Backpacking the South Dakota Centennial Trail | Day 7 | Elk Creek Valley to Alkali Campground | Tuesday, May 4, 2021
I had hoped that because we only had 2 days left in our hike that today things would start to feel easier, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case today. I didn’t sleep well through the night, and my first thought when waking up was that it had been 2 weeks since my Poppa had passed. The thought of what was happening back at home was on the front of my mind, as well as all that had happened before we left for this hike, and it set an emotional tone for me throughout the day. All the minor inconveniences felt like bigger things in my mind and I felt tested on all sides. Curtis was especially patient with me, helping me as much as he could. This included taking over my camera for today because I just didn’t have the energy to think about taking pictures.
This morning started with a short downhill hike into Elk Creek Valley, then the trail followed a contour Northward. We enjoyed the impressive views of the cliffs on the other side of the valley, down the canyon, and out onto the plains to the East. Across the canyon we could see the roof tops of what looked like and turned out to be (at least at one point in time) a monastery; Bethlehem Cave & Retreat. After going up and down some more, the trail eventually led down and met up with Elk Creek.
The first creek crossing was quite interesting — we could see water flowing upstream, but then it seemingly disappeared, going underground where we were supposed to cross. There were a lot of ropes tied to trees, so I assume it’s possible that this crossing could get much higher. We remembered our shuttle driver telling us about potential waist-high crossings and were hopeful that we wouldn’t have to deal with that, especially with the temperature today being only in the 40’s.
While we never had to deal with crossings that high, we did have to cross the creek several other times, all of which were shin-deep. Most of the crossings also had ropes to help us cross, and sometimes I could get around using the ropes and large rocks in the stream. But having wet feet didn’t help my overall mood. I was quite relieved when we finally made it to Elk Creek Trailhead, and very hopeful that we were done with creek crossings. I especially appreciated Curtis’ help through this stretch, helping me across the creek, and when he made it to the trailhead ahead of me he dropped his backpack and came back to carry mine for the last tenth of a mile. A quick look at our AllTrails recording showed us at just over 100 miles hiked!
We stopped for a snack break at the trailhead and to let our boots dry out a bit. It was now around 11 AM, and we had hiked 6 miles by this point. Curtis talked me into taking an ibuprofen to help with the pain in my feet and back. We were tired and cold, but excited for the next section of trail — we’d be going up and over our last 5000′ saddle and everything would supposedly be downhill from there, as we would be leaving the Black Hills that afternoon. We also believed we only had 8 miles left to hike today. I think my biggest mistake at this point of the day was believing it would get easier because we were almost done. Just because we were hiking over 15 miles every day didn’t mean that my body would get used to it and make it any easier!
After our break, we continued up the trail, going up 600′ in 3 miles. Our map showed that we would be following another UTV road, but we were excited to find a hiking trail that was possibly a recent addition. We took a short break when we were about halfway to the saddle, our spirits were high. But after we continued our trek, it started snowing…or sleeting? Hailing? We weren’t quite sure what to call it, but it was definitely a frozen precipitation that didn’t accumulate, and it was definitely cold. We picked up the pace to try to keep warm and started our way downhill.
Shortly after coming to a trail junction for the Sturgis Dam Trail, we started our long descent out of the Black Hills. Over the next 3 miles, we dropped 1100′. I’ll never forget coming over the crest of a hill and hearing the sound of I-90 traffic in the distance. I’m pretty sure that is the most excited I’ve ever been to hear interstate traffic! We also had a few breaks in the trees where we could see the plains North of us, and Bear Butte where we would hopefully be tomorrow. When I saw it on the horizon, I had a hard time believing that it was only (we thought) 14 miles away on the trail, and around 8 as the crow flies.
As it turned out, I was right to be doubtful. We thought we only had around 2 miles left, but those 2 miles felt like the longest miles ever. I knew I was bad at gauging distance, but this seemed ridiculous. I got more discouraged the further we went, thinking surely we should be there by now, and after so many days of hiking how was I taking so long?!
We crested one last short hill and were now in the last stretch. We spotted some boundary markers for the Black Hills National Forest and the historic Fort Meade, and heard a 21 gun salute coming from the Black Hills National Cemetery. Finally, we made it out of the forest and onto our final mile of the day, walking out of the tree cover and through grassland…and then it started pouring. The rain soaked through my rain jacket. I was so ready to be done with this day.
We were very thankful though to find that we didn’t have to cross through Alkali Creek, and the rain stopped after we crossed under I-90. We met up with a gravel road and followed it to Alkali Campground in Fort Meade Recreation Area, our site for tonight. This was technically the last place we were allowed to camp until Bear Butte Lake, so even if we wanted to we couldn’t have hiked any further. Since we were in the off season (before May 13), we didn’t have to pay any fee, but were still able to use the outhouses and tap water.
When Curtis looked at his trail recording for today, we realized that today’s hike was 2 miles longer than our trail map had led us to believe. I wasn’t really surprised to hear that after feeling like the “last” 2 miles dragged on forever. Our total mileage completed today was 18.3 miles, just barely shorter than day 2 which was our longest day at 18.5 miles. I was exhausted, but proud of myself. I was also a little nervous that tomorrow’s mileage would also end up longer than we thought…but we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. For now, the plan was still to finish tomorrow, and it would be significantly easier for me because I would be able to ‘slack-pack’. More on that later!
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.