One of the most amazing canyons in the Black Hills is located near Tilford. Not to be confused with Little Elk Creek Canyon a few miles south, Elk Creek Canyon (or Big Elk Creek Canyon) is known for its steep, 300 to 400 foot high limestone walls and rugged outcroppings, with several spectacular overlooks from forest service roads on both rims. The canyon floor is a different world with thick and lush vegetation. Trees commonly seen in the canyon include spruce, ash, oak, birch, aspen, willow, box elder and pine. Several noteworthy rock formations in the canyon include Knife Blade Rock, Giant Bluff and Signal Rock. At times, there is a beautiful stream flowing in the canyon, but that streamflow is not consistent year-around. Springs in the lower canyon produce pools and limited streamflow in places, but the water normally returns underground. The only time water flows the entire length of the stream is during runoff from major storms or spring snowmelt. Those times have the potential for creating hazardous hiking situations. There are five stream crossings on the Centennial Trail, with a few of those providing rope lines for security. Off-trail hiking is difficult in Elk Creek Canyon, due to the very thick underbrush and rocky conditions. A dry streambed does offer an option to explore beyond the trail on the canyon floor. But that is rough footing because of the very uneven and rocky streambed. The only good access into the canyon is by way of the Centennial Trail, which passes through about 1.5 miles of the canyon floor. The former narrow gauge railroad bed provides the foundation for parts of the trail on the canyon floor.
In 1881, construction was begun in Elk Creek Canyon by the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead for a narrow gauge railroad. Progress was slow but the line finally reached Piedmont in 1890. To being with, the line was a mining supply line, but eventually passenger and freight services were added. A siding below Crystal Cave was a regular stop along the way. A massive flood in 1907, caused by heavy rain and runoff from snowmelt eradicated nine miles of track and ties, leaving little trace of the former line in many places. Additional floods since then have almost returned the canyon to its pre-railroad condition.
One of the key tourist attractions along Elk Creek Canyon was Crystal Cave. The cave was discovered in 1876 along the north rim of the canyon, and tours began about 1890. Crystal Cave was officially re-named as Bethlehem Cave in 1957 when ownership was transferred to the Catholic Church. The cave became a monastery and home of Benedictine Monks. The order built the Shrine of the Nativity in the cave entrance. For reasons unknown, the cave was closed in 2004. Across the canyon near the south rim lies Wonderland Cave. Wonderland Cave still continues to be open to the public and is a popular Black Hills tourist attraction.
The only good trail route down to the canyon floor is by way of the Centennial Trail. The Elk Creek Trailhead can be accessed from Sturgis by traveling 8 miles south on Vanocker Canyon Road, then east 3 miles on Runkle Road. Those who would attempt to reach the trailhead by way of Bethlehem Road and on to Runkle Road, should be aware that once Bethlehem Road leaves the residential area, the road turns into a very rugged route that requires high clearance, and preferably 4-wheel drive. That continues until Bethlehem Road intersects with Runkle Road.
The Centennial Trail provides the only trail access into Elk Creek Canyon. From the Elk Creek Trailhead to the canyon floor is about.4 mile, dropping about 200 feet in altitude. The trail runs through the canyon floor for around 1.5 miles, losing another 60 feet in altitude before it ascends the south side of the canyon. It winds around the bends of the south side of the canyon for around 4 miles before continuing south to the Dalton Lake Trailhead (approximately another 7 miles). Because of the thick forest, views of the canyon are a bit more limited than one might first think. Due to the distance from the Dalton Lake Trailhead, not many hikers do an out-and-back from that direction. Most hikers instead used the Elk Creek Trailhead.
Off-trail hikes are theoretically possible and would be most feasible from either end of the canyon floor section of the Centennial Trail. The only other access point would be from where lower Bethlehem Road leaves its parallel route along Elk Creek. Off-trail hiking in Elk Creek Canyon would be arduous, given the very rough streambed and dense underbrush along the sides. Of course, using the streambed as an off-trail route would require that to be done during a drier season. It becomes quite obvious hiking through the canyon that major floods happen and can powerfully change the canyon floor in the process. A workable off-trail route one year could be quite changed the next year, or even a month later.
Most of Elk Creek Canyon is located on national forest service land. Access to the private land in the canyon is dictated by the land owner’s terms. The forest service land is open for hiking year-around. However, hunting is allowed in-season on forest service lands, so explorers need to keep that in mind. Information to contact the Black Hills National Forest is posted below: Black Hills National Forest Office 1019 North 5th Street Custer, SD 57730 (605) 673-9200
Winter storms as well as summer lightning and flash floods are also concerns in planning a hike. To access the latest forecast and conditions for the Elk Creek Canyon area, click here:
Elk Creek Canyon can be accessed year-around. However, you may wish to postpone hiking in the area during big-game hunting seasons. But if you do go, please wear plenty of orange. More information on South Dakota Hunting Season dates can be found at this link:
Back country camping is allowed, except where posted by the National Forest Service. Be sure you know the Black Hills National Forest Camping Regulations, particularly about campfires. If you prefer to stay at a campground, there is an abundance of them in the area. The links below should provide some nearby options for you:
Elk Creek Canyon is located in the Deadman Mountain Quad and the Tilford Quad. Good maps for the area are the Black Hills National Forest Map and the Black Hills North Map, published by National Geographic. Both are available at most forest service offices in the Black Hills. While you are there, you can also get a Black Hills Motor Vehicle Use Map (free) to help you with forest service roads in your explorations of the Black Hills.