Exploring Black Hills Canyons

Exploring Black Hills Canyons

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking, Sport Climbing, Bouldering, Ice Climbing, Canyoneering

Black Hills Canyons Overview

Spearfish Canyon Autumn Spearfish Canyon

Canyons are one of the great pleasures in exploring the Black Hills. Though there are literally hundreds of named and unnamed canyons in the Black Hills, probably less than half see explorers and adventurers each year. Some of the reasons for this would include private property restrictions, lack of any roads or trails in numerous canyons and the fact that some of the canyons shown on maps are really only canyon-like in some sections, while being more like gentle valleys elsewhere through the watersheds. The canyons in the Black Hills can range from narrow 40-foot deep canyons, to the grandest of all Black Hills canyons, Spearfish Canyon, with its thousand-foot high limestone walls and numerous trails. The composition of canyon walls varies depending on the area of the Black Hills. Granite and shales are more common in the central area canyons, while limestone and even some sandstone are more common in the outer canyons of the hills. As rock climbing grows in popularity in the Black Hills, a few canyons have become annual favorites, including Spearfish Canyon, Dark Canyon and Victoria Canyon (“the VC”). Numerous factors affect the choices of where rock climbers go, but accessibility and rock quality are always two of the central concerns.  

Spring Creek Canyon Spring Creek Canyon

The whitewater streams in several Black Hills canyons attract adventurers every year, with Rapid Creek canyons attracting the most attention. However, Spearfish Canyon, French Creek Canyon, Battle Creek Canyon and Whitewood Canyon are also appreciated by whitewater enthusiasts. Dark Canyon, on Rapid Creek, has a class 3 whitewater section thanks to a 10-foot drop called “The Hummer”. Kayakers and tubers are those most commonly seen on Black Hills waterways, but canoers do try some of the gentler whitewater streams.  

Knife Blade Rock Knife Blade Rock in Elk Canyon

In the autumn, Black Hills residents and visitors alike enjoy viewing fall colors in Spearfish Canyon, Red Canyon, Vanocker Canyon, Fall River Canyon, Boulder Canyon, Hell Canyon, Wind Cave Canyon and more. Aspens are abundant in these canyons and everyone enjoys their shimmering gold leaves in the autumn. But visitors also enjoy the extra colors of the oaks, ash, willows, box elders and cottonwoods, plus the greens of the spruce and pines mixed in. Sumacs add a little red here and there, and the colors are all illuminated by clear, crisp fall days in the Black Hills. Though there are not hiking trails through a majority of Black Hills Canyons, there are plenty of old roads through at least parts of many of those canyons, allowing hikers to skip the “fun” of wading through the tangled underbrush found in other canyons. Probably the best trails in the Black Hills to visit the greatest number of canyons would be the Centennial Trail and the Mickelson Trail.  

Abandoned Ranch in Red Canyon Ranch Ruins in Red Canyon

Nearly all the publicly-accessible canyons in the Black Hills are managed by one or more agencies, including the Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks. Each of these agencies can advise visitors on specific guidelines to the canyon areas they administer. Good maps for the locations of Black Hills canyons would include the Black Hills National Forest map and the National Geographic Black Hills North & South maps. Lists of John has a great array of maps with zoom features, that allow one to explore specific coordinates in a given area on a variety of maps, giving the researcher a better “feel” for what to expect. The subject of canyons in the Black Hills would take volumes to cover exhaustively. This article is intended just to begin to bring some attention to these canyons, plus to invite comments, corrections and additions to the information presented here.

SummitPost Pages for Black Hills Canyons

Hell Canyon Vista Hell Canyon
Cold Brook Canyon Cold Brook Canyon

Spearfish Canyon Hell Canyon Sunday Gulch Elk Creek Canyon Cold Brook Canyon Wind Cave Canyon Beaver Creek Canyon Little Elk Creek Canyon Wildcat Canyon Red Canyon Gallery

Exploring Black Hills Canyons by Trail

Beaver Creek Canyon Beaver Creek Canyon

The Centennial Trail (Trail 89) begins its 111-mile journey north from its southernmost trailhead at Wind Cave National Park. The trail immediately descends into beautiful Beaver Creek Canyon, then later passes through French Creek Canyon, Flynn Creek Canyon, Grace Coolidge Canyon, Brush Creek Canyon, Gold Standard Gulch, Tamarack Gulch, Box Elder Canyon, Little Elk Canyon and Elk Canyon. The Centennial Trail also crosses Grizzly Bear Canyon in the Black Elk Wilderness, passing less than a half-mile from Grizzly Bear Falls.  

Rapid Creek Canyon Rapid Creek Canyon

The Mickelson Trail (Trail 104), like the Centennial Trail, traverses the Black Hills from south to north (or vice versa, if you please). Along its 109-mile route, the Mickelson follows portions of Sheep Canyon, Chilson Canyon, upper Beaver Creek Canyon, Lightning Water Canyon, Tenderfoot Canyon, Spring Creek Canyon, Newton Fork Canyon, Castle Creek Canyon, Whitewood Canyon and long portions of Rapid Creek canyons. Unlike the more rugged Centennial Trail, The Mickelson is a wide, smoothly graded trail that always provides fairly easy hiking.  

Wind Cave Canyon Wall Wind Cave Canyon Frost

The Iron Creek Trail (Trail 15) & The Norbeck Trail (Trail 3) in the Black Elk Wilderness follow the course of Iron Creek Canyon. The Deerfield Trail (Trail 40) at its eastern end near Pactola Lake and Silver city, follows the Rapid Creek Canyon west, then veers in a more southerly direction as it follows Slate Creek Canyon before heading west again to Whitetail Gulch and Crooked Creek Canyon and then cross country to Deerfield Reservoir. The Wind Cave Canyon Trail at Wind Cave National Park is a 1.8-mile trail through the bottom of Wind Cave Canyon. Hikers always enjoy the limestone walls in the canyon, as well as viewing buffalo in the area.  

Bridal Veil Falls Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon

The Flume Trail (Trail 50) shares a short section with the Centennial Trail as it parallels the course of Spring Creek Canyon. Flume Loop 1 Trail drops deep into the canyon to a route close to the banks of this whitewater stream, before re-joining the main trail.  

Sunday Gulch Trail Sunday Gulch

The Sunday Gulch Trail (Trail 6) follows a course through the thickly-wooded gulch with plenty of steep granite formations and walls on either side of the 2.8-mile loop. This trail is just below Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. The Lovers Leap Trail in Custer State Park passes through a variety of terrain, including a section of Galena Creek Canyon. The creek is quite scenic, and the area is known for free-ranging buffalo and bighorn sheep. Lovers Leap provides a great overlook of Galena Creek Canyon and the trail below. The Grizzly Bear Trail (Trail 7) in the Black Elk Wilderness routes through Grizzly Bear Canyon for several miles before veering off in a different direction. The French Creek Trail in Custer State Park follows for 12 miles the course of French Creek. This route takes hikers through beautiful canyon sections with numerous stream crossings. For more information, visit the link below: French Creek Hiking & Camping Information

Black Hills Canyon Adventurers Video Information Links

Herd of Bighorn Sheep Hell Canyon Bighorns
Little Elk Creek Little Elk Creek in Little Elk Canyon

Spearfish Canyon Drive-through on YouTube Sport Climbing in Spearfish Canyon on YouTube Mickelson Trail State Video on YouTube Wind Cave Canyon hike on YouTube  

Little SpearfishCanyon Little Spearfish Canyon
Wall in Sheps Canyon Sheps Canyon Winter

Victoria Canyon Rock Climbing on YouTube French Creek Canyon hiking on YouTube Rock Climbing in Black Hills Canyons on YouTube



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