Backpacking the South Dakota Centennial Trail | Day 1 | Wind Cave National Park to Custer State Park | Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Our first night of camping in South Dakota was the quietest night of camping we’ve had in a long time. There was no wind, no traffic, no birds, no sounds from nearby campers. Just some coyotes at dawn and dusk.
We awoke on day 1 to 30 degrees and frost on our tent. This would have made us skeptical about our decision to attempt this hike so early in the season, but we decided to believe the forecast we had heard the night before that things would start warming up, at least for a few days. All the arrangements had been made, there was no turning back now — and if things did take a turn, we could just walk faster and add more miles to each day, it shouldn’t take that long to walk like 120 miles, right?! Without having done a real through hike like this before, it was hard to comprehend the idea of spending over a week hiking the same trail. And compared to what we had gone through the previous week, walking all day long didn’t seem like that big a challenge right now. We packed up the tent and sorted through which items were going with us and what was staying in our car for the week.
Our morning started out with almost 4 hours of driving. We had camped at Wind Cave National Park, the Southern end to the Centennial Trail, but we needed to go park our car at Bear Butte State Park where we would end up in just over a week. We could’ve camped at Bear Butte, but since we had already driven about 10 hours the day before we went for the closer spot that we knew would be open. We left at 6 AM and made it to Bear Butte around 7:45, then went through our car and bags one more time to make sure everything was ready. Our driver, Jon, arrived right after us — we used the shuttle services of Roamn’ Around, a local outfitter in Rapid City and one of the few commercial shuttles available, to drive us back to the trailhead at Wind Cave. They charge a flat rate of $160 for this distance and can carry up to 4 passengers. The shuttle service has a deal worked out with the state park where we only had to pay an $8 entry fee and were allowed to leave our car there for the entire week. The shuttle also offers a place to store things in their shop in Rapid City, but Jon said he hadn’t seen any problems with vehicles left here in the past. We enjoyed our ride back to Wind Cave, with Jon sharing his experience and bits of information about the Centennial Trail. He told us that we were the first people that he’s shuttled this season — there are a few other shuttle services in the area that aren’t as popular, so he said it’s safe to assume we were the first through hikers of the season.
Once back in Wind Cave National Park, we stopped at the visitor center and filled out a permit — it was only necessary to have for camping in the park, and though we didn’t plan on doing so we wanted to have it just in case. We also needed an excuse to get our national park cancellation stamps. Then we drove to the official trailhead in the park, just a few miles North of the visitor center. We strapped on our giant backpacks, and Jon took a few “official start of trail” pictures for us. We said our goodbyes, and with that we were off! Our official start time was around 10 AM on Wednesday, April 28. The weather was absolutely perfect at this point, sunny with some clouds, a slight breeze and not too warm for walking on a partially exposed trail.
A piece of advice I had heard for avoiding injuries during long distance backpacking is to take the first few minutes “painfully slow”, and take bag breaks every 10 minutes. Even though we felt fine, we tried this advice out. When we came to Beaver Creek, we took off our bags and sat on the wooden bridge for a few minutes. When we made it up our first uphill stretch, we took off our bags and took another break. I can’t say if this was truly the reason, but we walked away without any leg or foot injuries (besides blisters) and bag breaks were something we had to look forward to periodically every day.
We saw another couple hiking within the first mile of the trail, and two rangers towards the North end of Wind Cave National Park, but that was it for the day. Though we had seen several bison right away along the road in the national park, it took several miles before we saw some from the trail. We knew they had to be out there somewhere, based on the amount of buffalo chips, tufts of their fur, and giant dug up mud wallows where they would lie. Finally I spotted some, grazing far in the distance — with plenty of space between us, just as we’d prefer. After that we saw 2 other groups of bison, one group actually grazing on the trail. We gave these an especially wide berth because we noted that there was a calf among the group.
The first couple miles of the trail followed Beaver Creek to the East, passing through some steeper canyon walls. At the point where the trail left the creek bottom, there was a cave opening where (at least according to the only people we passed) most of the water went subterranean.
Spot the prairie dog! This was the closest I could get to one.
The trail then started its journey North, climbing out of the creek bed and into the rolling hills. It wasn’t long before we came across a wide, open valley. From a distance, the grass looked especially patchy, with lots of upturned dirt. And then we heard them: prairie dogs. We’ve obviously seen prairie dogs in zoos, even alongside the road last time we were in South Dakota, but walking through a prairie dog town is honestly an experience to itself. Unless you have exceptional eyesight, the first you’ll know of the prairie dog is a wailing siren sound (think a guinea pig squealing) and all the dogs will sprint to the nearest hole; that’s when you’ll see them. Of course at this point, you’re still 50 yards away! The sentry at the mouth of the prairie dog hole will then bark perpetually until either: 1. You get too close for him, and he dives for cover, or 2. You pass another 50 yards past him. So you can imagine that in the case of a prairie dog city (as almost a mile of the trail passed through this region) almost continuously for a half hour we saw this show take place. But they’re cute, and as almost all animals do, remind us of Charlotte.
The black/brown bump over Curtis’ right shoulder is actually a bison. That’s about as close as we were going to get.
We made good time through Wind Cave National Park, and were able to pass the six miles to the Northern edge of the park rather quickly. The trail was pretty level after the initial uphill which made hiking easy. I enjoyed the big open skies the most through this section. After 6 miles, we left the national park and entered Custer State Park. From here, the trail began to slowly do more climbing.
For the first few miles we walked slowly together, but after a while Curtis’ pace picked up so there was usually a gap between us. This is normal for us when hiking, and it works out well. Curtis will stop every 20 minutes or so to let me catch up. I will say I’m envious that he gets so many more breaks than I do because of this!
We stopped for a snack break and to refill water at Flynn Creek, 10 miles in to the hike. Curtis filtered it while we ate our homemade trail mix. Our original goal had been to make it close to the French Creek Natural Area, but that would have been 15 miles for today and it became apparent in the late afternoon that it would be too much for today, especially with our late morning start. Instead, I found Curtis sitting down just before 6 PM, after about 11.7 miles hiked for the day. He said he was ready to stop and that he felt this spot was out of the way enough from creeks and roads. In the future (and the next day in particular) we would come to regret the decision to stop early, but I can’t be mad at my past self for thinking that 11 miles was good enough for day one. I had no idea what was coming, and I’m glad we were able to have a nice relaxing evening before the real pain and exhaustion would kick in.
In the past, we’ve relied upon a simple camp stove that burned small sticks as fuel. But having concern over the risk of forest fires, smelling like smoke all the time, and the overall efficiency of the stove, Curtis had found a new, cheap, and simple way to cook dinners: the Pop Can Stove (or Soda Can Stove for you non-Midwesterners). He had read about these light weight stoves on Ryan Carpenter’s (also known as Green Tortuga) backpacking blog. We were excited to find out that this method worked much better than anything else we’ve done in the past. Not only that, it heated up water so quickly! We made noodles and added sauce and veggies that we had dehydrated at home.
After dinner, I took pictures of the sunset, we both wrote in journals, listened to the weather report on our raido, and then curled up in our tent, ready for another quiet and warmer night of rest.
Curtis was able to record the entire trail using AllTrails, however after doing so well for the first 7 days, he accidentally ended the recording before the last day. So if you are interested in viewing the AllTrails recordings, click here for the first seven days, and click here for the last day. We tried combining the two recordings, but it ended up cutting out over 20 miles throughout the hike.