I have a love-hate relationship with the Centennial Trail.
I love it. It hates me. It must; why else is there not a flat stretch of trails on it? Why do my thighs burn like a wildfire on the ascents and my knees rattle on the sharp drops?
It's rugged, unrelenting and humbling. It's also challenging, beautiful and sparsely populated. It's perfect for a guy like me.
I'm a trail runner, and spend my weekends on runs measured in hours, not minutes. In June, I finished my first ultramarathon, the Black Hills 100, of which I completed the 50-mile race. The event starts in Sturgis and the 100-mile, 62-mile and 50-mile courses are nearly all along the Centennial Trail. Having just finished its second year, the race is gaining a reputation for being surprisingly demanding. In the first year, only about 30 percent finished the 100-mile run, and the number only increased slightly this year. The other two races saw finishing percentages under 50 percent.
A typical 100-mile race might see about 70 percent finish.
The Centennial Trail is commonly used for mountain biking and hiking, as well. The inaugural Tatanka 100-mile mountain bike endurance race took place largely on the Centennial Trail this past June.
The trail's history dates back more than 20 years. In 1989, state and national park organization collaborated to build the 111-mile trail to commemorate South Dakota's 100-year anniversary of statehood.
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The trail crosses the grasslands near Bear Butte State Park and climbs into the Black Hills high country along lakes and streams until it reaches Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs. Unlike the wide, gravel-filled and largely flat Mickelson Trail, the Centennial features expansive sections of single-track dirt trails connected in spots by wider ATV trails. Though not overly rocky, tripping on a root or rock is a rite of passage.
If you succeed in fighting the sharp climbs, then sensational ridges overlooking the hills are your reward. If you are looking for solace, you're likely to see more deer hopping through the wilderness than people.
Accessing any of the 20 trailheads is easy, and even the most novice hiker or biker will have trouble getting lost with the well-marked "89" signs posted throughout the trek. Perhaps the easiest to access on the north end is at the Alkali Trailhead at the Fort Meade Recreational Area. Take Interstate 90 to Exit 34; if you go left, you can visit the Black Hills National Cemetery. Turn right; parking is less than a mile away.
If you are searching for a hike at a higher elevation, head to the Deer Creek Trailhead, which is just under 5,000 feet above sea level. Views from above Pactola Reservoir are just a few miles from the trailhead. Continue a few more miles more to find a rare flat trail section crisscrossing Rapid Creek.
The Centennial passes by or near seven bodies of water and comes within a mile of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Advanced backpackers and mountain bikers can have a weekend adventure by hiking or riding to overnight stops at various campgrounds along the trail.
Just bring plenty of water, a camera and embrace the burn, because at the top of that hill is another breathtaking view.