GPT Pilot Trail – Episode 9

The ninth in a series from Clay Bonnyman Evans on his thru hike of the GPT Pilot Trail in August of 2019. I will be doling out the episodes here, but if you absolutely can’t wait to read on, you can at his website:

Great Plains Trail Pilot Trail: Episode 9

Day Eight: Shortcuts … Aren’t

  • 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.

Hot Springs is a hiker-friendly town, with plenty of amenities. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

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.

evans plunge hot springs clay bonnyman
Eaten by a frog at the famous Evans Plunge warm-spring-fed pool in Hot Springs, S.D. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

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.

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, S.D. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

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.

View from the tent at Cottonwood Lake campground. Clay Bonnyman Evans.

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!

About greatplainstrail

Building the Great Plains Trail.
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