Wind Cave National Park: Lookout Point and Centennial Trails Loop

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It was Monday afternoon, September 8, and we’d already explored two caves, but the day wasn’t over.  We arrived back at our campsite at Elk Mountain Campground just before 4pm, which still gave us plenty of time for an above ground hike at Wind Cave before the sun set at 7:19pm.

The hike we chose was the Lookout Point/Centennial Trail Loop, a four-mile loop that began not too far from the campground up the park road and wound through prairie, forest, and riparian areas.

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Eastern Kingbird. Image: Sean M. Santos

We stopped briefly at our campsite to refill our water bladders and prepare for our hike. By about twenty after four we were at the trailhead. We locked the jeep, shouldered our packs, and headed out.

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Our intention was to head counterclockwise, beginning by rising into a high prairie area along the the length of Lookout Point Trail and then descending through the forest to a junction with Centennial Trail, which loops back to the trailhead. (Centennial Trail, incidentally, is a 111-mile long trail that winds its way from this trailhead in Wind Cave north through the Black Hills to Bear Butte State Park north of Sturgis, South Dakota.)

As we set out, we could see the bison herd Sean had photographed about forty-five minutes earlier passing along a ridge opposite the trailhead.

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Besides the visible herd, we saw very recent evidence of bison in the form of buffalo chips along the trail. Sean, who was leading, called, “poop” every time he encountered a load.

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The trail led immediately down into a small valley through which Beaver Creek ran. The trail was indicated by short posts marked with the number four. Although relatively easy to follow, the trail was narrow, and almost instantly I began to question converting my pants into shorts. But it was a warm afternoon, so I didn’t bother to convert them back.

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We encountered a Banded Wooly Bear caterpillar crossing the trail, not the last one we would see on the trip.

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Banded Wooly Bear caterpillar, larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella)

In short order, we crossed Beaver Creek and began down a valley between several hills and ridges, along the top of one ran the park road. The trail got trickier here since the prairie grass was taller and the bison trails and other wildlife trails looked increasingly like viable options for our trail.

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Ponderosa Pine seedling

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At a couple of forks, we assumed the most well-trod path was our trail and continued on. The trail curved in a wide arc around a hill to our left. The only evidence that this area held secrets beneath it was occasional intrusions of limestone from the side of the hill.

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As we curved around the hill, we followed a trail steadily toward a long, lightly wooded ridge. Eventually the trail rose up and over part of the hill.

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We had not seen a trail marker for a while, but the trail itself was so present and obvious that we didn’t think much of that.

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Shortly we realized that we had begun to enter the increasingly dramatic valley created by Beaver Creek. The landscape became much more rolling on either side and stands of Ponderosa Pine dominated.

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And then for a moment we forgot all about the trail and realized how beautiful the landscape we were surrounded by actually was.

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Video: Brandon Hayes

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As we pressed on, we reached a sign post for Trail 6, which was the Centennial Trail. I verified our location with the Garmin Sean had bought me for Christmas (this was its first outing). Sure enough we had somehow gotten ourselves, likely via a bison path, onto the Centennial Trail. Not too much harm, though, we’d just do the hike clockwise instead of counter-clockwise. But we did resolve to be much more attentive to the trail and trail markers.

The valley walls got steeper and more canyon-like as we crossed Beaver Creek again.

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A grasshopper, probably of the genus Melanoplus

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Then, as the trail turned to the left and entered a steeper portion of what could now properly be called a canyon, Sean, who was ahead, stopped suddenly and called me forward. I asked, “What is it? A bison?”

It was a bison, indeed. Or it had been a bison at one time. There it lay, facing the trail.

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Remains of an American Bison

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As we pressed on into the canyon, clouds floated by, lending even more drama to the scene. These cliffs were the same limestone layers in which Wind Cave and Jewel Cave lay, only here they were eroded into grand, unexpected canyons.

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At a narrow part of the canyon, the trail led partway up the side of the ridge, though trees, prairie grasses, and small plants. Only after we’d walked through several patches of a short, three-leaved plant swiftly greeting the autumn by turning red did it occur to me. “Sean, I think we’ve just walked through a bunch of poison ivy.”

No doubt about it, poison ivy littered the edges of the trail here. But there was nothing to be done save not to touch our legs and to carry on.

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Distressing as the exposure to poison ivy was, it was hard to be distracted by those concerns when we were surrounded by such scenery.

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Farther up the canyon, we disturbed a huge raptor, who flew ahead of us, pausing in high trees, for a while. Eventually, she crested the lip of the canyon and was gone, but not before I was able to capture a couple halfway decent shots. She was a Northern Harrier, unmistakable from the band of white at the upper base of her tail.

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Northern Harrier, female

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Northern Harrier, female

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The narrowest point of the canyon emptied into a large meadow. As we approached, we spooked two White-Tailed Deer, which bounded away.

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White-Tailed Deer

Here the Centennial Trail met turned north and up over the lip of the canyon while we continued east on the Highland Trail toward its junction with Lookout Point Trail. To our left, Beaver Creek disappeared underground. It would emerge miles away at Buffalo Gap Spring.

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At the junction with Lookout Point Loop Trail, we turned right and began climbing into the forest. We quickened our pace since we were at about the half-way point of our hike. It was already six, and the darkness of the forest reminded us that sunset was not too far off.

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Sean fancied that the group of Ponderosa Pine saplings growing closely together in this clearing was like a pine tree school group or classroom.

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Ponderosa Pine saplings

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After about fifteen minutes, Lookout Point Trail led us out of the forest and into rolling prairie above where we’d been. The trail turned steadily west, and we began chasing the sun toward the trailhead.

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The sun’s height above the horizon did not, however, stop us from pausing to bask in the view and the solitude.

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Video: Brandon Hayes

Nor did it stop us from goofing around. As we passed through a prairie dog town, I pulled a new friend from my pack and snapped a photo.

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Black-Tailed Prairie Dog

We were extremely cautious in the prairie dog town and the areas surrounding it, keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes. But we didn’t encounter any.

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Multiple bison trails crisscrossed our trail, so we were particularly mindful of the trail posts as we went. And although we both felt the pressure to make sure we were back at the trailhead before it got dark, we also couldn’t help but appreciate the fading light of the sunset across this high prairie.

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Eventually, the plains dropped away to our left, rolling south toward the campground and visitor center and ultimately Hot Springs. In a valley, a distant herd of bison grazed peacefully.

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We had several sunsets as it flirted with the higher, Ponderosa Pine-clad hills to the west and north. As we’d rise and fall with the undulating prairie hills, the sun would dip above and below the horizon.

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Just as the sun vanished for good, the trail dropped off a ridge in gentle switchbacks toward Beaver Creek below. We realized that we had lost the trail almost immediately as we set out on our hike and that we had never been supposed to take the long arc around the first hill.

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Finally we spotted the end of the trail and the path up to the parking lot.  It was 7:14pm, five minutes before official sunset. The hike had taken us not quite three hours, and instead of the four miles it should have been, it was ultimately 5.69 miles. But the wildlife we saw and the gorgeous light made it more than worth it. And it will remain a favorite hike in both our memories.

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As we drove down the park road toward Hot Springs to get some fresh food for dinner, we spotted pronghorn on a ridge. We stopped to watch them, and some of them stopped to stare at us.

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Pronghorn

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Pronghorn

And the prairie moon rose over Wind Cave National Park.

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On the way out of the park, we spotted a herd of mule deer in the darkness, but it was too dark to capture a photograph. We also herd the distant bugling of elk both as we concluded the hike and in camp.

Back in our campsite after buying a piece of chicken to grill and a bottle of wine to celebrate with from a grizzled old guy who challenged Sean to guess his age, we finally were able to wash our legs. (Ultimately, neither of us showed any sign of a poison ivy rash.)

Exhausted, we closed our full, full day with a campfire and then sleep.

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