Backpacking the South Dakota Centennial Trail | Day 6 | Estes Creek to Elk Creek Valley | Monday, May 3, 2021
It rained off and on through the night again, and though we don’t know the exact temperature we know it was the coldest night yet on the Centennial trail. We managed to stay warm in our sleeping bags though, and allowed ourselves to sleep in an hour later than usual. We finally emerged from our tent ready to face the world around 7 AM.
Today’s hike started with an easier section, finishing up the UTV road which gradually went downhill and to the South Boxelder trailhead. From here, we had the option to continue following the Centennial Trail through the woods on even more UTV trails to eventually cross CoRd-404, or we could walk the roads into Nemo and then meet up with the trail North of town. We chose to walk into Nemo, which is the only town that’s close enough to consider being “on the trail.” We knew it was a small town, but were hopeful that there would be a place where we could get a warm breakfast.
We walked the quiet road into town, past small ranches offering horseback riding, admiring the cliffs in the background. When we arrived in the town, we found a restaurant with an “Open” sign on, but sadly the doors were locked and there didn’t appear to be anyone around. We were probably expecting too much for a Monday morning in the off-season. While walking through town, we saw signs advertising lodging, food, and outdoor activities, so I guess this could actually be a hopping place in the summer. Today, we only saw 2 or 3 cars drive passed us on the highway going through Nemo.
After walking up CoRd-404, we met up with the Centennial Trail again and followed FS-26 for a short while before the trail broke off and followed another UTV road uphill. There might have been another rerouting of the Centennial Trail in this area, because it wasn’t easy to follow and we ended up on the UTV road longer than our map showed we would. But it did lead to a nice overlook to the North at a utility line clear cut. From here we could see out past the edge of the Eastern Black Hills and the plains to the North of Rapid City. But after almost 15 miles of UTV trails and roads, we were very thankful when the Centennial Trail finally broke off and we were back on a normal hiking trail.
The trail went down over 800′ until we came to Dalton Lake. This would be the only water source we’d have today, and the last reliable water source for at least another 12 miles. It was 1PM at this point and we had walked 10 miles so far. We sat down on one of the docks to eat a late lunch while filtering water. Similarly to Sheridan and Pactola Lakes, Dalton Lake was a highlight for us both because of its beauty and because we were able to sit down, relax, and enjoy it.
At this point, we were on track for finishing the trail on Wednesday, 2 days from now like we had hoped. According to Curtis’ plans, we could make Wednesday a 14 mile day if only we could cover around 20 miles by tomorrow evening. Since it was still early afternoon, we knew if we kept up our pace of 2 miles an hour, we could hopefully make it another 5-6 miles today, making tomorrow also around 14 miles — which sounded great to me, considering the 14 mile mark was consistently the time where my feet would start hurting to the point where that was all I could think about. We still had a lot of ground to cover, but now that we were seeing the days laid out like this, it really started to feel like we were going to make it!
Once we were finished filling our water containers, we packed up and set off on the trail. Right away we began heading uphill, up 700 feet in the next 3 miles. We enjoyed this stretch, with the trail being in good condition, switchbacking gradually, and we had some nice views back South and the ridges we had already crossed. We passed by one other person on this section of trail – the last person we would see until tomorrow evening and the last person we would see on the trail until Bear Butte! He asked us where we were going, and when we replied ‘Bear Butte’ he had the audacity to say – ‘I think you have a couple more days before you get there’. Thanks guy, we didn’t know.
After following a ridge for several miles, we entered the Elk Creek Valley and finally started heading downhill. It briefly started snowing on us while we walked the ridge, which honestly I just found comical and laughed it off. I was just thankful for cooler temperatures when we were walking uphill. The trail was now making large switchbacks and descending quickly into the valley, and we knew we needed to find a spot in this section to avoid camping along the creek. This seemed to be a difficult task as the trail was often narrow and there wasn’t much flat or suitable ground around us on which to camp, but finally we found a spot that would work. We had managed to hike an extra 6 miles after Dalton Lake for a total of 16.4 miles today, which would hopefully mean that both Tuesday and Wednesday would be shorter and easier days. The end was in sight!
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.