Centennial and Lookout Point Trails, Wind Cave National Park

This hike in the heart of Wind Cave National Park combines two trails to make a 5-mile loop, and the two couldn’t be any more different. Centennial Trail takes you through lush meadows, and a rocky canyon lined with pine, while Lookout Point Trail experiences the wide open spaces of the South Dakotan prairie. Centennial follows the path of Beaver Creek through the canyon. Then, watch for wildlife on Lookout Point trail including prairie dogs, bison and pronghorn. My brother Dave and I hiked this combined loop on Friday, May 25, 2018 beginning about 6:30AM and finishing at 10:15AM. Our plan was to circuit the loop clockwise, starting on Centennial and finishing up with Lookout Point.

Total Length: 5.3 miles Hike Duration: 3.75 hours

Hike Rating: Moderate, mostly for the length, but there is some uphill.

Hike Configuration: Loop Blaze: Numbered stakes

Elevation Start: 4,265 feet Elevation Gain: 370 feet

Trail Condition: Very good. Mostly grassy prairie. Watch for wildlife on the trail.

Starting Point: Parking area off Hwy 87. Room for about 10 cars.

Trail Traffic: We saw half a dozen other hikers, pretty well spread out.

How to Get There: From Custer, SD take Hwy 385 south to Pringle then east to the park. Approximately 18 miles total distance. Once inside the park take Hwy 87 less than a mile to Centennial Trailhead on the right.

 

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Centennial Trail was built in 1989 to mark the 100th anniversary of South Dakota’s statehood. It is 111-miles total length that will take you through prairies and mountainous areas. The trail begins at Bear Butte State Park, travels through the Fort Mead Recreation Area, Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park and ends in Wind Cave National Park. It was this latter, southern end, where Dave and I picked up the trail.

From the trailhead, Centennial Trail (#6) starts in the forest and descends steeply about 140 feet into a fresh, grassy meadow that on this morning was covered with a heavy coating of dew. Almost immediately, as we popped into the open, we were greeted by a white-tailed deer scampering across the meadow. She paused for a moment to check us out, and allow a picture, then continued her bounding journey up the hillside on the opposite side of the canyon.

The canyon that surrounds Centennial Trail has been carved by Beaver Creek. Don’t think of it like the slot canyons in Utah with narrow chutes and high walls. This is a wide U-shaped canyon with tall stone outcrops and ponderosa forest that stands 100 feet on either side. The creek is small, no more than 5-6 feet wide, and meanders gently through the center of the grassy meadows.

The canyon, and therefore the trail, twists and turns around and through the high outcroppings thereby presenting surprises and new meadows around each corner. There are a handful of wooden foot bridges that cross Beaver Creek. It was the dew that got our feet wet… not the creek.

Because of our early start just past dawn, we were chasing the sun around every corner. The grasses and wildflowers were waking up to the morning brightness and warmth as the dew glistened from the verdure tips. We found bluebells and larkspur, shooting stars and ragwort. The water in the creek is fresh and clear, assuring the lush meadows will be nourished.

Just as we would pop into the bright sunshine, so too would we enter shady areas with ponderosa canopies and cool air emanating from the flowing stream. It was, to put it simply, an absolutely delightful morning, our best at Wind Cave.

 

Moving from the shadows into the light.

 

At about the two mile mark you reach a trail junction at the last creek crossing. Centennial Trail continues up the hill and on for another 109 miles to northern South Dakota. You want to get on Highland Creek Trail (#7) at this point, for just about a quarter mile, until it reaches another junction with Lookout Point Trail (#4). Take a right turn (to the south) on Lookout Point Trail at the second junction and you will stay on it for the remainder of this hike.

When you turn onto Lookout Point Trail, it begins a moderate climb for about a half mile through the pine forest and back up to the ridge level. When you clear the forest, voilà, you are on the prairie. You did put on sunscreen and a hat didn’t you? Because you won’t get any more shade as you cross the prairie.

The trail now turns in a westerly direction, so the morning sun is behind you, and you’re no longer staring right into the brightness like you do in the canyon. It’s breezy. There is a near-constant wind over the wide open plains. Better tighten your hat strap under your chin.

The flowers are different now too. They are less the ephemeral varieties, and more of the small shrubs and herbs like milkvetch.

After about a half mile on the prairie you begin to hear it. It starts as quiet chirps, then as you continue it evolves into a chorus, and then a crescendo as you walk right through prairie dog town. These little guys really give it their all to warn their friends and siblings that big ole human interlopers are in the neighborhood. They really put a lot into it. With each chirp, their tails bob up and down, like cranking a water pump. It’s humorous to watch.

The trail winds among rolling hills on the plains, and the prairie dog town seemingly goes on for a mile. We happened upon one lone bison grazing on a hill to the south of us. I wondered when the bison run across the grassland if they ever step into the myriad of prairie dog holes and injure themselves. Maybe they just don’t run as much as we see on TV.

 

The rolling plains are home to prairie dogs, bison, and pronghorn.

 

Most of the other hikers we saw on this day we passed on the prairie. They had started later than us, and were headed the other direction. Probably there were others behind us as well that we just never saw because we were on the same pace. Even on a Friday in June, we mostly had these trails to ourselves. I think most of the Wind Cave visitors are going underground to see the caverns. That means more solitude for those of us who like to explore above ground.

After about two miles of crossing the prairie, the trail makes a decidedly northern turn and heads for home along the final half mile. There’s a dip into a narrow barranca with a different creek and scrubby vegetation, then a final climb back up to the original starting point in the ponderosa forest.

In summary, this moderate hike of just over five miles was, to us, the most enjoyable of the three hikes we did in Wind Cave National Park. It offers a good overview of all that the park’s above ground trails have to offer, including rolling plains, verdant meadows, wildlife and wildflowers, and a sense of grand expanse. I would recommend this hike for your entire family.

By the way, there is no requirement within Wind Cave to remain on designated trails. So, if you happen upon an area that you deem worthy of extra exploration, feel free to blaze your own path.

I don’t normally promote businesses in my trail reports, but Dave and I had such an excellent experience at the Econolodge in Custer that I had to mention it. The staff that works there are all super friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. We stayed with them for six nights and were completely satisfied. The price is very reasonable and the amenities are all that we needed. If you’re staying in Custer, SD I highly recommend the Econolodge.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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