Leaving Mena around 9, we headed to Lake Carl Blackwell. After three and half hours of driving we arrived to find new pens and a couple of horses. Cisco recognized the area and relaxed into his tree shaded pen. Burton and I set up camp and did some housekeeping since I threw a multitude of items on the trailer floor. I met a couple of people from western Oklahoma who were spending the weekend there. Friday morning we packed up and drove to Burlington, Colorado which was 2 hours short of my original goal but being tried it was a good stop. Kit Carson Fairgrounds had 10 by 8 stalls but Cisco didn’t seem to mind and settled right in drinking and eating. Most of the stalls were pretty dirty but a few had been left clean and the greatest part was that Cisco got to run and play in the rodeo arena. His nice clean coat now was covered with red clay dirt. Broken Arrow in South Dakota was our destination with plans to stay there and I would ride the Centennial Trail using that as a base.
We arrived at Broken Arrow Camp and were delighted to find a neat, clean and horse friendly camp located at base of the Black Hills National Forest. You can ride for days right out of camp or rent one of their trailers and ride forever! The hostess Lee Ann met our rig and promptly asked for our coggins and rabies shot certificate for Bo then proceed to chat about the area. Nice people! We settled in with Cisco in a grand stall and our trailer parked just down from him. I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to check on him (unless he called and demanded more hay!) Since we arrived at Broken Arrow before 2 we decided to check out the trailheads and drive by Mt Rushmore. All the trailheads were small and not hardly big enough for a small 2 horse let along our rig! Thank goodness we were able to rent one of the camp trailers.
Trail Day 1
Because horses aren’t allowed in Wind Cave National Park I started the trail 6 miles up at NPS Road 5 off of Hwy 87. The trailhead was larger than most but not large enough to easily turn a small trailer around. No problem for me as I would be well up the trail before all the cussing was going on while Burton was trying to turn the trailer (I thought!) I saddled up with two buffalo about a football field away watching our every move. They have huge heads! These two fellows never stirred from resting in the sun but also never took their eyes off of us. Saddled up Cisco startled and threw his head up in the air and smelled the air then I saw what was his concern: a herd of 20 or so buffalo with babies were walking right down the trail, luckily they were in Custer State Park behind a tall game fence. We had quite the parade of buffalo meandering down to the creek, drinking and then casually eating grass and they moved off. My timing was perfect, safe behind the fence and I was able to observe Cisco’s reaction to a huge, big headed animal. He was wary but didn’t act the fool…I can only imagine how some horses react! A hiker came down the trail leaving a large girth between him and the buffalo. He hurried to the gate which Burton had forced open. So my turn and Cisco and I walked thru and down the draw in the opposite direction of the herd with several of the herd watching us closely. We quickly rounded the hill out of sight of the buffalo and I mounted up. We travelled 6 miles in the Flynn Creek basin and had pretty easy going. You could see where last December’s devastating fire ahead with the smaller pines orange from the burn. I was told this fire burned 53, 000 acres and I was soon to see just how vast the fire was. As I came up out of the draw I followed an old road with the trail well marked then the trees were completely burned along with all the signs and trail markers. I was trying to compare the map to my gps and suddenly Cisco stiffened. I looked up to see a buffalo with a head as big as a freightliner tire about 30 feet away. I could have spit in his eye! Both Cisco and Bo must have realized the danger as they both moved off quickly and the linebacker just eyed us. Buffalo and loggers had decimated the area so there wasn’t any trail to follow and not having any gps coordinates I made my best guess on several turns. I then complete lost all sense of what might be the trail so I hopped off and tried to find anything that might tell me the direction. I knew that there were a few turns from the map so I followed a well worn and not destroyed trail for about ½ mile until I came up alongside of a tree that had fur tufts all along it trunk starting up about 3 feet. Okay, so I knew I was on a buffalo game trail…I headed back immediately hoping not to encounter the herd. Finally, at an old road intersection I tried a direct north route and bingo there was a trail sign….Now travelling along at a nice pace watching the black sky roll towards us. Then it hit, a hail storm and it hit hard! I had to get off Cisco as he was trying to turn all around to not get pelted. Bo came running and got under my slicker between my legs to be shielded and we were able to avoid a few hard pelts under some young saplings. Thirty minutes the hail came down but finally relented and we moved on towards French Creek Horse Camp. To my surprise there were several trailers and about 6 or 8 horses/mules in camp. I was greeted with “You were out in that storm?” I stopped to find the closest couple were from……Arkansas! Greenwood to be exact and when I told them I was from Mena we all had a good laugh. Cisco had a snack and a long drink of water and we moved on trying to find the trail as it circled the French Creek Natural Area which was in sad shape from the fire. The map showed the trail going into Still Draw and along French Creek so I proceeded until I was able to find more trail markers. Finally I was able to relax some knowing I was on the correct trail. We continued on another three and half miles to Legion Lake to find Burton parked right on the side of the road where the trail crossed…Such a great guy, he had waited there for 2 hours (remember I was waylaid by my search of the trail.) Cisco instantly knew the day was over and hurried into the trailer!
Trail Day 2
Going to Iron Creek Horse Camp seemed to be an easy day. The trail was muddy but well marked, at first. Soon the dead fall had taken the markers with their collapse into the mud and I had to search for an occasional one. A few trees scattered between the charcoaled logs stood determined to live and added a bit of green color. The devastation from the fire was unbelievable but the vast views made possible from the fire were incredible. Custer State Park will come back but probably not in my lifetime! The rock formations stood in contrast to the burned floor of the forest and the occasional bird searched for food but other than that we had no company, no turkey, deer or buffalo….just stark burned forest. We trekked on following Grace Coolidge Creek then due north over Hwy 8. A big dump truck came barreling up 87 so I pulled Cisco off to the side and put a leash on Bo but to my surprise the driver slowed to a crawl and I waved appreciation. Cisco’s reaction was to eat grass! So little bothers this horse! The trail led us to the “Iron Creek Trailhead” where Burton was to be waiting but he wasn’t and that was a very concerning situation as we hadn’t driven out to it before…a fellow in a white truck came by and I asked him if he had seen a truck and small trailer, his reply was that the horse camp was ¾ mile down the road! He offered to drive past it to see if the rig was there. Within a few minutes up the mountain Burton comes – he was at the horse camp of course!
Trail Day 3
Iron Creek to Big Pine – there was room to comfortably saddle up at Iron Creek and to enjoy the mountain, even Burton seemed relaxed. He was to meet me at Big Pine and if I had enough horse left I would go on to the next trailhead…well, that was positive thinking! Shortly after mounting up I found us at the border of the Black Elk Wilderness where I had to fill out a trail pass then up Haney Peak mountain, down into a canyon, along a creek and up what I believe to be Iron Mountain. The trail was mostly granite and it did a real number on my Easy Boots…the crevice filled trail was well marked by wilderness standards with the occasional 89 carved into a blazed tree but there was dead fall all over the trail. Cisco had to leave the trail bed too many times to count climbing up rocks and back to the trail. I cut and cleared one tree that clearly meant to stop all horses from continuing on and even though the elevation wasn’t too bad at about 5,700’ I found myself breathless and worn out. I hoped that the trail would be better the closer we got to Mt Rushmore but was disappointed to find that it actually got worse. Tree after tree slowed our travel. The only thing that made me endure the carnage was the fact that I would have to ask Cisco to go back over all the horrible obstacles and I just couldn’t do that. Finally after what seemed hours of log lined travel we got to the Mt Rushmore cut off…although it was only a half mile and all up I just couldn’t miss the chance to see the mountain carvings from horseback. One foot on that trail and you would have thought you were in Central Park New York! The trail was immaculate, fine gravel bedded and the creek crossings were strong, well-built bridges. Cisco seemed to appreciate the footing and covered the almost vertical half mile in 20 minutes. At the top there were picnic tables, tie rails and a wonderful view of the 4 carved heads that seemed impossible for anyone to have accomplished. A few pictures and I was off, not wanting to kid myself into thinking the worse was over when we got back to the Centennial Trail with still having over 5 miles to go. I was almost immediately confronted with more dead fall so I got off and tried to find our way around the pretzeled mess. Then came the stairs which were interesting in themselves but of course they had to be covered with serious dead fall. Normally I wouldn’t have tried to get through but the thought of going back motivated me to at least try. Cisco was all forward so I felt he might have seen a way to ascend and sure enough he pulled off the stairs onto the cliff side and barreled over the smaller, bird’s nest of timber. Sometimes I am amazed that horses are capable of what Cisco (and Issy my Pacific Crest mount) have done to persist. Maybe they are all like that but I doubt it. The trail climbed with more smaller dead fall but easily walked over and we pulled into Big Pine Trailhead knowing that we were finished for the day…I didn’t care that the next section was only 3.6 miles…I had had enough!
Trail Day 4
It seems that I am starting to get a knot in my stomach from apprehension about the trail conditions and my mind was looking for any excuse not to continue. Cisco did have a couple of nasty bruises on both sides right by the girth. My first thought was that he had galled from the girth but the whelps were in direct line of my own bruised legs so it was probably the limbs which battered us both. If he had galled I certainly wasn’t going on. But with my girth covered with fleece he didn’t show any discomfort. I needed a better excuse not to tackle the next section. Burton and I decided that I would only do the 3.6 miles and not add any more. This section had a 7’ tunnel under the very busy Hwy 16 and that in itself caused me much angst. Cisco had done tunnels before and handled them in business like fashion but 7’ was awfully short and at 16.2 he would not have room to put his head up….Worry was my middle name! As I was leaving Big Pine a family got out of their car with 3 little toddlers and boy was there a reaction about a horsey! Knowing Cisco loves kids I directed him away from the trail over to the trio of admirers and he gently put his head down for each little hand to rub his nose. Got to love this horse! Okay, I have used every excuse not to head trailside but now it was go or NOT! I walked away from the family, Burton, the nice safety of the 3 horse tongue pulled trailer and marched off. To my surprise we were traversing on an old railroad bed with great footing and signs of horse traffic…no dead fall, just wonderful going! Feeling foolish I mounted up and we enjoyed the rr trail for a mile or so then dropped of the hill onto a single track. Still no dead fall and soon we were going behind some private property and yet great travel. The open forest brought back the reason I was there on the trail…Deer white flagged us with their departure and we even gaited for a bit. Such a relaxing trail but I was still nagged by the thought of the tunnel….ugh! The map showed an old road crossing Hwy 16 not too far from the trail so I had that in my back pocket but part of the Hwy we had to cross was very dangerous and with little visibility so I wanted to avoid that if possible (crossing 4 lanes of traffic with a horse and dog was not something I wanted to try.) Okay, so I could hear the traffic and knew my nemesis was soon to challenge us. From my vantage point it looked like a tobacco pouch and it didn’t get any larger as we grew nearer! There was a nice, horse friendly gate and it was a solidly built tunnel with a hint of light from the other side. We entered and Cisco raised his head touching immediately with his ears (his head was barely above the saddle horn) but he moved on looking at me and making me realize we had something few ever do. I talked to him in mare like tones and he lowered his head, Bo skipped thru in front of us. Traffic overhead was mercifully light so the above road noise was not too bad and we gained the light at the end of the tunnel! With less than a half mile to go we soon were loaded into that sweet little trailer and heading back to Broken Arrow. I enjoyed the ride, felt refreshed and ready for whatever the trail might bring tomorrow.
Trail Day 5
From Samelius Trailhead to Dakota Point was the section I had to ride, only 9 miles and I was glad. The trail had taught me that planning a 20 or 25 mile day was not possible so I settled on a good day being 10 miles or so. I was less apprehensive knowing if I had to go back it would be less than 10 miles. I made all sorts of concessions for this trail! Heading up further into the Black Hills National Forest, we rounded Samelius Peak with some pretty nasty rocks to go over but Cisco navigated them without an issue. Then we rode Calumet Ridge for what seemed several miles and then down into the Sheridan Lake area. The ridge ride was spectacular with views on both sides enticing our gaze from between rock formations, the lake and open trail; slowly we descended. First was Flume Trailhead (mostly for boat launching but plenty of room for a large horse trailer) and onto a wonderful lakeside trail which meandered above the lake on great tread. Following the lake as it curved and jetted our trail keep us above the water but safe on a wide tread. As we approached the dam I dismounted because I hate to ride dams and just as my feet hit the ground I saw a “No horses” sign. We had to detour off to the base of the dam and ride what turned out to be a lovely and memorable trail (Trail 50A, I believe.) It was also still marked Trail 89 but my guess was the hikers stayed up on the rock wall and mercifully we riders got to ease down the side of Spring Creek - the run off from Sheridan Lake. With Bluelead Mountain on one side and Twin Sisters on the other it was absolutely breathtaking. A lone duck floated on the clear water and then a ways down another was solitary. There was a hiker bridge over one of the creek crossings but the creek bottom was solid, clear and easy with the several creek crossing offering no challenge at all. A large overflow forced water from the mountainside with such force that the water jetted out before falling down the mountain side. So very relaxing and scenic! I felt fortunate that my travels brought me to such a unique canyon. We finally got to Upper Spring Creek Trailhead (where there was a marker clearly printed with 89) and then the trail stopped. Cisco enjoyed the lush grass as I walked around looking for more trail signs and finally with the help of my map I realized that the detour trail followed along the road heading back to Dakota Point where the detour converged with the hiker trail. The road trail was far enough off the road that I didn’t have to leash Bo and we were very safe on the faint trail with Burton finding us after a kindly fellow drove up to Dakota Point to tell him we had to take the by-pass!
Trail Day 6
From Dakota Point to Rapid Creek was the plan for this morning. I was still anxious about the trail conditions but I did have a wonderful ride yesterday. Burton dropped me off up the hill from the detour/bypass trail and Cisco was ready to get the job done. We moved at a fast walk with the reins swinging. Deer scurried off with Bo taking note but not leaving my side. We followed an old road for a while then the trail turned east at the highline. I hadn’t expected such an abrupt turn and consulted my map: sure enough the trail turned and then shortly turned back north. The trail was perfect with aspen (I was at around 5,000 so I wasn’t sure they were aspen and not birch) lining the trail. The trail opened up with my complaint being gates instead of dead fall. How nice that that was the main issue! The rolling hills displayed South Dakota at it’s best. Back and forth up the vastness and then to a wonderful spring with two stock tanks. The water even smelled clear and pure! Cisco drank his fill and we continued on dropping in elevation but not losing the aspen/birch which heralded our descent with a canopy of white and yellow. The creeks were pristine and every natural thing seemed in order: chipmunks scolded, deer eyed us from afar. I wanted to stay forever! We rode past Brush Creek Trailhead and then into Gold Standard Gulch. It was my favorite kind of trail: canyon like with rock walls rising up from a sweet creek bed, trees well-nourished and healthy. South Dakota gets my vote! We moved right on passing Tamarack Gulch and trailhead to cross some well- constructed single track bridges over Rapid Creek. I noticed a snake trying to slither to taller grass in an effort not to be seen, Bo jumped into the creek and was surprised to find it was indeed “Rapid Creek!” Within a few minutes we were at Rapid Creek Trailhead sharing stories with a fisherman who modestly said he did get a few but since it was a catch and release area there could have been some real fish stories told. I couldn’t help but smile….
Trail Day 7
The carnage from the Black Elk Wilderness had faded and the true South Dakota country side no longer stayed hidden. I was eager to get on the trail this morning expecting to enjoy the scenery. Rapid Creek Trailhead was down below the dam and one has to drive almost straight down to get to it so I asked Burton to drop us off up from the dam and not try to haul Cisco down such an incline. That decision was perfect as the road crew was putting on a new blacktop surface and we would have had to ride (with Bo walking) on hot tar in order to cross 385. We met the trail at the bottom of Perrin Mountain and headed right back up again through Boarding House Gulch. Again a beautiful and restful ride with the trail in excellent shape, we turned towards Merritt Peak crossing Smoker Gulch. We could see Hwy 385 in the distance as we headed in a northwesterly direction but continued to parallel it… Soon we were enjoying the old growth trees left by the loggers because of the difficult terrain. We stayed at about 5100’ elevation and entered Smokers Gulch then climbed to skirt beside Deer Creek Trailhead. The going was easy and relaxing with a house every now and then in the distance. The noise from Hwy 385 was our only reminder that we were close as it wasn’t readily visible. We crossed Silver City Road, lost the trail for a minute and then found where it was moved up hill to avoid some erosion. A few miles further on we skirted some more private property and then headed right towards Hwy 385 with Merritt Peak (5,556’) sheltering us from the west sun we crossed 385 going thru a nice though typical gate and onto the busy highway to cross directly to Nissen Road and then following the nice trail towards Pilot Knob. I thought to myself as we were cradled between the private property 5 strand barbed wire fence and the very steep, rocky mountainside that if there was going to be a place where I just might have to turn around because of dead fall this was it. Not one tree had hindered us for the last 4 miles but sure enough there was dead fall hanging on the fence and held high by the mountain wall. Lucky for me someone had had cut the 5 or 6 huge trees so we rode right through! Cisco saw the trailer before I did as he picked up his gait and kept his eyes fixed on it as if it might disappear if he stopped looking at it! Burton was sound asleep until 2 4-wheelers started up their motors and a couple of dirt bikes came whizzing by heading up the trail. Cisco gave them little attention and hungrily ate the lush grass as I untacked him but he did throw his head up when the dirt bikes revved their engines as they accelerated up the mountain. I noted his response and worried about the narrow trail tomorrow.
Trail Day 8
Because the next section (from Pilot Knob to Dalton Lake) was open to 4 wheelers and dirt bikes I decided to skip it and go straight to Dalton Lake. Dalton Lake had the best trailhead so far: wide, fairly level, lots of graze and water! I wish I had planned to camp here….The trailhead was separate from the RV’rs camp and down- stream from Dalton Lake. I loved it! Little Elk Creek fed the lake and the overflow allowed a nice stream to meander right alongside the trailhead. We headed north for a lot longer than I thought the map was showing and started to worry as there weren’t any trail signs and finally we turned back east and continued to climb, climb, climb and climb! I was certainly glad to be riding as I’m not sure my lungs could have handled that much elevation gain. Cisco, however did fine, not wanting to even stop for a breath but I insisted and he raised his head up and just looked at me until I told him to go on! I radioed Burton and told him I could see him down at the mountain base but would soon be going around the turn and be on the other side. The trail was scenic and wonderful with rock formations and views…all the interesting aspects of the trail coming one after the other. We continued to gain elevation and then drop on wide switchbacks making the trail enjoyable and not worrisome. Bo barked and soon a biker appeared from around a corner and we had a great chat. He relayed that there wasn’t any deadfall that he had to lift his bike over and I told him that the trail was the same for him except for a few steep rocky areas he might have to walk. I think the news was a relief for both of us! We continued on, looking and hoping for some water as the last we had was at Dalton Lake some 10 miles earlier. Finally we got to Dry Elk Gulch enjoying the vertical wall in the distance where someone had built a dwelling and some other kind of structure on the cliff. The gulch was dry but we watched for a pool, finding one small one far down from the trail and not worth the effort to climb to. We started to slow as thirst, heat and rocks hindered our passage but soon Bo dropped to his belly in a nice pool where Cisco was able to get a good long drink. With that Cisco was all forward and again he spotted the trailer before I did and all but gaited up the trail to Burton sitting parked at Elk Creek Trailhead.
Trail Day 9
From Elks Creek to Alkali Creek Horse Camp and on to Fort Meade were our intended destinations. Getting to Elks Creek Trailhead had Burton and me nervous as the trailhead was down a pretty nasty dirt road with big gulleys in the last 1000’ to the tiny parking spot. We watched for a better place to stop and turnaround and found 2B just up the hill from the worst of it. Burton backed into the old dirt road and we both were relieved! I saddled up and walked down the road to Elks Creek, mounted up and headed north-northeast on the trail. The trail went from 4,600’ to 5,100’ gradually through young, healthy pine saplings and then alongside of a rough slide which we mercifully skirted. We found an old wooden cupboard, still upright drawing the question as to it’s use. The trail was scenic with vast views and easy going except for the gains. We travelled along a lovely but narrow saddle, then up, down and finally found ourselves on a nice prairie where we could see all the way to Interstate 90. I wondered how we were to cross that multiple lane highway but was distracted by a clean cattle trough where Cisco drank his fill. Bo was able to climb down into Alkali Creek and scramble back up before I had to put a leash on him. I was relieved to see a railroad trestle and a long tunnel giving us safe access to the trail on the east side of I 90. With the traffic buzzing overhead Cisco gave little attention to anything other than the view of lush grass after the far opening of the tunnel. We followed a trail assuming the correct one as there weren’t any markings at the first intersection but soon found a Centennial Trail marker confirming our correct choice. We walked into Alkali Horse Camp only to see every camping site filled with Rv’ers who didn’t have a horse in the bunch and with Burton parking on an access road. Even with this disappointing sight we were still able to set up the electric pen so Cisco could have an hour or so eating grass. Burton and I ate lunch with me reviewing our travels. Well rested we saddled up to do the last leg of the Centennial Trail into Fort Meade and maybe up to Bear Butte Lake. I decided that since it took an hour and half to trailer to Alkali Horse Camp that I should see if Cisco could make 20 miles in one day rather that haul back to base camp and then back out for the last 7 or 8 miles. Cisco was all forward so I was pleased to have a fit horse as we climbed out away for Alkali and headed towards Fort Meade. The first couple of miles was all climb and it was getting very hot then we started back down and hit a high plain prairie with no shade. The views were spectacular but we hit this section at the hottest time of the day and it was taking a toll pretty fast. We had several gates to open and that made me walk for miles to find a spot to mount up…Both of were getting tired, but we continued on hoping to get to Fort Meade at least since the rest of the trail was open prairie I had little desire to go the last bit to the lake. We gained Fort Meade at a cemetery and it completely surprised me. The pristine cemetery had a crisp, American flag along with a POW flag and I couldn’t see where there was a road to access it but I was downhill and assumed that there must have been one since the grave sites were perfectly kept as was the lovely white fence around them. On further the trail took us by on old chimney, a building that looked like it may have been barracks and some other remnants of past buildings and then to the large Fort Meade Trailhead where there was fresh water and plenty of room to park any size of trailer. I radioed Burton and told him it was too hot to do the last couple of prairie miles and ask him to pick us up. Shortly he was there and we drove over to the east side of Bear Butte Lake to the equestrian camp which had a nice corral, fresh water and plenty of parking for trailers. I snapped a few photos and Burton and I headed back to home at Broken Arrow Horse Camp in Custer an hour and half away!
Final words on the Centennial Trail: Using Broken Arrow Horse Camp worked out perfectly for both Burton and Cisco. Each night they found themselves comfortable in their beds. I love trail camping but found the atmosphere at BAHC to be so nice that I barely missed the trailside camps. Having their smaller trailer to get to the tiny trailheads made it all work. The trail itself was not difficult and most with a conditioned horse would enjoy the interesting contrasts it brought. I loved the last half with it’s relaxing tread and little deadfall but glad I was able to ride through Custer State Park even with the fire damaged scenery. The ride up to Mt Rushmore was a wonderful experience and not difficult from Iron Creek Trailhead. I highly recommend all riders to experience the memories I had on the Centennial Trail and at Broken Arrow Horse Camp.