One of the finest and most popular canyons in the northern Black Hills is Little Elk Canyon, near Piedmont. Every week during spring, summer and fall, hundreds of hikers, runners and mountain bikers use the Little Elk Canyon Trail to enjoy the great canyon scenery. Occasional groups of horseback riders are seen on the trail as well. Visitors to the canyon enjoy the lush vegetation along Little Elk Creek and children are often seen wading and playing in the creek near the trailhead. The canyon supports lush tree growth, with a variety of types including aspen, ponderosa pine, spruce, birch, oak, ash and box elder. The only wildlife seen regularly in the canyon is deer. However, elk, pronghorns, mountain lions, coyotes and foxes are occasionally seen as well. The stream flow in the canyon is pretty amazing, considering the canyon drops over 600 feet along the 2.8-mile length of the Little Elk Creek Trail. Further up the canyon, hikers are occasionally seen cooling their feet in the mountain stream. The sound of the stream makes its presence known on numerous stretches of the trail. Limestone walls in the canyon generally rise 600 to 800 feet above the creek below, and two major rock formations are named on maps – “White Gate” and “Red Gate”. The area between these formations is the most rugged on the trail. The Little Elk Trail brings hikers close to Dalton Lake, where the Centennial Trail crosses the canyon. Though the trail is kind of rough in the area between White Gate and Red Gate, most of the trail is nicely graded and rather smooth in some locations. The trail comes to an end at a row of rocks near the Dalton Lake Road. Not many hikers venture further up the canyon, due to lack of a trail. Mountain bikers and horseback riders, though, do continue up the canyon past the end of the Little Elk Trail on Dalton Lake Road, often to Vanocker Canyon Road. Also, some hikers continue on out of the canyon, either north or south, on the Centennial Trail.
To get to the Little Elk Canyon Trailhead from Interstate 90, take Exit 44 (Chimney Canyon Road). Go west to the service road, then north on a short distance to Little Elk Creek Road and finally 1.5 miles to trail head at end of road. The trailhead at Dalton Lake is approximately 18 miles from Sturgis, by way of Vanocker Canyon Road and Dalton Lake Road. From Rapid City, it’s about 30 miles to the trailhead by way of South Canyon Road/Nemo Road, Vanocker Canyon Road and Dalton Lake Road. Dalton Lake is about 3.7 miles east of Vanocker Canyon Road along Dalton Lake Road.
The vast majority of visitors to Little Elk Canyon use the Little Elk Canyon Trail. The route is a simple out-and-back, 2.8 miles one-way from Little Elk Trailhead on Little Elk Canyon Road to the junction of FSR 224 (Dalton Lake Road), FSR 226 and FSR 704.1E. If you are camping at Dalton Lake, you can do an out-and-back from that end of the trail. The map on this page will give you a better idea of the trail route. Little Elk Creek Canyon Trail is built on an old road bed that was washed out by a flood a long time ago. So some parts of the trail are wide, while other sections are narrow pathways along steep and rocky canyon sides. For most of the length of the trail, Little Elk Creek flows south of the trail. In some places, the stream is right by the trail, while in other places it is quite a ways to the south. The route splits in the upper part of the canyon and hikers will have to choose if they prefer the higher trail view or the lower route closer to the creek. The upper canyon is not as deep or scenic as the lower canyon, and there are no hiking trails through the upper canyon. However, hikers may still hike along the road for the 3 miles of upper canyon that the Dalton Lake Road runs through. Occasionally, hikers on the Centennial Trail will do the Little Elk Canyon Trail as a side trip on part of their journey when they cross Little Elk Canyon. There is an official Centennial Trailhead at Dalton Lake.
There are no permits or fees to explore Elk Creek Canyon. Illegal use of fireworks or firearms or building unauthorized campfires will quickly bring trouble, though. Dogs are required to be on leash. Dalton Lake Campground has its own posted rules.
Little Elk Creek Canyon can be explored year-around, weather permitting. Blizzards and heavy snow can make the canyon floor almost impassable, and summer heat will require plenty of hydration for your health. Because of flash flood potential, you will want to stay up-to-date on the weather. You can find out more by clicking here: Little Elk Canyon – Piedmont Area Weather Forecasts & Conditions
For more information on South Dakota hunting seasons and regulations, you can check out this link: Black Hills Hunting Seasons
There are many campgrounds in the Elk Creek Canyon area. For more information, check out the links below: Tilford Gulch Campground Dalton Lake Campground Twisted Timber Lodge (in upper Little Elk Canyon) Sturgis Area Campgrounds
Little Elk Canyon is located in the Piedmont, Nemo and Deadman Mountain Quads. 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.