This hike was dedicated in memory of my Grandad, Ron Finnis, who died at the age of 92 on April 8, 2017. I carried his picture with me the entire trip and carried his memory in my heart.
Southern Wyoming and northern Colorado took a final wintery hit during mid May and were nailed with over 12 inches of snow in under 48 hours postponing my departure to the Black Hills of South Dakota for 24 hours. Sheridan was blessed with maybe half an inch of snow, a few clouds and some very wet precipitation but we weren’t affected by the final “hurrah” that Mother Nature sent our southern counterparts.
While the weather didn’t affect me directly it did affect the acquaintance who was helping me out with transport logistics from truck parking to trailhead drop off. Thankfully, Saturday morning saw cold but clear skies and wet but snow-free roads out of Cheyenne and we met at the Norbeck Creek trail head in Wind Cave National Park.
With my backcountry permit in hand, my resupply box dropped off at Legion Lake Lodge I bid farewell to lonehiker (his WhiteBlaze ID) and prepped the dogs for the trail. It was at this time I realized, with dread, that I had left my wallet…ID, money, credit cards and all in my truck, an hour away by car and 60 miles on foot. I cursed myself and my stupidity as I had been planning on, and looking forward to, lunch and a beer at Legion Lake Lodge as one of my meals. I had only packed a certain amount of meals and snacks to get me through the planned days.
With my irritation level on high I set out in a less-than-perfect mood from Rapid Creek trail head, the same trail head I had started from the previous year, although this year I was heading south. My legs felt oddly new and my pack felt heavy and I questioned my ability and decision to hike 60+ miles for the first outing of the year.
My doubts and misgivings were quickly quelled as the dogs and I followed the trail along Rapid Creek, through tall grasses and spring growth that was vivid and green with new life. Within a mile I remembered vividly why I loved being out there with everything I needed on my back. The wind was chilled but the day was a good day for hiking.
Trees with new budded leaves provided a veiled canopy and birds hidden in the branches sang us a hiking theme as we trekked up and down the modest inclines of the hills. Very little stood out through those first few miles and they quickly disappeared beneath our feet.
After four miles we ran into a cyclist coming from the south. We stopped and chatted for a while; he had hiked the trail before but this was his first attempt at biking it…and he admitted it was tougher than he thought it would be. We went our separate ways after a brief intermission. We crossed Brush Creek and refilled and filtered water before taking a break for some M&Ms and to relax out of the wind and in the sun. At this time the cyclist came back down the trail; he had lost his rain pants (not a good thing with the weather forecast). He went back down the trail to look for them…I never saw him again so I don’t know if he found them and continued his trip.
I was surprised by my arrival at Brush Creek trail head. The miles felt like they had flown by and my plans for only doing 5 miles went out the window. It was only 3pm and I was not ready to quit hiking for the day…what the heck would I do for six hours before bed if I set up camp?
We continued on for a while, through meadows and stands of pine trees, negotiating terrain of moderate difficulty and complexity with relative ease…it was the first day after all and the three of us still had fresh legs.
The wind was the bane of our existence and made filming anything worthwhile a little difficult. Who knows whether anything will come of it.
We finally stopped at around 6pm, a couple of miles north of Sheridan Lake. It was my first night setting up my hammock and tarp without YouTube and the good folks at hammockforums.com to help me. I had set things up at home before so I had the basic concepts down but it was definitely a new experience…I was starting to miss my tent.
The campsite was pretty and just up the trail from a good water supply. Sadly, at this point I noticed that my water filter was acting improperly and I wasn’t getting much flow from the dirty water container to my Smart Water bottles. This is not a good thing in any backcountry expedition.
It took me a long time to get settled into the hammock that night. It was my first night sleeping in such a manner and I was forever adjusting the underquilt to get it into the right position to keep me warm from below. I finally got it right after a couple of hours and fell asleep. It was not the most natural of sleeping positions for me but I was surprised by the quality and quantity of sleep I achieved; I generally sleep very poorly on my first and second nights of camping.
I awoke at my normal 6am time, ignoring the sun for a while until the raucous calls of the morning birds dragged me out of the warmth of my down quilts. (I have to give a shout out here to George Carr of Loco Libre Gear for making outstanding quality and super-warm hammock quilts that were intuitive to use…absolutely awesome and worth the money and the wait (they are custom made to order in the USA)).
The second day started a little slow but we were back on the trail by 8am, quickly covering the few miles to Sheridan Lake and encountering a bridge-enforcer…a lone marmot who decided to make a stand against intruders who wanted to cross his bridge.
Unfortunately, by this time, the sun was mostly hiding behind the clouds and the wind was unpleasantly brisk and chilled me quickly. We paused for a half hour to refuel and filter water (a chore with a barely functioning filter) and started the arduous 3 1/2 mile trek up Mount Warner. I had been warned that the next water source was over seven miles away and had loaded up with four liters of water. It is always guaranteed that the heaviest water-carries begin with the steepest and longest inclines, and every time I thought I had reached the top I was wrong and the trail kept climbing.
During the climb we constantly heard the blasts of a steam engine whistle. A glance at the map confirmed we were near Hill City which has a historical railroad museum; it was a fitting reminder of who I was hiking this trail for.
Finally the top of Mount Warner was a achieved and we took a snack/lunch break, basking in the sun that had briefly appeared. Sadly the reprieve didn’t last for long as we watched some dense rain clouds heading in our direction. I did not want to be on top of a mountain if the storm was an electric one and we hurried down the far side of the peak and into the trees. I was praying fervently that the rain would hold off, at least until we reached the underpass that took the trail beneath the highway.
Sadly we didn’t make the tunnel in time and we were caught out in it, protected by the trees to a degree but still we got wet. Thankfully we only had 3/4 of a mile to cover and we hurried through the downpour to get to the shelter of the tunnel.
In typical hiker-trash style we waited out the deluge beneath the road and made use of the shelter by pausing to cook a dinner of mac and cheese, or a poor substitute of it without milk and butter. It was filling and hot and hit the spot even as I burned my mouth while trying to eat it. It was at this time that I realized I had left my usual lighter in my other cook kit. A few more curse words erupted from me. Thankfully I carry a spare in my first aid kit.
The rain abated and we packed up and headed out, leaving the road behind. The frustrations of the rain was compounded by the lack of or incorrect signage for the trail and I wandered through tall grass for a while before checking the map and finally stumbling across the trail accidentally. Rain was threatening once more and I donned my poncho, again. It drizzled a little but the clouds kept the moisture to a minimum.
With the clouds disappearing and the sun finally coming out I found a good place to set-up camp. Water, for me, was filtered from a nearby creek a little further down the trail but I left the water for the dogs unfiltered as my filter was pretty much done.
I tried a different technique with the suspension of the ridgeline of my tarp but couldn’t get it tight and I hoped the wind wouldn’t be too strong throughout the night as I was too tired to return it to the original configuration. I was in my hammock by 8pm and listened to the birds for a while before finally falling asleep as darkness fell.
I woke up pretty sore and sleeping in a hammock was not helping my back, aggravating an old injury. I had not slept well, but I still felt refreshed and had still slept better than I usually do on the ground. The pain dissipated after I extracted myself from the warmth of my down quilt and started moving.
After collecting more water for the dogs we crossed some rails and followed a powerline up a short but steep incline to Big Pine trail head, crossed another road and hiked a short distance to the wilderness permit station. As with any wilderness area in the USA a self-issued “permit” is required; it is really only a way for the NFS to keep track of the usage in the wilderness and is free.
With our permit in hand we headed into the Black Elk Wilderness. The initial trail proved to be one of the nicest I had hiked on until that point and the grade was easy to climb. A creek provided a great excuse to pause and enjoy the sunshine and eat a snack before heading deeper into the mountains. It was after this break that I ran into lonehiker hiking north; we were both a little surprised to run into each other so early…I had predicted it would be around noon (it was only 8:30). We talked for a while and he offered me the use of his spare water filter which I graciously accepted, along with the loan of a $20 bill to get a burger at the lodge as I had originally planned. Trail magic (unexpected acts of kindness or food) is a wonderful thing.
With a lighter heart and less stress over my water situation we parted ways and I continued deeper into the wilderness with lonehiker’s warning about all the downed trees ahead. Sadly, downed trees weren’t my only problem as it started to rain again as we climbed up to the view of Mount Rushmore. Helicopters buzzed like flies overhead as the transported people on aerial tours of the national memorial which dampened the feelings of being in the wilderness.
Lonehiker’s warning was appropriate and I was soon cursing the condition of the trail as I negotiated over, under and around countless large, broken trees…in the rain. It was the worst hiking I had ever done…if it could be called hiking at that point. I was really starting to question why I was even doing what I was doing and I certainly wasn’t having a good time.
The only positive was the beautiful butterfly I almost stepped on in the middle of the trail, and a few stunning rock formations.
While I now had a usable filter my dirty water squeeze bag had sprung a leak which made keeping my clean water separate a lot more difficult as potentially contaminated water leaked down the spout as I filtered. I continued to leave water unfiltered for the dogs.
The trail finally improved as we left the wilderness and passed Iron Creek trail head where we paused for lunch and a long break. Again the rain was threatening so we made use of a large evergreen to protect us should it downpour while we were eating and sleeping (the dogs, not me).
It was too early to quit for the day at only 2pm and I was definitely tired but I was motivated to keep moving to put a couple more miles behind us before finding a good campsite.
Knowing that it would be a dry camp that night I loaded up with four liters of water and dreaded the uphill climb that awaited me. Rain started to fall as soon as I donned my pack and we climbed upwards to an exposed ridge that had been logged extensively. I was concerned about lightening but while it rained and the wind blew continuously the danger of an electric storm was avoided. The trail followed a good logging road and the miles flew by, somehow. By the time the rain was done I had already put 4 miles behind me…I hadn’t even realized how quickly I had covered those miles.
The sun finally came out and the clouds and rain departed for a while and we used that time to hike the last couple of miles for the day. I wanted to get camp set up before the rain came in again.
With only a mile to go before the Legion Lake Lodge we set-up camp. I returned the tarp to it’s original configuration (still not happy with it) but at least it was moderately taught. The dogs dozed and I ate a snack or two before climbing into my hammock as more rain clouds loomed over us, finally dumping their load on us as I stared at the trees through the translucent fiber of my tarp, listening to the drumming sound of each raindrop as it fell. My tarp did a good job and we stayed dry. I finally fell asleep as the rain quit.
With plenty of time to kill in the morning before heading to the lodge, only a mile away, I decided to try fixing my tarp ridgeline suspension in a more suitable manner. I cut the continuous rideline that suspended the tarp between two trees and attached each piece of cord separately to each end. I hoped it would work better.
By 9:30 I ran out of things to occupy me and loaded up, climbed the hill and covered the mile to Legion Lake Lodge. I retrieved my resupply box and sat on the patio with the dogs as I sorted through all the unnecessary food I still had…I had made some mistakes with the food I had packed and just wasn’t eating it due to the complexity of making it. I dumped half of the things I had either carried or added to the box, keeping only that which I knew I would use on this trip or future hikes. It was still too much food.
The weather had finally cleared and while the breeze was a little chilly the sun was finally the dominating fixture in the sky, and no rain was predicted.
I had been informed that lunch wasn’t available until 11 so I spent the hour on the lodge’s deck with the dogs, enjoying the sunshine, watching a family of geese and waiting impatiently until I could order that much-desired burger and beer. The radio station was playing a lot of 90s music which was a fun and pleasant backdrop to the beautiful lake, and definitely lent an air of nostalgia to the morning.
Finally I got to order my burger and beer…and DAMN was that thing good. My caloric needs had not been kept up for the reasons mentioned above so the burger went down a treat…but I should have ordered fries instead of coleslaw. I was trying to be a little healthy and I can rarely manage to eat a side of fries; this time I think I could have managed it.
With only a short four miles between myself and the next campsite I relaxed on the deck until 1pm, ordering another beer which I drank while people watching. It was a pleasant day to sit and relax but finally I made a move, loaded up with four liters of water from the lodge so I didn’t have to filter any for a while and hiked away. (I had thought it was seven miles to the next potable water, hence the amount I carried).
Signs at Legion Lake Lodge campground had warned about the possibility of bison in the area. Up until that time I had not realized I was in Custer State Park. Bison are dangerous. I had gone the first three days of the trip with constantly being cognizant of the weather, now I had to be continuously aware of the possibility of running into bison…not an event I would relish.
From Legion Lake we bypassed a group of horse riders using english saddles which surprise me. We chatted briefly before I continued on and followed an easy grass-covered trail through some pines where a coyote crossed our path, and then out into a beautiful rocky scenic area with views of Custer State Park that were pretty stunning. The trail quickly went from pleasant to rough, steep and very rocky with loose scree making the hiking particularly difficult…progress was slow as we paused often. During one break two other backpackers passed by, going the opposite direction. They said “hi” but weren’t particularly friendly…not something I’ve come to expect from most backpackers who are usually apt to chat for a while.
With the steep climb behind us we now had to navigate an equally steep and rocky descent more suited for four-legged creatures, like mountain goats and border collies, than bipedal critters like humans.
Thankfully the trail eventually flattened out but the rocks remained for a while until we entered French Creek Canyon. Two water crossings were tough to navigate but I avoided getting wet, just barely, and was glad to not have to remove shoes. The canyon’s wide and flat bottom made for a last easy mile of hiking before we reached the campground where we took a break and learned that camping in the area wasn’t free (I thought the campground was the only fee area). Of course, without my wallet I had no money and eventually sought out the camp host who gave me permission to camp without paying…another wonderful source of trail magic.
I set up camp a little further down the creek from the campground, hoping the bison I had seen across the bridge wouldn’t wander into my camp during the night. My tarp was finally set-up properly and I was very happy with my adjustments to the suspension. I crawled into my hammock early as it was getting chilly and listened to some music for an hour before settling in for the night as it got dark.
I woke at 5am, a little cold and aware of the condensation on the inside of my tarp and on my quilt. I was pretty sure it had dropped below freezing overnight, and ice in the dogs’ water bowl confirmed my suspicions when I finally crawled out from my hammock. I tried to accomplish as many tasks from the warmth of my quilts and hammock before braving the cold morning air and packing up camp.
Two large bull bison blocked the entrance to the campground. I had to navigate my way around, through very wet grass and up a hill to get back to the trail. Of course bison were scattered throughout the campground (I was surprised that it wasn’t fenced to keep them out) and blocked my way to get from the horse corrals to the water spigot and the exit trail. At least four bison were within twenty yards of the road. I finally asked one of the horse owners if they would be willing to transport me and the dogs the two hundred yards to the bathhouse in their truck. They kindly helped me out (more trail magic).
I filled up with another four liters of water so I didn’t have to filter later, but lost some of it inside my pack due to the worsening leak in my squeeze bag. Some of clothes were wet by the time we had gone a mile; this is why I keep most of my clothes and down quilts in a waterproof trash compactor bag in the bottom of my pack.
I rearranged water bottles, changed pants as the day was already heating up, and kept hiking while a couple of garments were strung on the outside of my pack to dry in the sun and breeze.
Wide valleys, tall grass and adequate shade provided the perfect location for bison and I was more aware than ever of the possibility of running into a herd. I was constantly vigilant and kept the dogs to heal at all times unless I could see for a good distance.
While the warm sun was appreciated, the lack of trees through the meadows and the burned forested areas provided no shade as the day heated up. I saw many cars on the wildlife loop road pause so I believed there were bison in the immediate area, but without seeing any there was a possibility they were stopping for deer or other wildlife.
I had been following bison and horse tracks for a while as we crossed a steep hill and the valley before us was prime bison grazing. At least in the open areas it was easy to spot the large animals from a distance and give them a wide berth. I still didn’t run into any.
It was only after nine miles of hiking, and reaching the grazing area by the gate between Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park that we came across a large bull. He eye-balled us and started heading in our direction, crossing the creek with a huge leap and paused. The dogs and I quickly diverted and made an unscheduled crossing of Highland Creek. I got wet, but it was better than the alternative. The official creek crossing on the trail was far too close to the bull.
With some space between us and the bison I stopped to converse briefly with an older couple who had also been watching the bull and waiting to see what he would do before they started hiking. They were heading up the trail I had just come down. I was informed that they use dogs when rounding up the bison and it was probably Kye and Cody more than me that had attracted the bull’s attention.
Once safely through the gate and into the Wind Cave National Park we paused for some water play time beside the road before looking at the map. The trail confounded me and there was NO signage for the Centennial Trail (89), anywhere. I wandered up a road for a while before making an educated guess and locating another trail with a national park number on it. I could only hope that it was the right trail. Finally after several markers I found one with the correct trail number “89” designation on it. That kind of information would have been useful on the trail head sign.
I was very disappointed with how poorly the trail was marked in the national park especially when I found myself in a wide, flat valley with prairie dog towns extending in all directions. Poles with trail numbers on them went in at least 4 different directions but there was no indication from a distance which way I should go, no arrows, no nothing.
Finally I found the correct pole designating the trail number I needed. I think I pissed off a lot of prairie dogs during my wanderings back and forth, and they were certainly very vocal about it.
It was getting hotter, shade was more-or-less non-existent and I was a little worried about my water lasting until the next creek.
I saw a handful of bison off in the distance, a safe place for them to be, and meandered through the endless prairie dog towns following the occasionally-hard-to-find trail markers. More hikers coming the opposite direction warned me of bison on the trail a little further down and I spotted them over the crest of a hill. Thankfully it was an area that was easy to navigate around and we finally made our way to Norbeck Creek, following a steep descent down to the valley floor.
By this time both Cody and I were limping pretty badly. I was having some serious knee pain that was exacerbated by the downhills and Cody’s old shoulder injury was bothering him. Kye was doing great and thankfully we only had a mile or so to hike, uphill, to the trail head and the truck.
We enjoyed the stream for a while and Cody decided that laying in the cool water felt good. I was glad I had removed their packs.
Norbeck Creek followed a beautiful but narrow canyon upwards and it was definitely in my mind that it would be a pretty unfortunate place to run into any buffalo, a feeling confirmed by the ever present hoof prints in the dirt of the trail. I had just finished filming a clip regarding that thought and hoping I wasn’t junxing myself when the canyon opened up and several cow bison and their calves were descending a trail at the far end. I had certainly jinxed myself.
With nothing to do but wait I let the dogs sleep for fifteen minutes before deciding to make a move, planning on bushwhacking around the far side of the valley. Apparently the bison had decided the same thing as they crossed the creek and climbed a trail on the opposite side of the canyon and left. It was now safe to continue.
Just as I thought I was home free I saw a plume of dirt…a good indicator that there more buffalo ahead. And yup, three bulls were in grazing or sleeping just off the trail and they didn’t look like they were planning to move any time soon.
I could see my truck ahead, at the top of the hill. Instead of waiting for the bulls to move (which probably would have taken forever) I bushwhacked up the side of the canyon, tripping on rocks and branches, and feeling utterly exhausted and deflated, and finally got back to my truck. I was grateful that the incline was neither steep nor dangerous.
Back at my truck, Cody was still limping badly…right up until the time I removed his pack and he took off to explore under a fallen tree that held countless interesting smells, no limping in sight!
Between the weather of the first three days, and some signage problems in a few areas, I was initially frustrated and not having the greatest time. There were several times I thought about quitting but between not being a quitter in general, and remembering who I was hiking the trail for, I persevered and gutted it out…and I’m glad I did.
This one’s for you Grandad; thanks for coming with me