans Plunge, a 130-year-old pool and spa fed by the consistently 87-degree waters from a local spring. It was well worth the $14 I spent on a day pass.
The main pool is enormous, covered on the bottom with smooth river stones. I flipped and flopped around, enjoying the warm (but somehow still cool) waters for 45 minutes before getting out to spend time in a hot tub and sauna. I took an obligatory selfie of myself in the pool, in front of the enormous sign bearing my surname, and was pleased to see that a large frog fountain appeared to be gobbling my my head as if it were a tasty fly.
After a long shower, I saddled up and walked to a laundromat while talking to Jody. After packing away my clean clothes and charging both phone and solar charger, I still had plenty of time, so I decided to visit The Mammoth Site, an archaeological dig and museum.
I had half suspected it was some kind of cheesy tourist trap. Au contraire! It is a remarkable place, a huge building built over the top of a millennia-old sinkhole that snared scores of mammoths and other paleolithic megafauna, preserving their bones. Discovered in 1974 by a local developer, the site remains an active dig, and the 45-minute tour was riveting. It was not the last cool archaeological site I would see during my walk.
I headed west out of town just after 2 p.m., walking on the shoulder of state Highway 18. The weather was ideal, upper 60s with little wind, as I marched four miles up a long, gradual hill, then down the other side to Memorial Road/County Road 17. I followed the dirt road north about a mile, then west to the paved road into Cottonwood Springs Lake.
And then, inexplicably, I forgot one of the lessons I’ve learned from thousands of miles of hiking: Shortcuts usually aren’t.
I should have stopped to check a map, but instead decided to bushwhack north to a dirt road that descended toward the dam at the eastern end of the lake. I should have turned back at the dam, but feeling lazy, decided I would bushwhack along the southwestern shore of the lake toward what appeared to be the campground on the far shore.
Wearing sandals, I followed a faint game trail for a few hundred yards before it petered out and I was high-stepping through knife-edge weeds. Succumbing to a “sunk-cost fallacy,” I stubbornly slogged on, going slower and slower as I picked my way along. Then, at the western end of the lake, I had to wade through a mucky slough, tormented by mosquitoes. By the time I reached the “campground,” my shins were streaked with blood from my weedy scourging.
Well, I thought, at least I’m here now.
When I emerged from the restroom, a white Corps of Engineers truck was coming toward me. The guy rolled up and asked how it was going.
“Fine, except I just foolishly bushwhacked along the southern shore to get here,” I confessed, realizing he’d probably seen me.
He peered down at my bleeding legs and sandaled feet.
“In sandals?” he said, raising eyebrows. “You are aware that that this is rattlesnake country, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. But I was trying to high-step and … uh …,” I trailed off. “Yeah, well, I ought to know better than to try shortcuts. I do know better. But at least I’m at the campground now.”
“Except this isn’t the campground. It’s up there,” he said, pointing to a bluff about 200 feet above the southern shore.
I groaned. So now my “short” cut was going to consist of a nasty half-mile bushwhack plus a mile or more roadwalk on the paved road back to the actual campground.
“Do you have a reservation? You’ll need that,” he said.
“No, I didn’t know….” I mumbled. Jeez, I thought, this guy must think I’m an idiot. I am an idiot.
“What phone service do you have?”
“Well, you’re in luck. You can get service at the campground, and I’ll give you the 800 number to call for a reservation. Or the camp host can help you out.”
I felt utterly deflated. I’d had such a great day, why had ruined it like this? Would I never learn?
“You wouldn’t be able to give me a ride, by any chance, would you?” I asked sheepishly.
He shook his head. Against regulations.
I thanked him for setting me straight and went to fill a water bottle for my walk of shame while he drove slowly off to check something down by the water. I started west, cursing myself silently. After I’d gone a couple of hundred yards, the ranger pulled up beside me.
“Come on,” he said. “Toss your pack in back and I’ll drive you. Just don’t tell anybody.”
“Thank you so much.” (Technically, I’m blowing his cover here. But I’m not naming names, and presumably, the Corps of Engineers isn’t going to read this blog.)
He dropped me at the campground (which I would have reached in about five minutes had I continued on the paved road), where I plopped down on the grass and called to make a reservation and pay $10 to put up my tent. It all went smoothly, and I was relieved to have escaped my dumb-assery with relatively little consequence.
Tons of skeeter bites and nasty shin scratches, but no rattlesnake bite, I wrote in my journal while boiling up a tasty meal of plastic, excuse me, ramen, noodles. DON’T BE DUMB!
August 25: Grace Coolidge Creek, Custer State Park, to Hot Springs, S.D., via Wind Cave National Park; end of Centennial Trail
Miles: 31 miles
Elevation gain: 4,000 feet
I woke with a big smile on my face, remembering my nightly visitor, now regretting that I hadn’t taken the chance of turning on my headlamp, if only for one fleeting glimpse. I was off by 6:30, a little later than usual. Ten minutes later, I passed the small brass medallion “collected” by the state park challenge hikers I’d met.
My feet were instantly soaked by dew-heavy foliage bowing. Crossing Grace Coolidge Creek I laughed: Here was excellent, freely-flowing water just minutes away from the muck where I’d tried to fill a bottle. I dumped the floater-contaminated stuff and stocked up before walking on.
The trail climbed to a plateau where the state or some other entity had been thinning trees for fire mitigation. That meant long, lovely views of the surrounding Black Hills, faintly crimson in the light of the rising sun.
Humming along happily an hour later, I came up over a small rise and stopped dead in my tracks. There, perhaps 25 yards off, a hulking bison bull lay in a dust wallow in the middle of the trail. This was, I knew, as close as one was supposed to get to these majestic, powerful and unpredictable creatures, so I slowly stepped off trail to the right and began angling up a steep hillside into a cluster of ponderosa striplings.
As soon as he saw me, the bull stood up, switching his tail and swinging his horns ever so slightly, a fair and decent warning. But he seemed not at all perturbed that I was watching him from up the hill.
Seeming in no hurry to move on, he began slowly working up the trail, breaking his fast on the lush grasses to either side. I scooted along the hillside in the other direction until I had put sufficient distance between us, then dropped back down and continued on my way.
Was this my night-time visitor? Doubtful. I had come some five miles from where I camped, and last I heard, my ghost bull had been headed north. But who knows what lies in the hearts of such noble creatures? It was a great start to what would turn out to be a long day.
When I’m backpacking, I always settle on a “minimum destination” for the day and unless something unusual occurs — illness, injury, side trip — I rarely miss a personal target, and often hike past my daily minimum. On this day, I’d set my sights on French Creek Horse Camp, a roughly 22-mile day.
The CT through Custer State Park features a lot of PUDs — pointless ups and downs, the most wearying kind of hiking — and passes through extensive areas ravaged by recent fires. On top of that, there were a couple short, but surprisingly steep — steeper than I’d ask a horse or mule to carry me up — sections. All this would add up to a hot, sweaty day by the time I was finished.
I spilled out onto Highway 16 quite early, expecting to see Legion Lake Lodge and its eponymous water source, but didn’t even see a sign. Continuing on, I came upon signs pointing north and east back to the lodge. But by then, my faint hopes of scoring a hot breakfast had been overcome by the desire to keep moving.
I found myself mired in regrets for foolish things I’d done in my younger days as I walked along and, as if to prove a point about mindfulness, my preoccupations crowded out any significant impressions I had of the passing terrain. It was a long seven or eight miles before I came to fast-flowing French Creek, where two thigh-high crossings forced me back into the present.
French Creek, like Iron Creek, is designed for horse- or mule-mounted trail users. I stopped to fill water bottles and ate a tortilla with peanut butter before moving on. Most of the campers were out with their mounts on the trail, but as I headed out, I saw a teenage girl reading a book next to a camper trailer.
“Hello,” I called. “This may seem like a weird question, but might you have a soda pop you’d sell me?”
She very kindly said she had plenty to spare, and handed me a cold can of Pepsi. As I rummaged in my hiker wallet (aka Ziploc bag), she waved me off.
“No, no, really,” she said. “We have like, a thousand of these. Just take it.”
I followed the reverse of the NOBO instructions in the guidebook, walking along the dirt road out of camp. When I saw no signs for the CT I bushwhacked across a grassy meadow. I forded the creek, scrambled up a steep embankment, and sure enough, there was the trail, cutting up the hill. Once again, where the trail would be obvious to a NOBO, a clear marker at the horse camp would have been helpful to this dumb SOBO.
Although there was only about 1,300 feet of climbing, the nine miles from French Creek to Highland Creek Trailhead were long and tiring. Huge swaths of the area are naked of trees, thanks to wildfires, and in places the trail is poorly marked and the tread faces to nothing.
The trail is often not a trail at all, fainter than bison tracks. Overgrown. You must look back and around you very often. So easy to get off track, I wrote later in my journal.
The final miles up and over a couple of beautiful, open hillsides and ridges were long and hot, and by the time I staggered across the small plank bridge over Highland Creek, I was hammered. I stripped down to my boxer briefs and parked my butt in the cool water, then cameled up and took on a couple of liters.
I’d already walked 23 miles on a hot day, frequently pounded by full sun. I thought about putting up my tent; at least there was a reliable, clean water source. In the morning, I could cross into Wind Cave National Park and hike six miles to the southern terminus of the CT. Or, I thought as I sat drying in the sun, I could keep going. It was only 3 p.m., after all.
The lack of cover made up my mind, though in hindsight I don’t know why that seemed important. I had imagined I’d find trees or rocks to shield me from prying eyes on the dirt road (not that I’d seen even a single car), and for whatever reason — brain boiled by too much sun, body trashed by too many miles? — I decided to keep walking.
I’m glad I did, though it was a long couple of hours to the end of the trail. End-of-day miles, like town miles, always feel “longer” than regular miles, to me.
Crossing into the park, I followed signs marked CT/#89 and #6, for the park trail system. The sturdy posts were obviously built to be bison resistant, as indeed they appeared to be.
I love walking through wide-open spaces (though I would soon learn it’s not quite as fun in extreme heat), and I drank in the long vistas as I followed the trail up and over gentle hills, spying herds of bison in the distance.
After a few miles, I began eyeing a vast thunderhead that had been piling up to the north all afternoon. It seemed likely that I would have rain, maybe even hail, before my day was through. The bruised and menacing storm clouds were moving a lot faster than I was as I hurried along the edge of Curley Canyon, then turned due west. I pulled up to squint at what appeared to be a large, brown rock off to the right of the trail, ringed by vultures. Curious, I veered cautiously off the trail, spooking the scavengers into flight.
Dead bison, I thought. Big bull.
Then the “dead” bison moved, ever so slightly. He was upright, but unable to stand, and the dark hair had fallen out, or had been pulled out, exposing pink, mottled skin. I grimaced at the huge animal’s ordeal, glancing at the circling buzzards. I backed away, trying not to judge nature’s cruelty. He was dying, this monarch of the plains, and the buzzards were just out to make a living. Maybe I’d call the park rangers’ office when I got to the road….
Sobered by my utter inability to ease his suffering, I turned away and kept walking. The rain finally broke, but the storm saved most of its fury for the hills to my north, spraying me with cool droplets as the sun continued to blaze from blue sky to the west. I crossed Beaver Creek and coming up over a small rise, ran smack into another bison bull, standing in the trail and grazing nonchalantly. I circled far out into the grass, but the bull was utterly indifferent to such a puny intruder. The last couple miles I followed Beaver Creek as cliff walls to the north continually changed color as the sun slipped down like a melting pat of butter in a vast, blue skillet.
After a short climb, I emerged at the southern terminus to find a sign and empty parking area. It was 5 p.m. on a Sunday. I was dead tired and suddenly emotionally drained after nearly 30 miles of tough, hot hiking. I took a couple of lousy selfies at the sign.
I walked a half mile on paved Highway 87 to Highway 385, but even that busy road was all but empty of traffic. It felt like the end of the world and I was the last human alive. I walked south on the road to the sign for park headquarters and Elk Creek Campground, where I thought I would camp. Though exhausted, I yearned for the comfort of real food and a real bed. Just then, I heard the peeling hiss of the first car I’d seen. I put out my thumb, testing the universe. If the car didn’t stop, well, I’d head into the campground….
But it did. The guy, messy, bearded and grinning, rolled down his window, releasing a cloud of pungent marijuana smoke.
“Where you headed, man?”
“Uh,” I said. “I guess Hot Springs.” I would miss about five miles of trail to the park’s southern borders, but also a 10-mile roadwalk into town.
“I’m going that way. Hop in.”
The man was chatty and lubed up, but seemed safe enough behind the wheel. He offered me a can of Coors, but I declined. A minute later, I reconsidered and he handed me the beer.
“Where do you wanna go?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Maybe a cheap motel somewhere in the middle of town?”
“Coo, coo,” he said, laughing. “Drink up, man!”
I popped the beer and took a long swig.
I grew up drinking Coors, but for the most part, I only drink craft beer now. Call me snooty, but that’s what I like, and price isn’t a big deal, because I’m never drinking more than one, two at most. But sitting in that weed-scented, crummy old car, rolling down the empty highway, exhausted but feeling good about my 125-mile walk through the Black Hills, that beer tasted pretty damned good. In fact, I hadn’t had a better one since the Coors a woman gave me on July 4, 2015, the third day of my first thru-hike, on the Colorado Trail.
I got a room at the luxurious America’s Best Value Inn, where my door wouldn’t lock, ate pizza, and fell asleep, the first stage of my journey at an end.
August 24: Campsite south of Sheridan Lake to Grace Coolidge Creek, Custer State Park
Elevation gain: 2,000 feet
I woke to cool, cloudy weather and, unusually for me, spent much of the day “dawdling” — or as normal people probably see it, doing interesting things instead of just racking up miles.
From the saddle where I camped, the CT climbed another 500 feet or so toward the summit of Samelius Peak, rising through ponderosa forests that reminded me very much of the foothills and mountains in Boulder, where I had grown up. At several points along the way I could see Rapid City off in the distance, backlit by a pink rising sun.
The trail skirts below the summit of the peak, but I soon reached the 5,833-foot high point of the Centennial Trail. Descending the other side, I ran headlong into a gathering of about 30 cow-calf pairs. Unaware of my approach, they were fooling around in the middle of the trail, calves heat-butting playfully, cows scratching themselves on tree trunks. I tried to approach slowly and calmly, but when they noticed me at last, it was all lollipop-tails and bolting down the jeep track.
Passing the Samelius Peak Trailhead, I followed the trail for less than a quarter of a mile to a foot tunnel beneath busy Highway 16. On the other side, the CT failed Signage 101 once again, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that had I been northbound, the route would have been clear, but yet another sudden lack of markers forced this SOBO to waste time.
The terrain was pleasantly varied for the next few miles as the trail meandered through forests and open areas past rock outcroppings and finally crossed tiny Battle Creek (into which some unhelpful person had tossed a CT sign) and the tracks for the Hill City-Keystone tourist train. Crossing Old Keystone Road, I stopped to warm up beneath a hazy sun and switch my soaked trail runners for sandals. My Altras were beginning to split out at the sides. I’d used this pair pretty hard, and doubted they’d make it to the end of this hike.
After a short, steep climb, I crossed Highway 244 and soon came to the Big Pine Trailhead. From here, the official GPT route leaves the Centennial Trail for a few miles, so hikers can climb Black Elk Peak, South Dakota’s high point. I had planned to follow the route until I realized that if I continued on the CT, I’d pass right by Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
I’d seen it as a young scout on that first backpacking trip in the early ‘70s and felt no great desire to see it again. But I felt a burning desire at the thought of chow; at minimum, there would be a gift shop where I could buy a Coke, Snickers and Doritos, and given the site’s immense popularity, surely there was a cafeteria or restaurant. At the cost of missing Harney Peak, a mile-long detour, and a few hundred feet of climbing, I chose to break up my day and indulge my growing hiker hunger. I marched off into the Black Elk Wilderness, beaming at visions of stuffing my face. Sorry, South Dakota’s high point; I was on a mission.
The trail through the wilderness rolled up and down over loose rock and dirt and mud churned by horse hooves. But it was beautiful, the weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, and I dawdled shamelessly to pluck raspberries like a hungry bear.
Alas, what I call “town miles” — the distance to town or a hostel or a restaurant you’re looking forward to — are maddeningly “longer” than regular miles, and by the time I reached the Rushmore spur, I was cranky. The hike up to the memorial was somewhat steep and felt longer than a half mile, and I grumbled the whole way.
But then, I was there. I crossed the road and flowed into a crowd of hundreds across a plaza and into the main viewing area, feeling like an alien trying to pass in a strange, sudden sea of humanity. And then — hallelujah! — I stumbled through the doors of the enormous cafeteria I just knew would be there.
In my “synthetic life” — what some insist on calling “the real world” — I eat virtually no meat. But often on trail, my body yearns for dense protein and salt, and against this craving my vegetarian ethics stood little chance. I ordered the pot roast special, which came with gravy, mashed potatoes, vegetables and a roll, and a huge, refillable cup of Coke with tons of ice. Ahhhhh….
Amid swarms of tourists from all over the world, speaking many tongues, I was fortunate enough to score a table in the shade on the outside patio, where I had a perfect view of the four stony presidential visages above. I slammed 20 ounces of freezing Coke straight off, then tore into the food. Now that I was not moving, my hiker stench was evident even to my own olfactory detectors, and I hoped the families nearby didn’t think I was some homeless bum.
I headed back down the hill feeling very happy about my decision. I was full, hydrated and even a tad cleaner, having dodged into the bathroom to scrub my face and neck. After dunking my head in Grizzly Bear Creek, I continued south on the CT.
The next four miles were pleasant enough, highlighted by a sighting of several turkeys, lowlighted by yet another sign snafu. I’ve done trail maintenance, and I know how difficult it is to keep a trail open for the public. And I’m aware that there is no Centennial Trail Conservancy or anything like that. But seriously, I hope someone — anyone — will take a good look at signage on the CT and at least set markers at junctions where there currently are none. Last bitch about the signage on the CT, promise.
As good as I’d felt after gorging myself in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, I became increasingly impatient as the afternoon wore on. As I approached Iron Creek Horse Camp I was surprised to pass a dozen or so people riding mules. I moved to the side of the trail and stood stock still to let them past, but one was especially skittish.
“I don’t know what his problem is,” said his lady rider. “Maybe your poles. Would you mind moving a bit further off?”
The camp itself was quite pleasant, but it was intended for horse (and mule) people and would have cost me $24 for the privilege of setting up my wee tent. So, I decided to fill my water bottles in the stock tank and head on.
“You know you can’t drink that water, don’t you?” said an old guy with a face fenced in by wild, gray hair.
“Yes, sir. I’m treating it,” I said.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“No, I mean, where you off to?”
“Oh, well, I’ll wind up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska when I’m through.”
He stood there blinking behind his dusty spectacles for a minute.
“Where’d you come from?
“Bear Butte, up by Sturgis.”
“And you’re walking the whole way?
His expression didn’t change, but he exuded incredulity.
“Never heard of anybody doing that,” he said.
“Well, that’s the plan.”
He shook his head, mystified, before ambling off to sit in his camp chair next to an RV.
Once I’d watered up, I headed out.
“Here you go,” said the old guy as I walked past, standing to hand me a dripping, cold can of Pepsi. “You look like you could use this.”
“Oh, man, thank you!” I said. I popped it open and in four long swigs drank the whole thing. He reached out for the empty.
“Now, you know you got to watch out for buffalo down through Custer State Park, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir. I’m looking forward to seeing a few.”
“They’re not like cattle, you know.”
“Yes, sir, I do,” I said, feeling a small swell of pride. “I worked as a cowboy for a bunch of years. Didn’t really work around bison except in a feedlot in California, but they were plenty ornery.”
“That’s right,” he said. “Well, you just be sure to give ‘em a wide berth if you see any. Every year seems like some tourist from back east decides to waltz right up and take a snapshot of a big bull who don’t take too kindly to it.”
“I will. Thanks again for the Pepsi.”
The trail crossed into Custer State Park almost immediately and soon crossed Highway 87. I’d only come 17 miles, but it was almost 4 p.m. Grace Coolidge Creek was more like a bog, thanks to frequent trampling by hooves. Cattle or bison, I couldn’t tell.
“Hello!” someone shouted as I squatted there trying to collect water. I looked up to see a neatly dressed couple approaching from the south. “Are you hiking the whole trail?”
“Yes,” I said, “then heading west and south into Nebraska. How about you?”
They were knocking off that summer’s “state parks challenge,” in which people hike to a set of designated trail markers to check off their list. One of this year’s designated markers was just down the trail.
These were the first people I’d seen in 100 miles that I would actually call hikers. Trail riders and people poking around near trailheads, sure, but nobody who seemed to have any inkling that people like me did things like hike 300 miles — or 500 or 3,000. These two did.
“Have you enjoyed it so far?”
“It’s been beautiful and really interesting,” I said. “I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a single backpacker.”
“Welcome to South Dakota,” the woman said. “Outdoor recreation in this part of the world is all about ORVs. We hikers are a minority!”
They said goodbye and headed on.
I climbed a small hillock above the bog, where I found a good spot to pitch my tent, between a scraggly pine and a small wedge of sharp rocks. I laid my sodden, salty clothes on the rocks to dry and set my solar charger in the slanting sunlight.
Dressed only in boxer briefs, I kept hearing a faint grunting sound off to the west. I put on my sandals and decided to see if I could find the source. I first climbed atop a large, granite mound crowning the high point, where I turned 360 degrees to scan the sparsely forested area. I then came upon a huge downed tree on which someone had carefully placed straight, dry limbs and trunks of small trees to form an enclosure that looked to me like a South African kraal.
While poking around the odd structure, I heard the grunt again; it sounded like a brushed-up bull. Bulls, despite their fearsome reputations, are generally very lazy unless stirred by the scent of estrus from a cow or challenged by another male. Many shirk their duties as breeders, preferring to chill out in some cushy bull-cave — ideally, surrounded by easy-to-reach grass, close to a watering hole, far enough from cows that they aren’t disturbed by olfactory compulsions and hidden from the prying eyes of meddlesome cowboys.
Doing my best to echo-locate, I descended the hillock and picked my way through a small grove of aspens before emerging in the grassy drainage, where I could make out a faint trail of trampled grass heading toward the boggy crossing. I stood there for a minute, straining to hear, but was soon chased back to my tent by a frenzy of mosquitoes, obviously thrilled by arrival of a half-naked human, manna from the mosquito gods.
Hours later, I was stirred out of sleep by the same animal noises, only this time much nearer. Grunting, growling, snorting, it was a voice emanating from a very deep cavern indeed. Lying in the dark with heart rate climbing, I thought this is what an ogre would sound like. And it was coming closer.
I knew it wasn’t a bear. Bears don’t sound like that, and sadly, there haven’t been bears in the Black Hills for decades (though some biologists believe that’s changing). And it didn’t sound quite like a bull … at least not a domestic bull.
Holy shit! I thought. Must be a bison.
I strapped on my headlamp and quietly unzipped the tent. Creeping out into the cool, early-morning air, I peered over the small rock outcropping. In the frosty light of a quarter moon, I squinted in the dark to see the bog, half expecting to see red-hot igneous eyes and clouds of sulfurous steam rising from a vast, slow-moving shadow, a figment out of some mythical tale told by cowboys around a campfire at the edges of a great wilderness, long ago … like in the old cowboy song, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”:
An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw
Plowing through the ragged skies and up a cloudy draw
Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cries.
Just then, a small voice in my head hissed, Wait! I felt safe on my little promontory, but I didn’t know for sure that a big bison bull, ambling down to the crick for a midnight drink, wouldn’t be enraged by the red beam of my headlamp. My poor wife considers me one of the more reckless people on the planet, but for once in my life, I bowed to caution. Without ever seeing the beast in my backyard, I slunk back to the tent, where I dozed uneasily for a couple of hours, wakened periodically by the creature’s long conversation with itself.
Finally — finally — the sounds of giant hooves sucking mud and the gradually decreasing volume of the beast’s chesty chuffing convinced me that he — I was never in doubt that it was a he, a him, a very large male with a massive, curly ogre’s head — had departed, without ever knowing I was there. Though maybe he lingered so long because in the deep, dim reaches of his primordial brain, he had half-sensed an alien in his midst….
August 23: Whispering Pines Campground to campsite south of Sheridan Lake
Elevation gain: 4,100
It was cloudy, humid and warm when I woke before dawn at Whispering Pines. I was back on the CT at 6:05.
The trail continued its long, gentle descent through Boardinghouse Gulch, rambling through open forest and grassy meadows toward Pactola Lake (where I’d been some 45 years earlier with the scouts, though all I recalled was the name).
I spooked several whitetails along the way, sending a mother and her spotted fawn bounding in opposite directions. I fretted until mama finally leaped up the hill to my left and raced back for the reunion. I was also charmed to see a small red squirrel scurrying up a tree with an enormous mushroom in its mouth — who knew? And once more, I stopped regularly to feed on raspberries alongside the trail.
I caught my first sight of the reservoir after about four miles, glimpsing a finger of it below me through the trees. I soon crossed a paved road leading down to a boat ramp, and on the other side, in classic CT fashion, all sign of the trail promptly went AWOL. After glancing at a map, I bushwhacked in the general direction I thought I should be going until picking up a faint track.
The trail headed uphill to cross Highway 385. On the other side, the trail offered varied views of Pactola Dam before crossing Rapid Creek. The CT skirts along south of the creek before crossing a small foot bridge. Then, for the next half a mile or so, I found myself pushing through dew-soaked willows and grasses that were, as often as not, over my head. I was reminded of descriptions of wet, close marches through southeast Asian elephant grass. The going was slow and sloppy, and by the time I emerged, I was as soaked as if I’d walked through a thunderstorm.
After passing cabins at the Tamarack Trailhead, I began climbing up through Tamarack Canyon. Topping out after about a mile and a half, the trail descends Brush Creek Canyon, passing through several different ecosystems, from dense pine forest to open pastures and the lush bellies of shallow draws.
Though the route seemed fairly obvious to me, the tread was in places all but invisible. And once again, an erratic system of markers led to the need for tiresome second-guessing.
Cranky lecture interlude (feel free to skip):
Here’s the problem: You’re going along, seeing very regular markers, feeling confident. Then suddenly, you realize you haven’t seen a marker in a while, so you stop, maybe look at a map or backtrack to the last marker. In other words, if signs or markers are sporadic or irregularly spaced, it can lead to a lot of unnecessary backtracking.
Some will scoff at such a “problem,” arguing that any hiker should be skilled with map and compass and not even require trail markers. I agree that every hiker should have at some familiarity with orienteering, and I have quite a bit. But the maps and guides available for the CT are not at all granular, which renders orienteering skills less effective (i.e. the trail might take several turns that are not visible on a map, due to scale). Interpreting topological features can be helpful, but again, at such a small scale, not always useful.
Here’s the point: If a trail is going to be marked, then itshould be marked … at regular, fairly predictable intervals. If the trail were totally unmarked, then of course a different set of tools would be necessary. But erratic marking is the worst of all worlds.
End of lecture.
I finally crossed Brush Creek and stepped out into dirt Brush Creek Road. The CT slithered back and forth across the road, but I decided to just walk right up the middle to the trailhead, a small dirt parking area. It had been an interesting, if trying, morning, but I had my “10 by 10” — at least 10 miles by 10 a.m. — so I was feeling good.
After a gentle climb I reached a thinly forested ridgetop with panoramic views of the open, rolling pastures surrounding the Bald Hills. Beautiful even beneath low-hanging, iron-gray clouds, I imagine it’s a truly exhilarating vista in full sunlight.
After dropping 50 yards from the ridge to the next CT stanchion, I couldn’t see another. I decided to follow a faint track heading west toward a small swale, but it soon disappeared. Spinning again, I still could make out no markers. I started following an old jeep track south-southeast toward a metal gate, but soon returned to the last obvious marker. Only then did I detect another hint of tread heading northeast into a draw. Following it, I soon spied the next marker, which had been obscured from above.
Beneath the clouds, the air was warm and humid, and I was drenched with sweat as I finally passed the Twin Sisters and followed the trail down into the next long, grassy draw, bordered by pine forest. The ground was frequently muddy and lumpy, trampled by cattle, and in several places ORVs — supposedly prohibited here — had created deep, boggy ruts. Still, the lush landscape reminded me of The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Down in the bottom of each draw, I couldn’t avoid sklunching down into calf-deep mud, revealing an unexpected downside my Xero sandals. Even after tightening the straps, the slick mud made my feet so slippery that they pushed far out over the sole. I would wash them off in a cattle trough or relatively clear pool, only to have to slog through through another bog … and another … and another. Thanks, outlaw ORVs and legal cattle!
As I walked up the last such draw, I saw a scrawny older guy and his expansive wife, putt-putting on their illegal ORV on the other side of the muddy creek. I noticed them long before they saw me, and when they did, they did a quick about face and fled my judging eyes. These people have literally hundreds of miles of designated trails throughout the Black Hills to ride; why do they insist on violating the law, shredding the land as they go? I don’t get it.
I finally emerged from the final boggy draw, relieved to have solid, dry, flinty ground beneath my feet. Something about this day — too many wrong turns; bogs; thoughtless, selfish people; — had left me feeling cranky, and the descent toward Sheridan Lake felt long and boring. When I finally reached Sheridan Lake Road (with its yellow gate and screamingly apparent sign prohibiting motor vehicles), I stopped to look at Steve’s databook. The suggestion was to go west on the paved road about a mile to the North Cove camping area. But it was only 1 p.m., so I decided to go on.
Not far across the road I wandered briefly in another confusing spot before marching up a short, steep hill and soon passing the Dakota Point trailhead. Descending a rocky road, I crossed footbridge and descended a short flight of stone steps to cross Sheridan Lake dam. Skirting around the southern shore of the lake, I resisted the urge to leap from several low rock outcroppings into the water, and after about a mile spilled out into the paved parking area at the Flume/Calumet Trailhead. No sign of where the CT went from here. Surprise.
Wanting to rinse the crust of sweat from my clothes and body, I walked north toward a small marina on a paved, unmarked road. I dumped my pack and waded in to the deliciously cool, clear water, scattering small fish before me. I dunked several times, then stripped down to my shorts and lay the rest to dry on the asphalt.
After looking over my sources again, I decided that part of the signage problem might be the fact that Whetham and Huhtiniemi’s guidebook was written for a northbound hike. In theory, a SOBO just had to read it from back to front, bottom to top. But in reality, just turning around can change things considerably. I suspected that there was a clear sign on the northbound CT pointing to the Flume/Calumet Trailhead, but looking southbound, nada.
I wandered into the Sheridan Lake south shore campground, but balked at paying a whopping $26 for the privilege of setting up my tent. I tanked up on water, then meandered uphill to see if I could find a trail sign, but instead came upon Bluewing Road. I headed down the road toward the trailhead, and just as the road turned east, I spied a shy little CT sign on the hillside to my right. My suspicion had been correct: Had I been a NOBO, the route would have been obvious, but from the trailhead a hundred yards away, it was invisible.
The clouds had finally burned away as I began the sustained uphill march toward Samelius Peak, a total of some 1,500 feet over three and a half miles. The trail skirted around two small peaks, then after a brief descent I found a nice, level camping spot atop a ridge, a stone’s throw from an abandoned mining “glory hole.” I pitched my tent, hung my clothes to dry, and plopped down for a snack in a pleasant breeze.
My usual practice is to put my phone into airplane mode while walking, to save battery and fend off distractions. This day, I forgot to check for a signal until around 6 p.m., when I discovered several text messages from Steve and Luke “Strider” Jordan, who were in the area after route-scouting for the GPT north of Bear Butte and had been trying to reach me to meet up. We decided to meet in about a half an hour where the trail crossed Calumet Road. I was fairly beat, but hankering for human contact, I ran 1.3 miles back down the mountain, hoping all the while that I might score a bit of trail magic.
It was great to see them. I’m sure I looked like a lunatic, wearing short-shorts and a rain jacket with a headlamp strapped onto my greasy, unkempt head. We jawed and laughed as I slugged down the Gatorade Luke handed me and munched on trail mix from Steve.
I’m more than happy to walk along for eight or 12 hours by myself and I’ve never once felt lonely on trail. But I become an enthusiastic chatterbox whenever I get to a town, campground or shelter; recharging my social batteries, I guess. On this hike, there had been no other backpackers, no shelters, no hostels, and only brief interaction with people at campgrounds or the two tiny towns I’d come through. So it was nice to see familiar faces and talk trail.
By the time we wrapped up, it was almost dark. I didn’t mind the 25-minute haul back up to the campsite as much as I thought I would. My headlamp revealed several sets of shining greenish eyes off in the forest, presumably deer. When I finally lay down to read, it was 9:30.
An hour and a half later, I was awakened by a shattering crash of thunder to find the alight with near-constant lightning. Scrambling out of the tent, I yanked my shorts and shirt off the branches where I’d hung them. Within a minute, it began to rain, and shortly after that hail began to fall.
Got bombed hard with hail and rain, large marble-sized, lightning and wind for at least 30 or 45 minutes, I wrote in my journal. Only minor leaks but much condensation inside in the morning.
Images of glowing green eyes blinking from the blackness of the abandoned glory hole awoke me sometime later. The storm had passed.
“Heed no nightly noises! for nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top,” the enigmatic Tom Bombadil tells the hobbits when they take shelter in his home in “The Lord of the Rings.”
I hadn’t been afraid in the Dreamtime and now, lying in the dark, instead of fear or nervousness, I felt a tangible surge of exhilaration at my solitude and joy at feeling so very comfortable in my little tent so deep in the woods, on a mountainside, utterly alone.
August 22: Dalton Lake to Whispering Pines Campground
Elevation gain: 3,000 feet
Eager to get on with my anticipated day of dodging ORVs, I was walking by 6 a.m. The air was chilly, so I started off wearing my Buff and thin glove liners. My feet got immediately soaked walking through dewy grass.
The trail headed uphill and soon joined a heavily damaged jeep road. But I was soon striding along happily, enjoying varied terrain that included slots between 12-foot high rocky walls and even a handful of steep, though brief, sections.
I realize different people enjoy different activities, and I can certainly see that it might be fun to ride an ORV through the forest. That said, it was sad to see how users destroyed the very trails they enjoyed. There were ruts, gaping mud holes and places where riders had continually widened the track, tearing up hillsides.
But much to my surprise, I got to the tiny hamlet of Nemo at around 8 a.m. without having seen a single ORV. The highlight of the morning, so far, was the gang of turkeys ambling through open forest.
As it turned out, the town’s two stores were closed until 10. The Branding Iron restaurant, associated with Nemo Guest Ranch, was open, so I got a cup of coffee and sat on the porch scoping out where I was headed. I could go back up the road and rejoin the CT, but since I was no purist — a hiker who makes a point of walking every step of a trail — I decided to head west out of town on Boxelder Road. The information in my various sources was vague, but I figured the South Boxelder trailhead would not be shy.
After three-quarters of a mile or so, I turned into a small dirt parking area to find yellow police tape and a sign reading, “TRAIL CLOSED.” Off to the right, a paper sign reading “CENTENNIAL TRAIL” had an arrow pointing further down the road. I continued along, seeing no CT signs. When I came to a bridge over Boxelder Creek, I tugged out a map. Clearly, I’d come too far, so I headed back toward town.
I tried following a spaghetti tangle of muddy trails deeply pocked by horse hooves, but none appeared to be the CT. I made my way back to the paper sign, the last clear indicator that the CT even existed, and stood there pondering the “TRAIL CLOSED” barrier. It was the only trail on this side of the road I hadn’t tried, so I stepped over the police tape and after just a few yards through the trees came to a well-built footbridge over the creek … and a CT marker.
Clearly, there had been some kind of reroute in recent years, and the paper sign and “TRAIL CLOSED” notice, along with a lack of CT signage, had confused me. It soon became apparent that the trail had been closed to ORVs, but not foot traffic, and I saw why. As the CT climbed, I walked past deep gouges in the jeep track that would have trapped even big trucks. In places, people had dumped garbage and junk into them, everything from trash bags to busted-up furniture. Lovely.
The last section before Pilot Knob trailhead was a pleasant meander alongside a long, grassy valley to my right. The weather was perfect, the sky was blue, and amazingly, I reached the end of the ORV section without having seen a single vehicle. At Pilot Knob, I made a snap decision to walk a mile west on dirt Merritt Estes Road.
I was hungry and, in a theme that would continue for much of my hike, hankering for Coke. The Sugar Shack restaurant perfectly satisfied my cravings, as I ate a Beyond burger, fries slathered in ketchup (and mustard, a trick I’d learned from a friend years ago on a ferry over the Straits of Juan de Fuca) and huge, bottomless glass of ice and Coca-Cola.
I hadn’t seen a single hiker of any kind so far, and the appearance of an apparent stinking bum did not sit well with all of my fellow patrons. Thankfully, I found took a seat in the far corner of the outdoor patio, well removed from the horrified.
Instead of backtracking to Pilot Knob, I decided instead to roadwalk along Highway 385 for a little over a mile to pick up the trail. The next three-and-a-half miles carried me gently downhill, far enough from the highway that I couldn’t hear the hiss of traffic. I stopped regularly to pluck and pop ripe wild raspberries.
Expecting to come to the Deer Creek Trailhead, I was puzzled when I reached Silver City Road. I had obviously overshot, but had seen no signs and no trailhead. I backtracked a third of a mile, where I followed a faint trail down into a shallow draw, coming to the secret trailhead after a quarter of a mile. It was a perfect example of the frustrations I had with the CT: Signs nailed to trees at regular intervals where the route was obvious, but none when you really needed one.
Ready for a scrub, I followed the road about a quarter mile down to Whispering Pines campground, a place that catered to the ORV and RV crowd. I pitched my tent beneath a small wooden pavilion, showered, splashed around in the swimming pool, then bought a margarita-style drink made with malt liquor. I pored over map and guides while eating dinner, pleased that my 20-mile-day had put me more than five miles ahead of schedule.
August 21: Campsite above Bulldog Gulch to Dalton Lake
Elevation gain: 3,000 feet
Counting the nap, I must have slept well over 12 hours by the time I woke around 5:30 a.m. But in my efforts to revive, I had drunk more water than I should have, and now faced an 18-mile walk to Dalton Lake on less than two liters.
It was 6:15 when I reached Bulldog Gulch, where, to my great surprise, there was a small pool of clear water just to the right of the trail. I laughed out loud, cameled up, and took on three liters.
As it turned out, there was no need to carry that much water. As soon as I started up the other side of the gulch, I heard a lovely trickling off to my left. Then my right. Then my left. Bulldog Gulch ran freely with cold, clear water, which bubbled intermittently to the surface for the next mile or more.
Guess the shuttle guy was right, I wrote later in my journal. I don’t think I’m going to have water problems after all.
The climb out of the gulch included some 1,000 feet of elevation over three miles, a gentle-enough grade, then the CT trundled down some 500 feet through ponderosa pine-oak-birch forest. Although Whetham and Huhtiniemi’s Centennial Trail Facebook page indicated that Elk Creek, “Can be raging, high water or dry,” I found it running beautifully with clean, clear water. After dutifully removing shoes and socks for the first three crossings, I finally gave up and started stomping through knee- to thigh-high water. The creek bottom was pleasantly cool and I was pleased to see a leopard frog and a very fast snake of unknown species.
I switched to sandals before starting the next climb, which switchbacked gently and offered expansive views of the high, rocky cliffs looming over the creek; seen from below, they hadn’t looked so imposing.
The 12 miles from Elk Creek to Dalton Lake included another 1,500 feet of fairly easy climbing. The landscape was pleasantly varied, including glowing birch forest, a cluster of rock outcroppings rising as high as 50 feet and a brief view of Black Elk (formerly Harney) Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.
The 800-foot descent to the lake followed a series of switchbacks, the final one of which offered enticing views of the water before continuing a good half mile west. By the time I got to the small, blue lake, I was hot and eager to swim. There were perhaps a dozen people scattered around the shore, all fishing. I dropped my pack on a dock and hung my shirt to dry.
“Do you mind if I take a quick dip right here?” I asked the cluster of people on the dock. “I don’t want to scare away the fish.”
“Ain’t no fish to scare away today,” one older man said. “Go for it.”
“You’re going to swim?” another woman said, her expression one of genuine horror.
I slashed into the inviting blue and came up spluttering; the water was considerably colder than I’d expected. I splashed quickly back to shore and reclined on the dock to dry out.
I’d come close to 20 miles and it was only 2:30 p.m. The weather looked good, but 15 of the next 16 miles of the CT were open to off-road vehicles (ATVs, dirt bikes, and four-passenger “side by sides,” aka UTVs). Staying at the U.S. Forest Service campground at the lake cost $18, which seemed like a lot, but I decided to stay.
“I let hikers stay in the picnic shelter over there for $9,” the camp host said when I approached to pay. “There are some pieces of carpet to sleep on.”
The shelter was open-sided, but if a storm did blow in, I could just shift around to the leeward side. It was perfect. By not continuing on, I would lose the four “bonus miles” I’d banked, but the price was right.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
I cooked one of the Mountain House meals I’d brought and immediately got a stomachache. Fortunately, the camp host was willing to sell me a bottle of Coke, which helped. I read Robert A. Heinlein’s “Tunnel in the Sky” until the sound of chuckling creek water sang me to sleep.