Jewel Cave National Monument is probably the major reason why Hell Canyon is more accessible than most other Black Hills canyons. While Jewel Cave National Monument is located almost entirely in the Hell Canyon basin, it only currently occupies about 2 square miles of the almost 82 square miles in the Hell Canyon basin. As one of the world’s longest cave systems, with over 170 miles mapped so far, cave experts believe this cave has the potential to become the world’s largest someday . But Jewel Cave was not always such a major factor in this area years ago.
Hell Canyon’s basin actually starts in the extreme southern part of Pennington County at nearly 7,000 feet, just west of Bear Mountain. The Hell Canyon watershed drains into Pass Creek, 3,000 feet lower, in southern Custer County. Hell Canyon is joined by West Hell Canyon less than a mile north of Highway 16. At the south end of Jewel Cave National Monument, Hell Canyon is joined by Lithograph Canyon. The Gillette Canyon watershed lies to the north of Hell Canyon, while Tee Pee Canyon and Schenk Canyon are to the west of Hell Canyon.
This rugged canyon system is characterized by sedimentary outcroppings of sandstone, dolomite, gypsum, some shale and limestone – both Pahasappa and Englewood. There is no consistent water flow in the various streams in the canyon and its branches. However, there are some springs. Few produce much water, though there is one that creates a nice brook in West Hell Canyon. However, that water all disappears underground again. There is a big fault north of Jewel Cave, and some geologists believe that fault has something to do with the weak springs in the area, and a lack of good soil downstream from the fault.
Wildlife commonly seen in the area includes deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, coyotes, bobcats, weasels, marmots, porcupines, rabbits, wild turkeys and eagles. Mountain lions and foxes are seen on rare occasions. What remains of forests in the Hell Canyon basin, are mostly comprised of ponderosa pine, birch, aspen, box elder and willows. Mountain mahogany shrubs are common, as are cactus, yucca and sagebrush in the lower elevations. Up to 90% of the forests in this region were burned by the terrible Jasper Fire of 2000, when about 130 square miles were burned.
Important Notice: Major highway construction on Highway 16 is currently underway in the Jewel Cave National Park area. This has been causing delays of up to 15 minutes for motorists. This construction is expected to last until fall of 2015. Before you make a trip to the area, you can check on the latest by calling Jewel Cave National Monument office at (605) 673-8300.
Routes For ExplorationThere are currently only two designated hiking trails in Hell Canyon. However, there are other exploration possibilities permissible in the canyon. This section will cover three publicly accessible routes, plus options.
The Canyons Trail could be divided into three basic segments. The first segment runs from the Visitors Center to the picnic area near the old cave entrance. It is about one mile in length. For 3 ½ months of each year, the picnic area is open and can also be used as a trailhead, since the old cave entrance there is where the trail drops down into the second segment.
The Lithograph Canyon section of the Canyons Trail is close to one mile long. Depending on your choice of direction on the Canyons Trail, it can be the end or beginning of your loop from the Visitors Center. The Lithograph Canyon portion of the trail is also the shadiest section, with many trees and beautiful rock walls along the way.
Click here to view the Canyons Trail Photo Album
Near the northern end of the loop, the trail drops 300 feet or so, back down to the canyon floor. Once on the canyon floor, the trail begins curving back toward a more southerly direction. There is a large amount of vegetation on the canyon floor, and the forest service advises ticks are in abundance here, so take whatever precautions you prefer. About ¾ of a mile from the trailhead, you will pass the junction of Hell Canyon and West Hell Canyon (the upper half of this trail loop is in West Hell Canyon).
Along the last ¾ mile of the loop, you will notice the flowing stream has disappeared. If you also noticed an asphalt section on the trail, it is speculated that it was somehow part of the work done by the CCC Camp in Hell Canyon from 1935-1939.
Click here to view the Hell Canyon Trail Photo Album
National Forest Service Information for the Hell Canyon Trail
Note: Exploring further up into the Hell Canyon system from the Hell Canyon Trail is possible, since most of it is on public lands. But, it is less scenic because the canyons pretty much turn into dry creek valleys, and the forests are almost non-existent for a number of miles. The one exception is the Hell Canyon section from FSR681 to FSR284.2A. The canyon there is shallower and has less vegetation, but would still make a good hike.
From Highway 16, it is about 1.3 miles to the canyon floor. There is a junction there and you will see to the left a closed gate at the boundary of Jewel Cave National Monument. Of course this means go back or go down the canyon. Your public lands exploring options will last for the next 12 miles down the canyon until you start traveling though all private property. And by the time you get to that private property area, the canyon is flattening out, since it is not far from there to where the Hell Canyon watershed merges with Pass Creek.
The Hell Canyon basin is almost entirely on public lands. However, there are a few areas of private land in the bottom of the canyon, where you will find some ranches. Most of them run some cattle on the public lands in the canyon, so wherever you choose to explore off of Hell Canyon Road, please make sure you watch for “No Trespassing” signs and close cattle gates behind you if you find any.
A couple noteworthy side routes you will encounter, include FSR 274 Pass Creek Road (a branch of the main Pass Creek Road – FSR273), FSR 694 Water Draw Spring and FSR277.2A McKenna Spring. You may see other faint old roads/trails along the way, but these are the main ones.
It is only about ½ mile to Water Draw Spring from FSR277, and there is a loop road/trail that goes to the south past it. Despite 2014 being a very rainy year in the Black Hills, there was not much water here when I visited it.
McKenna Spring is probably ½ mile or less off Hell Canyon Road, in a wooded area. Though McKenna Spring is on public land, this part of the canyon to the east of the road is all private property – an area to be aware of trespassing concerns.
All this would be a huge expedition if one were to hike the whole length of Hell Canyon Road, plus side roads & trails. Studying good maps and bringing the proper gear and plenty of water before venturing into this part of Hell Canyon would be definitely advisable.
Click here to view the Hell Canyon Road Photo Album
When To Explore
South Dakota Hunting Seasons Information
Weather will be the largest concern for most canyon explorers. Not only can blizzards and summer lightning be deadly, but finding yourself in the bottom of a deep canyon during a flash flood can also be life-threatening. To learn more about the latest weather conditions and forecasts, click here:
Jewel Cave – Hell Canyon Weather
Red TapeBlack Hills National Forest Regulations
Jewel Cave National Monument has its own regulations, which can be accessed here: Jewel Cave National Monument Regulations
The national monument is open year-round with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
U.S. Forest Service
Black Hills National Forest
1019 N. 5th Street
Custer, SD 57730
Black Hills National Forest Camping
The nearest campground is the Comanche Park Campground, located about 7 miles east, near the junction of Harry Mills Road & Highway 16. You can access that information at this link: Comanche Park Campground
The nearby town of Custer offers a large selection of camping and lodging facilities. The Custer Chamber of Commerce maintains an up-to-date list of area facilities that you can access by clicking here: Custer Area Camping & Lodging
Custer State Park, about 25 miles east, also offers a wide variety of camping & lodging options. You can access their website by clicking here:
Custer State Park Camping & Lodging
Resource InformationJewel Cave National Monument
11149 US Highway 16
Custer, SD 57730
Jewel Cave National Monument Hiking Trails Information
Hell Canyon Trail Video on YouTube
Report: The Jasper Fire Thirteen Years Later