Backpacking the South Dakota Centennial Trail | Day 4 | Samelias Mountain Area to Gold Standard Gulch | Saturday, May 1, 2021
Day 4 of our backpacking adventure began with a short trek up to the highest point of the Centennial Trail. The trail doesn’t go over the actual peak, which is unnamed, but it comes pretty close topping out at around 5800′ above sea level. Just before the highest point, we came to an outcropping of rocks with a nice overlook facing South over the Black Elk Wilderness. We stopped here for some pictures and to relish the moment of knowing the next 5 miles would be downhill, losing 1300 feet, and that the trail wouldn’t make us climb this high again. Which isn’t to say it wouldn’t make us climb, we were just less concerned now having only 1/2 liter of water for the two of us until the next water source.
The trail down to Sheridan Lake switchbacked down the mountain, and was easy enough to follow — until it started crossing county roads near the lake. Somehow we missed a trail arrow, and ended up walking down this once-paved road that was now being reclaimed by nature. The pavement was broken up by roots and trees everywhere, and was arguably the rockiest and most uneven section of trail the entire hike. I don’t think we realized we weren’t on the actual trail until we came out the other side at another paved road, at which point we had no desire to re-traverse a half mile of rubble. A quick look at AllTrails showed us to be only a quarter mile West of the South Sheridan Campground and boat launch, so we just followed the access road into the campground.
When we arrived at the lake, we took off our bags and began filtering water. The process takes a while, but we were thankful for a time where we were forced to do nothing but rest, rehydrate, and recharge our devices with our new solar charger. Looking out at the still and peaceful lake made me excited to finally start using our new kayak this summer — the idea of having an outdoor activity where I could be sitting down and not carrying a heavy backpack suddenly sounded very appealing! Once all our water containers were refilled, we rejoined the actual trail and continued on our way, walking around the Southern shore of the lake to where the Centennial Trail joins the Flume Trail near the lake’s dam.
Being a beautiful Saturday morning at an easily accessible and scenic area, this part of the Centennial Trail became quite busy. We didn’t mind so much, in fact this part might even be my favorite part of the entire trail. It offered scenic views of the lake and hills on the opposite side, was in the shade with a nice breeze, and was overall a flat and easy trail. However I’m not sure I want to say it was my favorite part for sure, just because this part could have easily been a day hike, and not a short stretch of an 8 day trek…
When the trail came to the dam, it was time to break away from the actual Centennial Trail for a few miles. This year, there is some road construction happening on Sheridan Lake Road which includes blasting (allegedly) and so the point at which the Centennial Trail crosses the Road would be closed…at least until the end of May when the construction company would install a culvert specifically for hikers. So thoughtful. But for us intrepid wanderers, hiking at the beginning of the May, there was an 8.1 mile stretch of the Centennial Trail that we would have to detour around. Back in our planning stages, Curtis emailed both our shuttle driver and the forest service to figure out a way around this stretch. Eventually, the forest service offered a detour of comparable mileage to that being detoured, but it required a mile long road walk. Based on our trail maps, Curtis was able to come up with an alternative route that would only have us off the official trail for 5-6 miles with a minimal amount of road walking. The only question we had was whether we could get across the Sheridan Lake Road at that particular point — we were hopeful it would work out today since it was the weekend, and where we needed to cross was just a tenth of a mile up the road from a trailhead that was still open.
And so we continued on the Flume Trail, which was mostly enjoyable even though below the dam we had several stream crossings and were much more exposed to the late morning sun. For some of the stream crossings we had to walk through the water, while others had narrow bridges to cross. I’m not sure which was worse: I didn’t want to deal with wet feet again, but I also wasn’t comfortable crossing bridges less than a foot wide over rushing rapids. Curtis helped me by walking right in front so I could hold on to his bag for ‘security’… I’m not sure why that’s any better, but somehow it got me across.
We finally made it to the end of the Flume Trail, and then set off on our short trek cross country up to Forest Road 260 which would lead us back to the Centennial Trail. As expected, there were no workers today with it being a weekend, so crossing the construction area wasn’t an issue… Or so we thought. We crossed the road, and came to a cattle guard at the start of the forest road. We stopped here for a second to enjoy the feeling of knowing we wouldn’t have to backtrack and add additional miles to our hike just to get around this section, when we heard a vehicle in the distance. It was probably just a UTV, but our first thought was “Oh no, a construction vehicle, what if we get caught?!” I don’t think there was any concern of being ‘caught’ or getting in trouble since the forest road was still open, but in that split second our instinct was to hurry across the cattle guard.
I’ve never liked crossing over cattle guards, because in my mind I can just see myself tripping or falling through. And today, that mental image became a reality. The combination of rushing across, having heavier boots from crossing the stream, and a cable also lying across the cattle guard caused me to trip. As I was falling, I thought to use my hands to catch myself, but my heavy backpack slid forward and pushed my head into the ground. I ended up with cuts on my hands and knees, a sore wrist, and a goose egg and scrapes on my head. But… thankfully my camera was fine and I was still able to get up and keep walking? It could always be worse, right? Also I would like to note that this was my only fall/injury in 128 miles, which really isn’t that bad when you think about it.
I got up, dusted myself off, and we walked over to a shady spot to inspect the damage. We got to break out our new first aid kit (hey, at least I gave us a chance to put it to use so it wasn’t a waste, right?!) and decided that since it was almost noon that we’d also take a long lunch break here. We took off our boots to dry (not making the mistake we made on day 2 again), cleaned my open wounds, and ate some snacks. (We don’t have any pictures of me from immediately after my accident, so you’ll have to wait until the next post to see my face.)
After a nice long break, we packed up again and started walking up the forest road. The road gradually went uphill and after 2 miles we were reunited with the Centennial Trail. The only downside of this section was having to share the road with UTVs and crossing more cattle guards.
The next part of the trail was honestly another highlight for us and could even be our favorite part of the trail: We were walking through rolling hills of tall grass, interspersed with small groups of trees and so we enjoyed expansive views in all directions. It was beautiful, but came with one downside: we were now in the heat of the afternoon with no shade to speak of. Whenever we came to a shady spot, we’d stop to enjoy the slight break from the sun. This part would have been ideal either for sunrise or sunset; unfortunately we just couldn’t make that work with our schedule.
We eventually found trees once again, and soon came to the Brush Creek Trailhead along another forest road. After taking another much-needed break by the trail sign, we continued following the forest road for a while. It followed a stream before breaking off and we continued up Gold Standard Gulch. We walked another 2 miles, mostly uphill to near the top of the gulch until we came to a spot that we decided would be a good stopping point for tonight. Our main requirement for a campsite tonight was to find a place that would be safe in the event of a thunderstorm, since the National Weather Service had one predicted for that night. We chose a spot that wasn’t on a ridge or hill top, with decent tree cover but not especially tall or old trees, and where we wouldn’t have any risk of being flooded out.
We set up the tent, secured everything that we didn’t want to get wet, and then hung our bags up on nearby trees. We enjoyed a dinner of couscous (of which we made way too much) and then moved into our tent. No sooner had we settled in than it started raining — what perfect timing! However, the predicted thunderstorm never came, and it just rained off and on throughout the night. We had completed 15.8 miles that day and were pretty sure we were near or at the halfway point, both in miles and in days we had planned to be on the trail. Now we could only hope that the weather would cooperate for the next 4 days!
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.