Backpacking the South Dakota Centennial Trail | Day 3 | Iron Creek Campground to Samelias Mountain Area | Friday, April 30, 2021
We awoke on day 3 with enough energy to take on another day. Today’s hike would take us all the way through the Black Elk Wilderness and well into the Black Hills National Forest, and up to nearly the highest point of the entire trail. I tried to ignore that last part, and instead focused on the fact that today’s hike would not be as long as yesterday’s. We snapped some trailhead pictures as we entered the Black Elk Wilderness, then went on our way.
This morning’s hike started with a short uphill stretch which gave way to an easy downhill stroll. It was already a beautiful morning, and knowing that it would start to really warm up that afternoon, I savored the cool morning air. The first landmark we came to this morning was for the Grizzly Bear trail junction about a mile in. Back when we were visiting in 2017, we had actually camped in Grizzly Bear Gulch — I didn’t remember that name, but Curtis recalled wondering if there were actually grizzlies out here. Thankfully there aren’t, at least right now (supposedly there’s a black bear sighting about once a year in the Black Hills), so securing our backpacks and food at night isn’t a concern.
At 3 1/2 miles, we came to a fork in the trail where it wasn’t clear which was the right way. Curtis first chose the path to the right — it turned out being wrong, but worth walking up just a short distance to enjoy an overlook. While the Centennial Trail goes over many ridges and saddles, it rarely hits any peaks, so exposed points like this were a treat. We stopped for a while to take it in, when I noticed a face in one of the rocks. It took a moment before realizing that we were looking at Mount Rushmore. It looked so small in the distance, which was the exact opposite first impression than what I had the first time I laid eyes on it. It also looked impressively high up from this angle.
After a mile of walking downhill, we came to a fork in the trail where we had the decision to walk an extra half mile one way to Mount Rushmore. Back in the planning stages of the hike, it sounded easy and like a no-brainer — why wouldn’t we go, if only to get the national park cancellation stamps, clean drinking water, and use the restrooms with running water?! But after having walked 18.5 miles the day before, and still having 12 miles of hiking on the actual trail planned that day, I had no desire to walk the extra mile. I sort of offered to Curtis that I would be willing to wait here if he really wanted to visit the park, but he declined and we continued on our way North. Seeing it once from a distance today was good enough.
Next came a fairly steep 2 mile uphill trek. The sun was getting higher and the trees thinned out leaving us exposed. However, we were starting to see more of the impressive needle formations around us. Three other things we noticed during the Black Elk Wilderness were that 1. There were none of the Centennial Trail/Trail #89 signs that we had grown used to seeing through Custer State Park, only signs at trail junctions; 2. Throughout the first 30 miles of the Centennial trail, we only came across one (very thin) downed tree, which Curtis easily took care of. However, once we came to Black Elk Wilderness, there were quite a few. None were especially big, but it would always take a bit for me to hoist myself over them with my shorter legs and heavy backpack. And 3. We were not that far distant from winter. Frequently, when crossing streams, there would still be a considerable amount of snowpack in the shade.
We also noticed that both time and miles passed much slower than we thought reasonable. No matter how fast we thought we were going or how long we’d be walking, the average was always 2 miles an hour, and we would consistently take a break every mile.
As we approached the Northern boundary of the Wilderness, we took one of our frequent bag breaks near a stream. Curtis thought we were close to a trail junction and showed me on the map, and then we thought we heard someone coming. We were a bit excited, as it was the first person we would interact with since yesterday morning. But the person never showed, and their footsteps receded. We peeked around the corner and saw our trail junction, not ten feet away – at least our way marking wasn’t terrible today.
In total, we hiked 8.5 miles through the Black Elk Wilderness on the Centennial Trail, just over half of our total mileage for the day. While it was scenic and we enjoyed the views of the needles, this was a rough part of the trail with lots of ups and downs, and the trail was narrow with many downed trees as mentioned. All the streams were full with snow melt, and I think that lured us into a false sense of security for the next section of trail.
We left behind the Black Elk Wilderness and continued on into Black Hills National Forest. The trail went downhill a ways and we passed the junction with Willow Creek Trail. We crossed SD-244 and passed by the Big Pine Trailhead with a small parking lot. Here we saw one other day hiker enjoying this stretch of trail. We stopped and found our only letterbox of the hike not far from the trailhead.
After that, we continued walking the wide and much easier trail, compared to the narrow trail through the wilderness. However, it was not as easy as we hoped… We resumed our normal paces, with Curtis in front and myself behind, and it wasn’t long before I couldn’t see Curtis. While the trail had no markings in the Black Elk Wilderness, it now had both Centennial Trail/Trail #89 blazes on trees AND red ribbons wrapped around trunks. But soon I came to a fork in the path, and I didn’t notice the #89 sign because I mostly just look at my feet when I walk. In my defense, the way for the Centennial Trail also had a log partially blocking the path, which is sometimes hiker code for “don’t go that way,” and since I was looking at the ground and not at signs up on the trees, I turned right when I should’ve gone left. Both trails were similar in condition and width, so I didn’t have any idea I wasn’t on the right path. I was still following red ribbons, which are easier to see than the brown trail signs. I walked down this trail for about 10 minutes until suddenly, there was no trail, and no more ribbons. I looked around for a bit confused, then noticed I had full cell phone signal here. I tried calling Curtis to no avail (I would later learn the actual trail where he was didn’t have cell service) then decided to consult Google Maps. The amazing thing is that while the majority of the Centennial Trail isn’t on the map, the one mile stretch between the Big Pine Trailhead and the next county road was! I quickly noted my mistake and then simply followed the red ribbons back the way I came.
As I was nearing the trail junction, I saw a very worried looking Curtis walking back towards the Big Pine Trailhead and I called out to him. A wave of relief came over his face and he came over to me and we embraced. I apologized for not paying attention and he apologized for being so far ahead, and we continued on our way. Yes, it’s pretty embarrassing now to think I was briefly lost, but if you really think about it, one time out of 128 miles isn’t that bad. I also felt bad because the next mile was all downhill, which meant Curtis had to retrace his steps uphill when he came looking for me.
After crossing the county road, we came across a flowing stream. We decided to sit down on the bridge and take a break, and Curtis started to purify some water. He wasn’t so sure about this water though as it was flowing through agricultural land, and only ended up purifying just over a liter. We were sure we’d be fine, and would come to more water later. Besides, we hadn’t been drinking as much as we thought during the days. Unfortunately we forgot to account for the fact that it was much warmer now than it had been earlier that day, and that our hike today would be ending with a 3 mile uphill climb.
The next stretch of trail was pretty easy, taking us past some personal residences and through a valley. We passed several trail junctions with what seemed to be newer logging roads and soon had US-16 in view. However, the different trail junctions, logging roads, and lack of signs had us confused of how we were supposed to get across the highway. We found a culvert that was 5′ high which seemed safer than sprinting across four lanes of late Friday afternoon traffic, and ended up going with that. While it was uncomfortable to have to hunch over and carry our bags through it, it also felt refreshing to get out of the sun for a couple minutes.
Once on the other side, we arrived at the Samelias Trailhead. I sat down while Curtis wandered into the parking lot to check out the map. He realized our mistake and saw that there was actually a 7′ tunnel under the highway a little ways West that we could’ve crossed under… oh well. After a little more rest, we were ready to take on the last few miles of today’s hike…all uphill.
Each day, Curtis had marked on the map the minimum amount of miles we needed to walk each day, with the hope that we could make it a little further. Today’s minimum stopping point was at this trailhead, knowing that we couldn’t camp here and would still have to continue up the trail a ways. While we were tired and not necessarily wanting to go uphill, hearing all the traffic from US-16 helped to motivate us to keep hiking. We certainly didn’t want to listen to traffic all night while camping.
We followed the trail up to a saddle and around Samelias peak, down a little ways, and then followed a contour around another unnamed peak. After one last uphill stretch, we finally came upon a good enough spot to camp, just 150 feet below the highest point on the trail. We’d save that last bit for tomorrow, knowing that after we reached that point it would be downhill for over four miles.
As we set up our tent, Curtis expressed his concern that we didn’t have much water left — only a liter — and the next water source was 5 miles away. Maybe if we were really concerned we would have eaten trail mix and dehydrated fruit for dinner and saved the water for drinking, but instead we made mac and cheese bringing us to about a half liter of water. Our water planning definitely needed some improvement for future trips.
Curtis had been skeptical when planning meals that processed cheese would sound good after hiking all day, but oh boy did it hit the spot! I was disappointed when Curtis told me that it was the only mac and cheese we had, so I told him that’s the only meal I want on our next through hike.
That evening, Curtis started to not feel well, and looking back he’s pretty sure he had some mild form of heat stroke. I had a little sunburn on my arms, but that was my only discomfort — besides my feet, legs, and back, of course. We settled in for the night, mentally trying to grasp the fact that tomorrow could very well be our last “nice” day on the trail, as the weather forecast hadn’t gotten any better. Still, we were satisfied with today’s mileage of 16 miles completed — meaning if the next day went as planned, we could be at the halfway point by this time tomorrow!
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.