Pactola to Merritt on the Centennial (and a Little bit of Deerfield)
I had not planned on riding the Centennial Trail from Pactola Lake to Highway 385. Actually, I had done a poor job of planning what I might do the rest of my Saturday … after riding at Buzzard’s Roost with T Man in the morning. Trent had about 6 things he needed to do after our ride and I wanted to explore the Black Hills a little more before flying out early the next morning.
T Man suggested I go out to Pactola Lake, and ride some more of the Centennial Trail (I had done 12 miles of the Centennial a couple days previous up north). When he offered to escort me to the trailhead I could not resist!
Interactive Map for Pactola to Merritt
- Click the green or red balloons for driving directions to the trailhead.
- Click Tracks or Icons for More Specific Information.
Highway 44 stops right when it runs into Highway 385. I followed T Man as he made a left turn onto 385 and into a dirt area soon after. He told me I had three choices as to how I could get to the Centennial Trail. I could ride down the paved road next to my car … a road which crossed the Centennial (and eventually go to Pactola Lake), or ride down the shoulder of the highway a little and join the Centennial as it crossed the highway. That, of course, was the one I chose since I would get to ride a little more singletrack.
Highway 385 was pretty busy on that Saturday and I did exactly as Trent recommended … stayed on the shoulder until I got to the trail sign.
The sky continued to ooze (just as it had on our Buzzard’s Roost ride earlier that morning) and a stiff wind punished my face. All that changed once I made the right turn onto the Centennial Trail.
The singletrack certainly was great … undulating through the hills overlooking Pactola Lake. No big grinds or drops, just a meandering, smooth path under the trees. I felt no precipitation or wind under the canopy … almost ideal conditions. I caught glimpses of Pactola Lake occasionally through the trees.
Some of the ravines draining into Pactola Lake were thick with aspens, their effervescent colors highlighted against the dark pine forest on the distant hill.
The trail began to climb steadily once I had reached the 2.5 mile mark … the result of riding out of the lake’s basin. At the 4.3 mile mark I came to the toughest decision I had faced all day. Should I continue on the Centennial Trail, which kept heading north … or should I make a left onto the Deerfield Trail?
I had read a lot about the Deerfield Trail, but remembered little. That was the problem. Trent has told me the Centennial Trail paralleled Highway 385, but I had little knowledge as to where the Deerfield went. I remembered someone saying the best part was to ride west from Silver City, circle around Deerfield Lake, and back … a lollipop type of track. But I knew I was not close to Silver City, and I had no knowledge of this part of the Deerfield. Paralleling a highway versus heading into an area totally unknown to me? The old explorer in me prevailed. I took the Deerfield Trail just to see where it would lead.
The first part climbed nearly 300 feet up a terrible, shale covered drainage. Hike-a-biking up the draw was like trudging over a bed of stacked abalone shells. Even my feet had trouble gaining purchase!
However, once I had reached the summit the Deerfield turned into one of the finest tracks I’d been on my whole trip. Long, winding singletrack was only interrupted by an occasional downed tree over the trail.
I was stunned by how many downed trees I saw not on the trail. Thousands of them … all facing the same direction! What would make them all fall that way?
But the signage … I have never seen so many trail markers. I had had trouble finding trail junctions on my Victorian Secret and Bone Collector rides but not here! “Deerfield Trail #40,” was posted about every 200 yards, even though no other trails branched off.
I cruised along, gradually losing elevation, not knowing where I was heading. I knew I couldn’t go too far as the afternoon was starting to wane. After about a mile and a half on the Deerfield Trail I came to the edge of a canyon where the trail began a hefty plunge down into an unknown. This was the point where my caution began overtake my urge to explore.
I started asking myself questions like, “Is this descent so steep I will have to hike out?” Or, “Once I get to the bottom will I be able to return in daylight?” Or, “If I crash down there is there any chance anyone would be in the area?” Or, “Is there any chance the trail loops back to the car on Highway 385?” Or, I wonder if the trail continues to be marked well … what if I get turned around down there?” Dang! I wish I had copied a couple of the Strava tracks people had posted on the Deerfield Trail. Bad planning on my part!
So I returned to the safety of the Centennial Trail and the proximity of a busy Highway 385. Once back to the junction I easily rode three more miles to where the Centennial Trail crosses Highway 385 up by a town called Merritt. This section of the Centennial Trail was almost flat.
The Black Hills geology never ceases to amaze me. One minute the ground looks totally smooth and all of a sudden, I come across rock jutting out of that smoothness.
I crossed the highway but decided I had reached a good place to turn around. Riding the 8 miles (from the 385 crossing back to Pactola Lake) took less than an hour as the trail was either flat or downhill the majority of the way.
During most visits I take many more photos than I can place on a page. To view every image I captured … 40 photos in all, please visit my Photo Gallery site.
My other rides in the Black Hills are listed below: