Trail Profile: South Dakota’s Centennial Trail
The Centennial Trail is a 123-mile trail that winds through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Traversing ponderosa-pine forests, pastures, and open grasslands, the trail passes by several lakes and numerous stream crossings. Exposure is negligible and the trail is almost entirely graded for stock, but there is plenty of climbing.
Centennial Trail At-a-Glance
Length: 123 miles (per the most detailed guidebook)
Expected Completion Time: 7-9 days (14-17 miles per day)
Trail Type: Shuttle (end-to-end)
Scenery: Rolling hills, open grasslands and low mountains with elevations up to 5,800 feet. Predominantly ponderosa-pine forest with birch, oak, aspen, and other species, and semiarid grasslands. The trail regularly crosses creeks and passes several lakes.
Terrain: Easy to strenuous. Keep in mind that there there are climbs of 2,000-3,000 feet, and overall elevation gain is 20,000 to 22,000 feet, depending on direction of travel.
Navigation: Mostly (but not entirely) well-marked. Tread is hard to find in places, and markers are occasionally AWOL, necessitating basic route-finding.
Centennial Trail Access
Southbound: SOBO thru-hikers start at Bear Butte State Park, six miles northeast of Sturgis, SD.
Northbound: NOBO thru-hikers start in the middle of Wind Cave National Park, 12 miles north of Hot Springs, SD.
Hikers can drive fairly close to either terminus, but cannot park long-term at trailheads. Ride-share apps and services are the best bet for transportation to the trail. Flights are available and rental cars can be dropped off at Rapid City Regional Airport.
Rapid Shuttle picks up passengers at the airport; costs as of September 2019 were $75 to Sturgis (my shuttle driver took me all the way to Bear Butte for $80 on request) and $120 to Hot Springs.
Thru-hiking is little known in the area, so trail angels and shuttles are all but nonexistent. But the trail passes close to small towns, stores, and other potential resupply spots, so shuttles are generally not needed.
Maps and Guides
Section mileages can vary between various maps and guides. Options include the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Black Hills Map Pack Bundle, US Forest Service literature, and the 2018 guidebook, Hiking Centennial Trail: A Guide to Hiking South Dakota’s Centennial Trail.
The guidebook describes a northbound hike, but southbounders won’t have trouble reading it back-to-front.
Direction of Travel
The Centennial Trail in some ways resembles the Appalachian Trail: The northern part of the trail is more challenging and finishes on a dramatic, prominent summit with spectacular 360-degree views.
You can hike this trail either direction. Total elevation gain for SOBOs is about 22,000 feet, and for NOBOs about 20,000 feet (per the guidebook). SOBOs start with a steep ascent of Bear Butte, then go from 3,200 feet to more than 5,200 feet (with plenty of ups and downs) within 20 miles. NOBOs go from about 4,000 feet to nearly 5,500 feet over the first 23 miles, with a less jagged overall elevation profile.
Why Hike the Centennial Trail
South Dakota’s Centennial Trail was built in 1989 to celebrate the state’s 100-year birthday. This is an excellent shorter long-distance route that offers plenty of challenge. Expect a rich experience, from the iconic Mount Rushmore to herds of wild buffalo and frequent views of rugged landscapes beyond the 100th meridian. Though traveling through forests for much of its length, this is no green tunnel.
The trail is remarkably uncrowded. I walked its entire length over five and a half days during excellent weather in late August and saw not one backpacker, perhaps 20 day hikers (total) around popular trailheads, and about 20 people riding horses or mules. If solitude in the wilderness is your thing, the CET is an excellent choice.
Hikers can walk from end to end in five days by averaging just under 25 miles a day, or seven days doing 17.5-mile days, which makes it possible to hike within a week’s vacation. It could be a nice introduction to long-distance hiking or a training hike for those set on a longer Western trail such as the Pacific Crest Trail or Continental Divide Trail.
And for those with time before or after doing the miles, there is a plethora of cool things to see within an hour’s drive of the trail, including Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave (third longest cave in the world), the Mammoth Site (an active archaeological dig), hot springs, and more. Bear Butte, the northern terminus, is sacred to American Indian tribes in the region.
Climate and Weather
The Black Hills (despite the name, they are indeed a mountain range) are generally dry, receiving around 20 inches of precipitation annually. In a typical year, hikers must pay close attention to water sources and be prepared to carry plenty in drier segments.
Temperatures vary greatly throughout the year, from average late-summer highs in the mid-80s to lows in the teens December through February, with occasional plunges below zero; dry air makes both extremes more bearable than in humid climates (hello, Pennsylvania). Late-spring or early-autumn highs are in the 60s or 70s, with lows in the 40s.
There are no shelters on the trail. A three-season tent and light sleeping bag or quilt should suffice from May through September, or even October, though it can snow in early fall.
Hikers should be prepared to carry up to four liters of water in a drier year. Water is available at numerous Forest Service campgrounds along the way, but water taken from other sources should be treated or filtered.
The terrain is not particularly rugged, so trail runners or light hiking boots should be more than adequate unless hiking in cold winter months.
Bring insect repellent in warmer months, and it wouldn’t hurt to treat clothing with permethrin. Following a wet spring and early summer, mosquitoes were on the war path around low-lying lakes and waterways, though seldom a problem in the mountains. I pulled several ticks from my skin at lower elevations.
Bring sunscreen and sun-blocking lip balm. The canopy is not as dense as in eastern forests and there are many grassy, shadeless miles. The Western summer sun can be intense.
And how often do you hear this? You don’t have to worry about bears. At all. Bears are not in the current catalog of species in the Black Hills, due to limited food sources (especially acorns), in ponderosa-pine dominated forests. But that may be changing. Fires, efforts to remove pine-beetle infested trees, thinning, and other forest-health initiatives are making the ecosystem more amenable to black bears.
Of course, other critters like Pop-Tarts, Snickers, and ramen noodles, so it’s worth defending your chow by hanging a bear bag or using a critter-resistant Ursack and odor-resistant plastic bag.
Camping is allowed along most of the trail. Other than paying to stay one potentially rainy night in an open-sided stone shelter at the Dalton Lake campground, and one night in the private Whispering Pines campground just off the trail, I stealth camped during the whole hike (but it’s allowed, so not really that stealthy).
Permits are required for backcountry camping in the northwest part of Wind Cave National Park. Custer State Park requires a small entrance fee and there is only fee camping available at Bear Butte State Park. Fees are required to camp in Forest Service campgrounds along the trail.
The guidebook mentions numerous official campsites and trailheads, noting availability of water, parking, and so on.
Centennial Trail Highlights
Bear Butte: The Katahdin of the CET. Jutting more than 1,600 feet up from the surrounding plains, this last outpost of the western mountains–the next actual mountain directly to the east is in northern Vermont–is sacred to several Plains Indian tribes. Cheyenne, Lakota, and Hunkpapa people tie colorful cloth prayer bundles to junipers and trees along the steep, spectacular ascent, and the summit offers spectacular 360-degree views. You may see buffalo, deer, or elk on the grassy skirts far below.
Mount Rushmore: A half-mile detour on a well-marked trail and about 300 feet of climbing deliver hikers from the Black Elk Wilderness to this American icon. You may be shocked by the crowds after your solitude, but … there’s a cafeteria!
Custer State Park: The trail cuts across some 70,000 acres of rolling plains and hills, offering a heart-soaring sight: Herds of American bison and lone bulls. Bison are much wilder than cattle, so keep your distance, but it’s an incredible experience to see these monarchs of the plains living as they did for tens of thousands of years before they were almost driven to extinction (though herd numbers are managed).
Sheridan Lake: If you are hiking in the summer heat, this quiet spot is a welcome place to get wet. For SOBOs, it comes before the trail’s most sustained and steepest ascent, reaching the 5,800-foot high point on the flanks of Mount Samelius.
Black Elk Wilderness: The nine-mile amble through the wilderness features cold, clear streams, soaring granite obelisks, and long views of distant peaks. Also, the admittedly un-wilderness-y side trip to Mount Rushmore. Not that you really need a cold Coke or beer at high noon on a blazing summer afternoon.
Water is the key to the CET, and availability is dependent on recent weather patterns.
August 2019, for example, followed a wet spring and early summer, and water was plentiful all along the trail. Not only were all seasonal and reliable sources running well and lakes and reservoirs full, but also typically dry sources—even many wildcat sources—were flowing.
However, in 2018, when the guidebook authors section-hiked the trail, seasonal sources were frequently dry. Authors Cheryl Whetham and Jukka Huhtiniemi are locals; they maintain a Facebook group for the CET and post post semiregular water reports.
The trail is short enough that it’s possible to thru-hike without a resupply.
However, it also passes two small towns that have restaurants and adequate resupply options, Merritt and Nemo. You can also hike about a half mile off the trail to reach Whispering Pines campground, where there is limited resupply (candy bars, sports drinks, canned tuna, beer, etc.). Snacks and drinks are available at the cafeteria and store at Mount Rushmore.
Let’s talk about bison, aka buffalo, in Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. These are powerful, potentially aggressive animals; treat them as you would a bear and keep your distance. Be mindful of where you pitch a tent; look for bison sign–feces, matted grass where animals have bedded down—and make camp where there’s nothing a buffalo might have a hankering for at 2 a.m.; i.e., grass or water. I was grateful for having chosen a small hillock above a water source when, well after midnight, a hulking, grunting, growling bison bull—if there were such things as ogres, they’d sound like this—decided he needed a wee drink.
You can also expect to see:
-Whitetail and mule deer
-Compact little red squirrels
-Raptors–bald and golden eagles, hawks, falcons and vultures
-Frogs and toads
-Snakes, including rattlesnakes; though common in the area, I didn’t see any.
-Cattle. Expect to see them.
If you want a moderately challenging trail you can walk in a week or less, without a crowd, the Centennial Trail is a great choice. This would be an excellent hike for first-timers who want to see if long-distance hiking is for them.
That said, it’s not a casual hike; you’ve got to pay more attention than, say, on the well-blazed AT. Though generally well-marked, there are numerous places where I had to poke around a bit to determine which way to go.
Curiously, the trail has no fewer than five different styles of markers, both freestanding and nailed to trees. The one common feature is a silhouette of a (presumably bison) skull.
Occasionally, after miles of comfortingly regular markers, they inexplicably go AWOL. Meanwhile, in pastures and grasslands, many have been knocked down by cattle or bison who use them, literally, to scratch their big, dusty butts. In places the tread is invisible, or fainter than cow or bison trails, and the half-mile below Pactola Reservoir dam was like bushwhacking through a rain-drenched Southeast Asian jungle, a riot of dripping foliage rising hovering six or seven feet above the “trail.”
But with care, you won’t waste too much time toddling down stray cow- or bison-paths. After a few early mishaps that added irritating sideways miles to the day, the author adopted an attitude of almost weenie-like vigilance, tromping back to find the last marker at the first inkling of doubt.
But don’t let that, water worries, or the possibility of a night-time encounter with an ogre—bison; we meant bison—deter you. Uncrowded, eminently doable and crammed with fascinating sights and experiences from terminus to terminus, the Centennial Trail is a hidden gem tucked away in the Black Hills.
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