The Centennial Trail … South Dakota’s Top Mountain Bike Ride
The Centennial Trail passes primarily north south through 105 miles of South Dakota terrain. The number 89 has been assigned to the trail to help celebrate the year North Dakota became a state (1889). A buffalo head symbol also marks the Centennial Trail in many places.
I decided to start at Alkali Creek based upon the recommendations of Dirk and Ian, two local riders I met while on my Victorian Secret ride two days before. They said I should try to ride out at least eight miles before turning around. Then I would be able to take ride back down on the “Bull Dog” segment … one of the best pieces of trail around.
The Alkali trailhead is located in a BLM campground … with bathrooms. I made use of the toilet area to change into my riding gear and to do my morning business! The only other person I noticed in the area was the campground host … your typical upper middle aged guy wearing blue jeans, a khaki shirt, cowboy hat and cowboy boots. From the moment I pulled into the parking area I felt he was staring at me. He never approached, which surprised me, for usually those people seem a little lonely, real anxious to find someone to talk to.
The sky was blue and the morning sun felt great as I crossed the gravel road (upon which I had driven) and passed over the raised cattle guard.
The Centennial Trail continues by crossing a green, grassy field and passing under Interstate 90 in a square culvert with a thin sheet of water covering most of the flat, concrete surface. After exiting the passageway I immediately rode under an old, rustic railroad bridge, then crossed a verdant pasture on a six inch wide ribbon of dirt and entered a cluster of pine trees. Once in the trees I began to climb.
This trail starts out ascending at a very comfortable rate … 900 feet in 4 miles, then drops around 300 feet in the next mile and a half. I found the trail design exquisite. All elevation was gained by pedaling up gentle, wandering switchbacks. While easily spinning up the smooth path, I found myself passing under a dark green conical forest broken by groves of young aspens. For many stretches these aspens arched over the trail, causing tunnels filled with vibrant, chartreuse light.
Getting photos of distant landmarks was difficult due to the thick growth all along the Centennial Trail. At one point the Centennial Trail passed by a rustic, old fence made of weathered logs. The corresponding gate (also made of round logs) was a masterpiece in primitive structural design. At another location I discovered a tall metal box which almost looked like something for electric utilities.
Although the gorgeous forest continued the entire day, the primo trail design suddenly changed at about the six mile mark … where instead of climbing beautifully designed singletrack I was forced to follow a road littered with pancake size pieces of shale. And, instead of long, winding switchbacks the makers decided to have their road travel right up the mountain.
The steepness of the incline combined with the looseness of the tread made the climbing very difficult (lean back to get the rear wheel to bite and struggle to keep the front wheel on the ground. Lean forward to get some control over the front and the back just spins out in the loose shale).
The trail temporarily flattened out at the 7.6 mile mark and rose again until I entered a large, flat area … with grass stretching out fifty yards in all directions (7.9 miles into the ride). Even though I had finally reached a clearing the huge trees encircling the area blocked all views of distant landmarks. While there I was thinking, “Was this the place Ian and Dirk had talked about turning around? Had they meant turning around at the 7.6 mile mark or the 7.9 clearing? Was this the beginning of the “Bull Dog” segment?”
But then the trail began to climb again. About a half mile later I reached the top (8.7 miles, Elevation 5,166 feet) … another grassy area with no view … and suddenly felt a strong, cold wind noticed the sky was darkening with clouds. I had planned on riding all the way to the Elk Creek trailhead anyway, but I was still wondering if this was the point Dirk and Ian had talked about (the “Bull Dog” segment.
Just as I was leaving the meadow on top I rode by some stacks of wood, piled in the shape of a teepee. I had seen wood stacked this way before but am still not sure why. Were these stacks going to be burned? Were they just stacked to clear the area so the grass would grow better? Someone tell me in the comment space below!
The trail down to the Elk Creek trailhead was one of my favorite types … an old, forgotten doubletrack, reclaimed by Mother Nature so only a thin, singletrack remained. I covered the three miles in a matter of minutes.
As I approached I noticed a car was parked in the Elk Creek trailhead. I figured Elk Creek must not be a popular starting place as the parking area looked as if it would only hold about four autos.
Just as I yanked off my pack and pulled out my four cuties (little tangerine size oranges) I felt the first drops. So, I pulled on my hooded, Gortex jacket to keep me dry and warm and proceeded to eat my snack. Baby oranges and my Nature Valley Sweet and Salty bar … what a meal!
Thunder started booming all around me just as I took off my jacket, threw on my pack, and pulled my jacket back on. My jacket will not reach all the way around me and my camelback, which I have found not important. My chest area does not get a bit wet due to my body leaning forward to reach my grips.
Climbing the reclaimed doubletrack was easy, even though the sky was dumping huge drops upon me. The sound of the drops hitting my hood echoed through my helmet and ears.
I tried to capture good photos of the rain and lightning but found my results lacking. All the photos looked blurred and the thunder did not sound anywhere near as loud as was the real thing.
The rain stopped just as I reached the highest point so I got to remove my jacket. By the time I reach the top of any mountain I am usually soaking wet anyway (I am a sweat hog!) But at least my camelback was dry … well, at least the part not touching my back!
From the top (5,166 feet) I would like to say the Centennial Trail was “all downhill,” but it was not. However, I found climbs on the reverse path much easier. What I also found was some of the longest, finest, swooping singletrack I have been lucky enough to ride. Very seldom do I get the chance to ride close to 8 miles of downhill singletrack. I had to stop occasionally to give my hands, arms, and shoulders a break or to take a photo of the perfect trail. But the most fatigued part of my body was my face … from sporting a huge grin for close to eight miles of heavenly singletrack!
I was not surprised to find my car the only one parked at the Alkali Creek Trailhead. As I began to load my stuff I saw the only person I had seen all day … the campground host. He had come around the front of his motor home to, once again, give me his glare. I suppose he felt he was the guardian of the Centennial Trail.
During most visits I take many more photos than I can place on a page. To view every image I captured … 51 photos in all, please visit my Photo Gallery site.
My other rides in the Black Hills are listed below: