Backpacking the South Dakota Centennial Trail | Day 8 | Alkali Campground to Bear Butte State Park | Wednesday, May 5, 2021
We awoke bright and early on the morning of day 8, ready and motivated to finish the Centennial Trail! While we had normally started hiking around 6 AM each day at the beginning of the hike, and 7 AM in the last couple days when the lows were in the 30s, today we were ready to go at 5:30 AM. This was in part due to the fact that we didn’t have to bring everything with us today. We had made the decision prior to leave our tent, sleeping bags, Curtis’ backpack, and other things we didn’t need for the day at Alkali Campground, and Curtis would carry my backpack with only the necessities: food, water, and (most importantly) the keys to our car!
We left the campground and rejoined the trail going through Fort Meade Recreation Area, enjoying the sunrise as we walked. We knew the trail would begin with hiking up a random butte in the recreation area, but other than that, we expected it to be a relatively easy day until we came to Bear Butte.
While we were correct in thinking the trail wouldn’t be difficult, this section didn’t come without some minor frustration. We could see Bear Butte in the distance and were really excited to walk across the plains and grasslands to get there, but instead the trail was seemingly wandering aimlessly around the forested butte. It was especially frustrating being able to see Bear Butte but feeling like we weren’t actually making any progress to get there. It was then that I started feeling like I was a bad backpacker — surely a good backpacker would enjoy every mile that took them through unique and interesting landscape, but instead at this point I just wanted to go the fastest route from point A to point B: My location to Bear Butte!
We certainly got more than we bargained for throughout the Fort Meade section of the Centennial Trail. Our map showed it as being only 4 miles, but instead it ended up being 6 miles throughout the entire recreation area, with those extra two miles being sucked up in switchbacks and meandering. At one point, we stood on a prairie ridge, overlooking the old fort buildings, Bear Butte off to our right, and the trail head across SD-34/79 within sight only 2 miles distant. And then the trail went off to the left to wander through the hills for another 3 miles.
It was truly a neat area and I’m sure if we lived near the Black Hills we’d enjoy hiking there with Charlotte. There was also plenty of history along the trail from the Fort Meade days around the end of the 19th century; like abandoned stables and buildings and another cemetery, but we didn’t stop to admire it – we didn’t even stop for pictures. Our minds were far from the trail…instead of living in the moment, we were very focused on deciding where to eat when we were finished. I was mentally going through every chain restaurant I knew of and considering what I’d order if we ended up at each one. I was also thinking about my favorite memories in restaurants. It turns out I could come up with a lot of memories revolving around food when I’m calorie starved.
We finally came to the end of Fort Meade; this section ended up being 6 miles long instead of 4. However, our pace was considerably better today than it had been every other day — we were now hiking 3 miles an hour instead of 2, mostly thanks to me not wearing my backpack! We crossed SD-34, walked across a bridge over Bear Butte Creek, and finally entered the grassland section.
This honestly felt like the moment we’d been waiting for all morning, and for several days now: when we would begin our long approach to Bear Butte through open grassland. It was everything we hoped it would be — sunny with green grass all around, but cool and windy, and vast views in every direction. Bear Butte in front of us, the Black Hills behind us. And boy were we glad to not be in the hills today — dark clouds were hovering over them for most of the day. Thanks to the wind, we were able to keep our windbreakers on and protect ourselves from the sun.
We saw signs of bison or cattle all around, but no actual bison until Bear Butte. We heard plenty of prairie dogs again though! We walked up and over a ridge, and made slow but visible progress towards the Butte, the wind whipping the grass in picturesque waves. We arrived at Bear Butte Lake and followed the trail around the East side. After 12 miles of hiking, we made it to Bear Butte Lake Trailhead and we crossed SD-79 to enter Bear Butte State Park.
The trail led us close enough to the parking lot to where we could go check on our car and leave a few other things there. We were relieved to find it in the condition we left it a week ago. Finally, we began our climb up Bear Butte. We took it slow, and stopped at the informational signs on the way up, learning about the history and significance of this area, the plants and animals that live here, and that it was actually a laccolith, or volcanic formation and not a butte.
The trail up Bear Butte surprised me by how rugged it was. I think that’s partially to do with the fact that state parks in the Midwest that we’re now used to are all pretty safe and easy, and there’s nothing challenging or dangerous about the trails. Here, the trail was made up of loose rocks that would slide under my feet. It was often very narrow and would hug the side of a cliff with a steep drop off on the other side, with railings that were only ankle-high, and had pretty sketchy ladders or steps. I took it pretty slow because I really didn’t want to fall to my death just before finishing the Centennial Trail. It didn’t help when the trail crossed over to the West side where the wind was much stronger and louder.
Despite being scared the whole way up, the scenery was amazing and I wish I could’ve stopped to take it in more. I could’ve taken some cooler pictures if I weren’t so afraid to look down. My mind just couldn’t accept the fact that we were still hiking the Centennial Trail since this part felt so much different than everything else we had just hiked through. It felt like the trail ended when we came to our car, and now we were just doing another short hike before our “vacation” was over.
The state park trail leading up to the top of the butte and the end of the Centennial Trail was just under 2 miles one way. When we made it to the bottom of the stairs to the lookout, we walked up together to the end… and it felt a little anti-climactic. There was no “End of Trail” sign, or anything about the Centennial Trail here (to be fair, they had literally rebuilt that platform the week before). All we had was the knowledge that we had completed it. But of course, we still had to hike back down the butte! I decided to wait until we made it back to our car to text my mom and tell her that we made it.
Another day hiker was at the top, and he took some pictures for us before going on his way. We stayed up there for a while to relish the feeling, but also to delay the inevitably scary walk back down. I eventually gathered all the courage I had and we slowly made our way back down to our car. After getting out of the harsh wind, I was less scared and more just in pain as the loose rocks shifting after every step made my tender feet hurt so bad; of course, we were past that critical mile 14 when everything begins to hurt.
We made it back down the butte and to our car at 2 PM — now we were really done! Curtis went in the visitor center to stamp our journals, but I stayed in the car because I was officially done walking for the day. We had thought all along that today’s hike would be 14 miles (including hiking back down Bear Butte) but it turned out to be 16.3, for a total mileage of 128.5 miles on the entire trail.
Back in the planning stages of the hike, we had thought it would be cool to drive to the Badlands after finishing the hike and do a short backpacking hike there for one night. I think it was on day 2 or 3 that I said “How about we just get a hotel?” and we never looked back. I was so excited for a shower, a night in a bed, and a climate controlled room for the night! And I was sure that my family would be thankful that we showered before showing up the next day.
Our next steps today were as follows: We drove through Sturgis to snap a drive-by picture of the county courthouse, then drove back to Alkali Campground to retrieve all our things we left there. Next we drove to Rapid City, first stopping at a Walmart to pick up some things we needed, then went to the restaurant we had landed on for our “first meal” — Culvers! We chose this mostly because it had a drive-through, and because burgers just sounded good. We decided to go all out with our order though, ordering actual adult meals instead of kid’s meals like we normally get, and it ended up costing double what we normally spend. Worth it! Finally, we found a hotel for the night around 4. Curtis ended up doing a late night run for more food, but once I was showered and in bed I was basically useless for the next 14 hours.
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.