The second day started at the southern campground at Sheridan Lake. The first segment of the Centennial Trail was the Samelius section that connects Sheridan Lake with Hwy 16A via a steep and rocky ascent and descent. I started up the climb expecting my legs to begin to complain from the previous day’s ride but they seem ready and willing to tackle the task at hand.
Near the top, you get a good view into Hill City so I thought I’d try the cell phone. Yep coverage here:
Somehow on the descent down the jeep road, I missed the turn off for the last segment of singletrack. Darn! I really like that section, so much so, that I *almost* went back up to find it. Instead, I pushed on through the rolling hills and meadows between 16A and the railroad tracks. Next was the steep climb up to the Big Pine trailhead. I remember coming down this section on my first Centennial Trail excursion but I’d never been up it. I’d have to say that 95% was not rideable (by my standards). It was so eroded, loose, and steep that I’d have to say I didn’t even try to ride much because I knew it was a fruitless endeavor. From reading the tracks left by previous hikers, I was thankful that I didn’t have to slip, slide, and struggle through the mud like they did. Once at the trailhead, I sat down, ate some food, and waited for Misty. I had debated riding the road through Needles Hwy but I decided not to although I was feeling fine. It turned out for the better because on our drive to the Iron Creek trailhead, we encountered golf ball size hail. The first one hit the windshield in front of Misty with such force that we thought it was coming through (or at least cracking the glass) but neither occurred. The intensity of the storm heightened so I pulled off the road and tried to get my sister’s van under a tree to protect as best I could. The hailstones were ripping right through forest canopy and bouncing 2-4 feet in the air after impact.
I could only image how this storm would feel if I had been cruising on the bike down this section of the Needles Hwy. That first hit would have been so much of a shock that I sure I would’ve thought someone threw a rock at me. After looking at the dents on the van, I’m sure the hailstones would’ve left bruises.
I waited for the hail to pass before starting off down the trail. I was excited and anxious to ride the southern parts of the Centennial since this would only be my second time on the trail and my first time riding south. I remembered small portions of the trail but much of it was still a blur. My anxiousness stemmed from the encounters with buffalo I had the first time I rode this section. They are so big, seemingly intelligent, and unpredictable…You never know when you’ll come around a corner and be face-to-face with these giants so you’ve got to keep on your toes.
The GPS actually got used for navigation within a few miles of the trailhead. Somehow I had missed a turn, evident only be the absence of “89” trail markers. I had to derive the track on the GPS for the entire southern section of the trail using only waypoints I had created on my first ride, aerial photography, and topo maps. My old GPS had very limited capabilities when it came to saving tracks (in fact all I had of a track from that first ride was from Elk Ck to Bear Butte) so I compensated by trying to save lots of waypoints. It didn’t take me more than a few minutes to find my error in navigation and I was back on track.
Remnants of the hailstorm quickly disappeared but that only meant more puddles and more flowing water on the trail. There’s one segment just south of Legion Lake that has great flow, good views, but it was over way too soon…And now it looks like another storm is approaching.
There was only one segment of the Centennial through Custer State Park that really stood out in my mind…the climb into and out of French Creek. There is what looks like a minor pass on the map just north of French Creek that should not be disregarded because of its small stature. This year I realized that approaching this pass from either direction involves a fair bit of hike-a-bike. The trail was a poorly designed, fall-line trail with no water bars or breaks. Erosion had converted this presumably once nice trail into a never-ending series of loose rock and gullies. I was happy to reach the top and be able to look down into French Creek gulch. But the darkening overcast skies and rumble of distant thunder shortened my break.
I started off trying to ride this trail down but after almost losing it over the bars more than once (the last time while trying to stop and dismount) I decided it was best to just walk it (although that option brought on other concerns of twisting an ankle). About a third of the way down, sections were rideable again with occasional sections that needed to be walked. I was really looking forward to cruising up the old jeep road that follows along French Creek to the horse camp, however, the mental image of an easy spin up a road gave way to the harsh reality of a road overused by horses during a muddy period. When it wasn’t full of hoof potholes, it was loose sand. On top of that, French Creek was thigh deep and there were at least a handful of crossings. I did happen to run across this prairie rattler.
The road climbing out of the French Creek horse camp was no better. I guess it doesn’t matter by whom a trail is overused…Overuse = poor trail conditions.
By this time, the threat of a serious thunderstorm was eminent. The thunder was rumbling ever closer but I knew I wanted to try and get well clear of the overused section of trail before the rains came so I continued to push on. Hailstones arrived shortly thereafter but they were small and sparse when the storm started so I continued to push my bike up a short, steep hill. By the time I got to the top, the hail was coming down in sheets so I tried to take cover near a rock outcropping but it didn’t seem to help. The waterproofing job I had completed at home on my backpack proved to be a waste of time. No beading at all, it was soaking through. I quickly dug out my jacket and put it on to lessen the sting of the hailstones. As I sat with my eyes closed, knees tucked into my chest, and tense from the beating, I began to take control of my situation in best way I could. I created a soothing mental image of being a subject of some ‘new-age’ massage therapy where they implemented a shower of hailstones for deep muscle massage. Even to my surprise, this mental exercise seemed to work by relaxing my muscles and helping me happily accept these circumstances.
Once the hail stopped, I got back on the bike and headed down the trail. I went to put on my glasses but the advantage of wearing them to keep the mud and water out of my eyes was trumped by their fogginess. The sound of hail crunching under the tires was odd but interesting and not as slippery as I would have expected. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds within a half-hour as I entered onto a large, open ridge. The incident afternoon sunlight on the grasses induced a surreal experience while splashing through this open area. An encounter with a turkey heightened this feeling even more.
But just like a drug-induced euphoria is followed by a crash, the sunlight I had welcomed just a few brief minutes before had almost instantaneously transformed the hailstones into torrents emanating from every small drainage. The trail had become a river of mud that I knew masked gullies and debris below its surface. I had no choice but to choose a route off the trail where the water was only ankle deep.
I pushed on down the trail (or at least right next to it) only to encounter a buffalo around a downhill corner that was guarding his wallow. I chose not to ride by him, rather, I chose to walk right along the edge of this open area to at least give me a false impression that I could climb a tree (or hide behind them) if he decided to charge.
The landscape through this portion of Custer State Park had changed since my visit a couple of years ago. Fires had swept through the area and it looked nothing like I had remembered. The GPS reminded me that I was nearing the end of the trail and I knew of one more prominent landmark that I had yet to cross. It is a large meadow where I encountered my first buffalo a couple of years ago. That experience was somewhat unnerving because there is an 8-foot fence and a gate on the south side of the meadow that I needed to get through but the buffalo wanted to go through too. As he walked towards me smelling the air to sense me, I dropped the bike, ran up the hillside, and climbed the fence until he passed. This time, it was ironic that a buffalo was standing in almost the exact same spot. But once he was aware of my presence, he bolted at a gallop up the hillside and into the trees. I’d never seen a buffalo move so fast.
By now, the results of the hailstorm had turned the trail to a slippery gumbo that was beginning to build up on the bike. I knew I only had a few miles left so I struggled through the best I could hoping not to break anything when I came across a herd of elk.
Less than a mile to go now but the bike was starting to make crunching sounds that usually precede some kind of mechanical failure. I hobbled my steed to the end of the trail and promptly stopped in the creek to clean as much of the mud off as I could.
I looked at my time…Almost exactly 36hrs.
Since Misty and Aspen weren’t at the trailhead, I took the dirt road heading southeast across the prairie mesa towards Red Valley at a leisurely pace. Just before dropping into the valley, I took out the cell phone and gave Misty a ring. They were in Hot Springs and we planned to meet at the end of Red Valley Road. The jubilance of finishing the trail swept over me as I coasted down the desolate dirt road, out of Wind Cave National Park, and away from the next impending storm…which, by the way, dropped another massive amount of hail.