Black Hills National Forest

Spearfish Canyon

Six hundred million or so years ago, long before man walked this area, it was covered by a huge sea. As waters subsided and land masses began to appear 30 to 60 million years ago, drainages such as Spearfish Canyon formed as softer rock was eroded away. Today, a National Scenic Byway, U.S. Highway 14A, winds through the canyon. Spearfish Canyon scenery is always close, always upward, and always diverse. Trees and plants from Rocky Mountains, eastern woodlands, northern forests, and the Great Plains areas can be found here. Of the 1,585 plant species found in South Dakota, 1,260 species are in the Black Hills, many of which can be found in Spearfish Canyon.

It is said that every season has a benefit here: Spring in the Canyon provides rejuvenation: Summer tranquility: Fall—color, and Winter—serenity. Spearfish Canyon provides a gateway to many outdoor recreation activities. Sightseers, fishermen and picnickers are joined by bicyclers, joggers, and walkers in the summer months, hunters in the fall and cross-country skiers in the winter.

The Canyon's high walls are of three dominant rock types. Deadwood shale at the bottom can be identified by its brown color, is multi-layered in appearance and ranges from 10 to 400 feet thick. Englewood limestone in the middle is pink to red colored and is 30 to 60 feet thick. Paha sapa limestone, the top layer, is the thickest (300 to 600 feet) and is buff colored and weathered gray in appearance. Caves and fossils are frequently found in Paha sapa limestone.

An early road construction attempt largely failed. It was the train that provided most Canyon transportation. In 1893, with completion of the Deadwood to Spearfish railroad line, picnickers, sightseers and berry pickers used the train to access Canyon opportunities and return home on an evening schedule.

In 1897 the Canyon was included as part of the Black Hills National Forest. In this area creek bank plants of a shrubby willow variety, primarily Bebb Willow, and Oak and Elm trees mark Eastern Deciduous Forest influence more commonly found 400 miles east.

Mile 1.2 Beginning at the Canyon's mouth, near Spearfish, to Interpretive Stop 5.5, grasses, a variety of broad leafed flowering plants, trees, and shrubs, occurring mainly on north slopes or in draws, mark Northern Great Plains vegetative influence. From this point on, and throughout the canyon, you may see Turkeys, Bluejays, Woodpeckers, and Cliff Swallows. Steep, high Paha Sapa Limestone walls surround the Canyon and are a constant, dominant feature.

A great number of bird species may be found south of this stop, where the water flows in Spearfish Creek.

Active times for most birds are dawn and dusk but smaller birds, such as chickadees, feed almost constantly and larger ones, such as eagles, may feed only once or twice a day. The canyon supports a cross-section of four-footed animal life. White-tail and Mule deer can be found throughout the drive. Porcupines, Raccoons, Squirrels, and Chipmunks might be spotted as well as a Bobcat or a Yellow-Bellied Marmot.

Mile 5.5 Temperatures vary area and the thermometer can hit minus 30°F in the winter as easily as 100°F in summer months. Landslides can occur within the Canyon in spring and early summer, due to winter freezing and thawing which loosens and fractures rock.

Looking down the Canyon (toward Spearfish), glance to the canyon rim—at the skyline—and you can see effects of one such slide. Areas such as this—and there are more within the canyon—can be easily identified by the lighter colored rock and absence of vegetation.

Also at this interpretive stop—looking directly across the road—the Deadwood Formation (layer) is very dominant and Northern Great Plains vegetation is prominent with such shrubs as Buckbrush and Oak brush.

Towering Ponderosa Pine, from Rocky Mountain Forest regions. become common at this stop, continue throughout the canyon and are a dominant feature of the hills. Without this influence the area would probably not be called the Black Hills. From afar, the huge amount of Ponderosa Pine, though dark green in color, appear almost black.

Ponderosa Pine is the most common vegetation in the Hills and provides Spearfish Canyon a year-round canopy of green. If, throughout the Canyon, it appears a Ponderosa Pine is growing from solid rock, you are not being deceived— it can do exactly that. A crack in a rock, a bit of washed-down soil and water—when it rains—and a Ponderosa Pine will make a home. Ponderosa Pine is tolerant of both hot and dry growing conditions, and thrives in a variety of soils.

Mile 5.8 In areas of Spearfish Canyon you can see evidence of dark gray rocks called igneous intrusions. They were formed when pressure and heat were applied to molten rock which was being pushed through the less resistant sedimentary layers. The best example of this is in the Bridal Veil Falls area. Rock upon which Bridal Veil is formed is vertically jointed and shows no horizontal layering—as do those rocks above the falls. Igneous rock is much more resistant to erosion and, at one time, Spearfish Creek which flows below the falls was about the same height as the top of the falls. Bridal Veil was named for the filmy flow of water over the 40-foot face of the cliff.

Spearfish Creek bears a name of disputed origin. One version has two early pioneers standing on its banks remarking "This would be a great place to spear fish"; while a second version attributes the name to local Indians who actually speared fish in the cold waters. In the past this creek was known as Spearfish River because of the strength of the flow. The rail line was built, initially, for hauling ore from numerous mines, located near the Canyon, to an ore processing plant in Spearfish. But, by the time track laying was complete, many mines were closing and the train was used mainly by berry pickers and visitors to the area. In 1933 a devastating flood damaged portions of the track and many of the 13 bridges. The branch line was abandoned and the Canyon highway was built, much of it on the abandoned rail line.

Mile 8.1 Spearfish Creek is classified as a permanent cold water fishery with headwaters located approximately seven miles south of Cheyenne Crossing (Interpretive Stop 18.3). Stream flow fluctuates but levels above Interpretive Stop 4.1 are sufficient to support a valuable trout fishery.

Pioneer trout fishermen used the former Canyon rail system to reach favorite casting spots. Trout in Spearfish Creek are not native but were brought from Colorado to a U.S. Bureau of Fisheries hatchery (now the historic D.C. Booth) at Spearfish in 1899.

Spearfish Creek averages 29 feet wide and, at this particular interpretive stop, there are abundant numbers of Rainbow, Brown and Brook Trout.

Eastern Deciduous Forest influence, such as Birch and Aspen, can be seen throughout this area, as can Rocky Mountain Forest vegetation. Beneath the overhanging branches of the Ponderosa Pine grows an abundance of species, limited only by the density of canopy above.

A variety of broad-leafed flowering plants and grasses, including the Pasqueflower, state flower of South Dakota, may be found at this site and throughout the canyon drive.

Between stops 8.1 and 8.6 is the Maurice Homestake hydro-electric plant. Homestake Mining Company completed the project, which uses a system of flumes and tunnels to make a 12 mile diversion of Spearfish Creek, in 1917. The plant continues to serve as a power source for the company's massive underground gold mining operations in Lead, South Dakota.

Mile 8.6 The cause for the diverse vegetative mixture found in the canyon is not certain. It is theorized it may be due to the centralized location of the Black Hills and various climatic changes in North America over thousands of years. When the climate of North America was much cooler, the Northern Forest extended farther south and west. As the climate warmed, this forest gave way to the Northern Great Plains except in small areas such as north slopes or cool, high elevation canyons.

The diversity in plant life allows approximately 130 species of birds to live in the canyon at least part of each year.

The most common year-round residents are Dippers and Belted Kingfishers. Dippers are sooty gray in color and characteristically run along underwater collecting insects. Kingfishers are bluish-gray and white with a large head and long, thick bill: they tend to hover above the water before plunging in after fish. The Kingfisher can usually be found near Canyon ponds.

From Interpretive Stop 8.1 to stop 12.8, habitat is dominated by the evergreen (coniferous) trees but also contains many trees that loose their leaves (deciduous) in the fall and winter. This mix provides the most diverse habitat and contains the greatest number of bird species. Species such as the rare Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and Bohemian Waxwings may be sighted. Evening and Pine Grosbeaks are occasional and rare winter residents.

Mile 12.8 You are now at a site where two massive canyons come together. This is perhaps the most spectacular view of the entire drive. Huge cloud formations can be found hovering overhead at various times of the year. In the fall months you can view from here the tree leaves begin turning their colors.

Looking right (toward Savoy) Spearfish Canyon continues to the left and Little Spearfish heads off to the right. On your left and down the canyon, directly over the top of the highway, notice the pink-colored rock midway on the slope. This is Englewood limestone.

Another good example of stratigraphic layering is at Savoy. Left, across the Canyon, three layers of sedimentary rock can be easily seen. The creek and the highway, between this stop and the last one at Cheyenne Crossing, are right on top of the Deadwood formation.

Savoy lies 15 miles south of Spearfish. In the early days visitors could come to Savoy on the train from Elmore (further up the canyon). Savoy was home to the Lepke-McLaughlin sawmill in 1892. A small cabin was used as an office and later became the first room of the original Latchstring Inn, removed in 1989 and now the site of the Natural History and Cultural Center.

Roughlock Falls lies west of Savoy, up Little Spearfish Canyon, and is a popular picnicking site. Until the current roadway was built there was a steep grade in the road to the falls area. It was tough going for horse-drawn vehicles, wagons and sleds (often with loads of logs) and drivers "rough-locked" the wheels, using rope or chain, so they would drag instead of turn. If drivers forgot, their vehicles stood a good chance of having an accident.

The red stemmed Red Osier Dogwood, in the area, marks more of Eastern Deciduous Forest influence.

Mile 18.3 In addition to Savoy there are other old mining and railroad town sites in Spearfish Canyon. One of these is Elmore and, though the community of privately-owned residences can still be seen, it is a remnant of what the vibrant lumber camp and trading station on the rail line was in the first part of this century. The Canyon's contribution to mining was timber, water and transportation.

A hundred years ago at this stop, common sounds would have been the pounding of hooves and the creaks of straining pieces of leather against wood signaling the approach of the Deadwood/Cheyenne stagecoach.

Cheyenne Crossing (originally Spearfish Crossing) was so named because it was the point where the old Cheyenne Trail crossed Spearfish Creek. This was the Cheyenne, Wyoming to Deadwood stage route, an important commercial route during the gold rush days.

Northern Forest vegetation is the least common in the Canyon and is dominated by White Spruce, with branches frequently laced with silvery green lichen called "old man's beard". Plant life is a variety of mosses, lichens, grasses and broad-leafed flowering plants.

In more open and grassy areas between Savoy and Cheyenne Crossing you'll find a broad variety of bird life including an occasional Golden or Bald Eagle.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 26 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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