Backpacking the South Dakota Centennial Trail | Day 5 | Gold Standard Gulch to Estes Creek OHV Area | Sunday, May 2, 2021
We awoke on day 5 of our hike, relieved that last night’s predicted thunderstorm was only spotty showers, and decided to embrace the change in weather. It could end up raining or snowing on us at any point, and we might freeze at night, but at least it wouldn’t be as hot as it had been over the past couple of days. Right as Curtis got out of the tent, he was greeted by a guy who was jogging on the trail. We had camped near the crest of a hill, and once we hiked over that the trail went downhill, losing about 500 feet of elevation until we came to Tamarack Trailhead below Pactola Reservoir. From here, the trail started following Rapid Creek upstream, which was quite full. The trail here was flat and easy, the air was brisk, the bridges big and wide, and we thoroughly enjoyed this part.
We made it to the Rapid Creek Trailhead after 2 miles of hiking. We could have refilled water here, but Curtis was hopeful that there would be clean water taps that he wouldn’t have to filter at Pactola Lake. From here, we could see the dam for the lake just ahead (West) of us, and it looked so tall. The Centennial trail followed a service road up the dam to the right (North). Here we broke away from the trail and followed a worn path headed West to the lake and Veteran’s Point picnic area. We hurried across US-385 and to Veteran’s Point at Pactola Lake.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a water tap here like Curtis had hoped, so he ended up having to follow the path all the way down to the lake to retrieve water. There were some benches here, so I sat down and enjoyed the lake views and bird watching while waiting for Curtis to return, and then for the water to be filtered.
Once all our water containers were refilled, we retraced our steps back across US-385 to the Centennial trail and continued on the trail, which zigzagged uphill around a service road and utility poles. Eventually we came back downhill and then the trail had us cross 385 again. I’m not going to lie, I was wishing we could have just walked up 385 instead of hiking that stretch of trail. I could have lived without all that meandering around a less-than-scenic area. It seemed that the service road was newer, and cut right through some trail meandering, making it difficult to follow at times.
But thankfully the next section of trail made up for it. After crossing 385, the trail followed a contour around a ridge that offered beautiful views of Lake Pactola. The water was a deep turquoise color, and was surrounded by pine trees and rocky ledges. This was another one of our favorite sections of the entire trail.
Featuring my trail wound
After this, the trail went North, paralleling with 385, going uphill out of the Pactola watershed and then countouring along a ridge. I enjoyed the aspen trees along the way. Once the trail leveled out, we made quick time and were feeling pretty good. We crossed 385 one more time, crossed over a ridge, and then made it to our minimum stopping point for today, Pilot Knob Trailhead. It was only around 2 PM at this point.
The next section of trail is what our shuttle driver Jon had told us was his ‘least favorite section of trail.’ For the next 6 miles, the Centennial trail would join with a UTV road, which meant a wide, uneven, and rocky trail, and sharing the road with the UTVs. Our goal for today was to make it as far as we could along this road, and to save walking through the town of Nemo for tomorrow morning. We knew there wasn’t a lot in Nemo and that tourist season hadn’t ramped up yet, but we created a perfect scenario in our minds where Nemo would have a breakfast joint which we could enjoy first thing in the morning.
The trail/UTV road started by passing some cows, going uphill for a mile, and then downhill. I really didn’t want to write off this part as being my least favorite yet, and tried to look for the positives of this section. The wider trail gave me the option to pick a ‘lane’ that would be easier on my feet, which were starting to give up as they usually did around mile 14 each day. Uphill wasn’t too hard, but going downhill was difficult because the road was so rocky and I wanted to find the smoothest section of trail to step on for the sake of my feet. While I set a very slow and cautious pace, Curtis picked up his pace going downhill, which caused us to become easily separated.
As I was hiking, I rounded a corner and continued slowly walking down the trail when I heard a UTV behind me. I turned around and saw it was about to drive around the corner, so I walked to the side of the trail to make room for it to pass. It then came to a stop and I could see the passenger on her phone. I waited impatiently for them to start driving again so they could pass me and I could continue walking. Finally they started to make their way downhill, but when they reached me they came to a stop. “Did you see the mountain lion?” the passenger asked.
My eyes widened. “No,” I replied, in fact I hadn’t looked up from my feet in quite some time — I had been staring at the ground for so long looking for the optimal places to step. The passenger pulled out her phone and showed me a video she had just recorded when they stopped 20 feet behind me. Sure enough, there had been a mountain lion right next to the trail! “It ran away after we came near,” she told me.
Back on day 1 when we were being shuttled from Bear Butte to Wind Cave, our driver Jon had told us “There are mountain lions out there, but you won’t see any,” and I guess he was exactly right. There was definitely a mountain lion, but I didn’t see it!
I thanked them for letting me know, and then mentioned to look out for my husband up ahead. They continued driving and I started walking — at a much quicker pace now, thinking that the pain my feet were in was nothing compared to the pain a mountain lion attack would bring! At first I was shocked by what had just happened, but soon that gave way to fear and I became more emotional as I hiked down. Finally, I came around a bend and could see Curtis sitting and waiting in the distance.
As I was approaching him, I called out and asked, “Did those people stop to talk to you?”
“Yeah,” he answered, “Did you tell them to tell me off?”
“No,” I replied, “I just told them you were ahead of me so that they would look out for you.”
“Well they told me you said I needed to slow down and that I was too far ahead of you. I said ok and laughed it off, but I was thinking that this is just how we hike and I’m not going to slow down once I get into a groove.”
Assuming that they had shown him the video as well, I took offense to this as I was already emotional. I tried to keep from crying, but he quickly picked up that I wasn’t ok. He asked what was wrong, I replied “Sorry, I’m just emotional about what just happened.” He still seemed confused, but also apologized for his comment. He told me to sit down and take a break with him, to which I replied no, I wanted to get out of this area. We continued to stay here for a moment, until I finally asked, “Did they show you the video?”
“Of the mountain lion!”
So I guess the couple on the UTV decided not to tell him about that one crucial piece of information of why I might want him to wait for me, and instead just made me sound like I was upset with him for being so far ahead for no reason?! I filled him in on what he missed, and then it all made sense to him why I was so quick to take offense and become emotional! Oh well, I guess because of all that we can say that the only real tense moment between us on the trail was entirely not our fault, just misinformation from that couple!
We stayed together for the remainder of the hike that day. The trail was relatively flat, but that meant we had to deal with lots of mud puddles from the ruts in the road. We saw a day hiker out with his dog, and warned him about the mountain lion up the trail. It rained on us lightly, but we started to enjoy the scenery more — we noticed moss hanging from the trees, which had shifted from Ponderosa Pine to Spruce, among the dark grey cliffs and that paired with the clouds and light drizzle gave the area a very PNW-esque feel.
However, with the rain came a sharp wind, which ended up being the reason why we stopped a bit earlier than we normally would, before 6 PM. The wind just made me want to curl up and keep warm, so whenever a gust blew through it would make me involuntarily hunch over to get out of it. We found a nice flat spot to set up the tent, and Curtis quickly did so and I ducked for cover inside. We bundled up and prepared for a cold night. Despite setting up camp early, we still managed to hike a total of 15.9 miles that day.
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.