September 2006: Spearfish Canyon


Black Hills, South Dakota

Scientists estimate that Spearfish Canyon is six times as old as the Grand Canyon. The limestone cliffs of the 400-foot canyon lord over some of the greatest botanical diversity in the region. Of the 1,586 identified plant species in South Dakota, 1,260 grow along the Spearfish Creek. Bits and pieces of Spearfish Canyon began being incorporated into the Black Hills National Forest in 1897.

From a common trailhead along little Spearfish Creek, two sporty trail systems explore the upper reaches of Spearfish Canyon. The Rim Rock Trail, the more difficult of the two, traces the canyon rim, climbing sharply through Ponderosa pines in some areas. To the south is the Little Spearfish Trail, about six miles of more gradual hiking that visits the creek and rim. For a canine hiking challenge, head for the '76 Trail that rises almost vertically to the north rim at Buzzard's Roost in less than one mile.

Nearby are the Eagle Cliff Trails, carved by ski enthusiasts in the 1980s as a way to reach deep into the isolated mountains of the western Black Hills. More than 20 short trails totalling 27 miles loop and intertwine under Ponderosa pines and majestic white spruce trees. Any challenge of canine hike is on the menu here, especially in the winter. Snow pack readings are taken in this area of the Black Hills to help with spring runoff predictions. It is not unusual for 180 inches of snow to fall on the Eagle Cliff Trails during a winter.

For the 1990 Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves, star/director Kevin Costner filmed the Indian winter camp in Spearfish Canyon; the exact spot of the final scene where Costner and Mary MacDonnell leave the tribe was once marked by signs that have long since succumbed to souvenir-hunters. The opening sequence, where Costner receives his orders at Fort Hays to travel to Fort Sedgewick, was filmed on a private ranch east of Rapid City. Two of the set pieces, the major's house and the blacksmith shop have been moved to a tourist spot known as the Fort Hays Film Set (four miles south of Rapid City). The Sage Creek Wilderness Area in the Badlands National Park was the backdrop for the wagon trip through Sioux Indian country to Fort Sedgewick.

The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, Highway 14A, leads from I-90 south to the canyon. The trailhead is on FDR 222 out of Savoy. To reach the Eagle Cliff Trails from Spearfish Canyon, follow Highway 14A to the intersection with Highway 85 at Cheyenne Crossing. Go south on Highway 85 for 7.4 miles to the first of several trailheads.