Day One: Getting Started
- Note: All elevation and mileages are approximate.
- August 19: Denver to Bear Butte State Park
- Miles hiked: 5.3
- Elevation gain: 1,654 feet
While Emily began her training in the Omaha heat, I started poring over maps, online resources and Steve’s recently completed “databook” with information about the pilot trail. I bought National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps for both the northern and southern Black Hills, and got materials from the U.S. Forest Service about the Ogalala National Grasslands and Nebraska National Forest.
Anticipating a hot journey, I overcame my long hesitation and finally decided to buy a hiking umbrella, settling on Six Moon Designs’ Silver Shadow. I also was excited to try out a new tent, Six Moon Designs’ Skyscape Trekker, and the latest version of Altra Timp shoes, both of which I’d received to review for The Trek hiking website. Other than that, I planned to stick with gear that had served me well since I began long-distance hiking in 2015 on the Colorado Trail.
After rejecting a 22-hour Greyhound ride for $71, I rented a car one-way for just $81, then take a shuttle from Rapid City to Bear Butte. The drive would allow me to scout some of the route through Nebraska or even stash water.
At long last, I got a ride to DIA on the morning of Monday, Aug. 19, collected my minivan (cheaper, strangely, than a car), and headed north to Cheyenne. I hit Scottsbluff, where I would end the hike, by early afternoon, and was soon sending pale clouds of dust into the cornflower-blue skies as I rumbled along the washboarded back roads of Dawes and Sioux counties that I would soon be walking. Driving with the window down, I regretted my “ounce foolish” decision to leave my new sun umbrella behind. But how bad could it be? I’d never used one before ….
I lucked out at Rapid City Regional Airport, catching a shuttle to Sturgis after waiting just 15 minutes. For an extra $10, the driver, a Sioux man drove me to the entrance of Bear Butte State Park. I stood there marveling at the butte, sacred to many Indian tribes in the region. Although it was 6:30 p.m., I made a snap decision to hike up the butte now, instead of waiting until morning.
The first 125 miles or so of the Great Plains Trail pilot trail follow South Dakota’s Centennial Trail, which terminates atop the butte, much as the Appalachian Trail ends in Maine atop Katahdin. The trail was created in 1989 in celebration of South Dakota’s first 100 years as a state.
The air was warm, but a pleasant breeze made for comfortable walking as I headed north through a sloping pasture. The trail turned east on the skirts of the mountain, winding in and around several cool, shallow draws, where I spooked several whitetail deer.
After about a mile, I reached a small shelter and water fountain, where the trail steepened as it headed north and east. I passed countless colorful bits of cloth tied into small bundles filled with tobacco, an Indian ritual to honor ancestors and dead loved ones. I saw no people, and felt exhilaratingly alone as I followed the path into the mountain’s shadow.
The trail gains about 1,500 feet from where I started, cutting across the side of the mountain and skipping along narrow ridges, providing spectacular views of the plains to the east, which were already beginning to turn from golden-green to purple with the onset of evening.
I reached the summit in just over an hour, as the westering sun painted Bear Butte’s western side in a gilded, bloody light. Looking east, I realized that this was literally the last mountain until the Adirondacks in northern New York. I also plucked five ticks off my legs.
Heading back down, I was surprised to see a small figure running up the trail. Soon, I startled a middle-aged Indian woman as she rounded a corner; guess she thought she’d been alone, too.
By the time I reached the entrance to the park, the sun was long gone, leaving only a strip of pale blue on the horizon to interrupt a cloak of darkness. I walked about a half mile on the reservoir road, and pitched my tent while battling a cloud of marauding mosquitoes swarming to my white headlamp. I soon discovered that they paid not the slightest attention to the red lamp. Good to know.
I filled a 20-ounce water bottle in the nearby lake, struggling to keep the many tadpoles from committing suicide. But after treating with trusty Aqua Mira drops, the water tasted like swampy swill. I ate a Clif bar and a packet of tuna, then tried to read. But it had been a long day by car, shuttle and foot, and after dropping the Kindle on my face two times, I put it aside and fell instantly asleep.