Backpacking the South Dakota Centennial Trail | Day 2 | Custer State Park to Iron Creek Campground | Thursday, April 29, 2021
We awoke around 5:30 AM after a quiet and uneventful night of rest. I somehow had enough energy and motivation to get up right away and go brave the cold morning air to take pictures of the sunrise. Curtis broke camp, we ate clementines and split a Cliff bar, then continued our journey North.
The trail started off easy by going down to Parker Canyon, then gradually gaining elevation. After two and a half miles of walking, we came to the Wildlife Loop road. I remembered driving that with my family back in 2015 and seeing a huge herd of bison and wild burros along the way. We saw no wildlife or traffic this morning while crossing the road. Next we crossed up and over another pass before descending to French Creek, and reached the horse camp after 2 miles. Here we found a mostly empty campground, outhouses that were open, and clean drinking water – score! We took a break here before continuing on to the French Creek Natural Area.
In part because of our trip, Curtis has been reading ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’, a history of the Indian Wars from 1860 onwards. In the 1870’s, believing that the Black Hills would be a valuable natural resource owing to its tall pines, and because of the possibilities of gold and other precious metals, the US Government violated the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 and sent a joint military/geological expedition under the command of Lt. Col. Custer, into the then ‘uncharted’ Black Hills. There, along French Creek, they found gold, and that news spread from Ft. Laramie nationally across the telegraph lines. Within a year, prospectors and miners swarmed to the hills, invading the Lakota ancestral home. This gold rush ultimately led to the precipitation of war between the US Government and the Lakota, and ultimately resulted in the last plains tribes being forced into their modern reservations. Curtis recounted the history of this area as we walked through, and the knowledge that the entire trail we were hiking was on stolen land was on our minds throughout our hike.
We enjoyed the easy stretch of trail following the creek as the canyon walls rose up above us…until we came to a crossing with no bridge or rocks, leaving us with no choice but to walk through the water. The water was cold and about shin deep, and a little ways up the trail came another crossing. As uncomfortable as it was, I was almost thankful to now have wet squishy boots to take my mind off of my heavy pack and the blisters I knew were forming on my feet. However, we later realized that we should have given our boots a chance to dry, or at least changed socks after the second crossing.
Next, we began a steeper hike out of the French Creek area. It was here that we saw the one and only person we would come into contact with that day — a ranger for Custer State Park. She asked us how the crossings were and if we were through hiking. She then asked if we were interested in a job for this summer, which we regretfully had to decline. We let her pass us since we were taking the uphill stretch very slowly. We came upon a thin fallen tree across the trail, for which Curtis excitedly whipped out his pocket chain saw and took care of it while I sat and caught my breath. There would come a time later that day when we would look back on these moments of when we were so young and filled with energy — Curtis with taking care of this tree, myself when I got out of my sleeping bag immediately after waking to see the sunrise — and wonder how on earth we did that. Up until this point, we had faced little to no disappointment on this trail — but that would soon change.
It started with the trail sign as we were leaving French Creek. It said that Iron Creek Campground, where we were hoping to camp that night, was 13 miles away. We had already hiked 6 miles at that point, and based on our map we were only supposed to have 10 miles to go for a total of 16 miles for the day. We were concerned, but tried to ignore it. We trudged slowly up to the saddle with an elevation of 5,116 feet – the highest we’d been so far. We walked down the other side, then the trail began heading East. It wasn’t as steep or strenuous as the prior section, but something started to feel off.
It wasn’t until we reached a trail junction when we compared our map with Curtis’ AllTrails recording and realized that there had been a rerouting of the trail that the map hadn’t shown. The route we had unknowingly taken would wind up adding almost 3 miles to today’s hike. At this point it was noon and we had hoped we had passed the halfway point 2 miles ago, but as it turned out this was the halfway point for today. Discouraged, we decided to sit down right here and have lunch, which was trailmix, granola, and dehydrated fruit. We sat for about a half an hour, and I don’t know how but somehow (maybe because we didn’t have any other choice?) that gave us the energy to get up and start walking those next 10 miles.
We went up and over a few other ridges and saddles. We could see the Mount Coolidge fire tower in the distance, another peak that I had driven up with my family 6 years ago. After crossing US-16A, we began a long ascent of the highest point for today, topping out at around 5,740 feet. We were so tired at this point, but when we saw the group of high peaks to the West where we knew Black Elk Peak was, we stopped to get a picture here. We weren’t able to see the tower at the top so the actual peak might be behind those…but we were too tired to care. This became pretty typical for our hiking days: right around mile 14 each day our feet would be in such pain that every step would feel like such a chore, and my motivation to take pictures was completely gone.
Finally, around 6 PM we exited the North end of Custer State Park. Our campsite for the night was just a tenth of the mile West down the road, at Iron Creek Campground. It was still closed for the season, but we had made a goal, and made it this far, so why not camp by running water, pit toilets, and flat earth. We sat down in the grass and took off our hiking boots, doubtful that we’d ever want to put them back on. Then we realized the value in drying out your feet. The water that morning, stuck in our socks and shoes, had made our feet soft, shriveled, and susceptible to blisters. Take it from us first hand, the stereotype in military movies (especially Vietnam flicks) of ‘Change your socks’ is for a good reason. Change your socks.
Curtis made an Asian Rice box meal on the stove and we listened to the weather on our radio. The next two days were still predicted to be warm and sunny, but after that it sounded like things were going to take a turn for the cold. Each day after Saturday sounded colder and had too many words I didn’t like, such as “thunderstorms” and “snow showers.”
In hindsight, we shouldn’t have pushed ourselves so hard so early in this trip. Ideally, we would have hiked further on the first day, but once we realized that the trail had added 3 miles to our track and we started to feel the miles in our feet, we should have called it a day, set up camp, and made do with what water we had. Curtis had even packed enough food to last us 8-9 days if needed. I hated that I was already thinking of giving up just because of tired feet and sore muscles. In my mind, I decided I needed to hike at least 2 more days — take advantage of the nicer weather, then reevaluate when that changed. Thankfully our shuttle driver, Jon, had told us to feel free to call him any time we needed and he could give us a ride from any trailhead back to our car. I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, but it was nice to have an “easy” out.
At least for tonight, we had another quiet and temperate night in an empty campground with an outhouse. That was all I could ask for. And the first moments after lying down flat in my sleeping bag were magical — like I could almost feel my body healing itself. It was a hard day, but we did it, and now we could rest. And though we didn’t know it at the time, we had just hiked our longest day of the trip at 18.5 miles.
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.