Spearfish Canyon in the northwest part of the huge Black Hills National
Forest is one of the most spectacular places in the western U.S. to see
brilliant fall colors when its quaking aspens and paperbark birch leaves
turn from green to yellow and gold.
They light up the canyon for about thirteen miles between the towns
of Spearfish and Savoy and contrast beautifully with the clear blue sky
and dark green spruce and ponderosa pine trees.
This stretch of winding road between charming Spearfish Creek and
high limestone and sandstone cliffs has been designated a Scenic Byway for good
reason. It's scenic in the spring and summer (see photos in an
from June of 2011) but nowhere near as spectacular then as in autumn.
Bicycling Magazine has listed Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway as
one of the nation's Top-50 scenic bike paths so I suggested Jim ride it
while we're here this time. Folks also like to run and hike on the
mostly-wide shoulder along the road through the canyon.
If you plan to tour the canyon on foot or wheels know beforehand that it's a very
popular place for leaf-peepers during peak fall leaf season --
even on a weekday:
We deliberately didn't come here this past weekend
because we feared the road would be too crowded -- especially for
a bike ride. There were quite a few
vehicles, including motorcycles and RVs, enjoying the views today but it
wasn't a mob scene.
There are some pull-outs and the shoulders are usually wide enough to
park along the road to take photos, stop for a picnic, or fish in the
creek, which is usually just 20-50 feet from the road.
Spearfish Creek has three pretty waterfalls that are easy to access
Veil (about halfway through the canyon), Spearfish (near the town of
Savoy, not Spearfish), and Roughlock Falls (just south of Savoy).
You have to walk a little bit to see Spearfish and Roughlock Falls
but Bridal Veil Falls is right next to the road:
There is plenty of parking along the road near Bridal Veil Falls so
it's easy to get out and see them close up.
There were enough clouds at Ellsworth AFB this morning that we almost
didn’t go to Spearfish Canyon to see the fall colors today. This is
supposed to be the peak week. Since the forecast for Spearfish was
“mostly sunny” we decided to go.
That was a good decision because it was sunnier there, just gorgeous.
Temps reached the upper 70s F. in the Black Hills and in Rapid City and
there wasn’t as much wind today.
We drove from Ellsworth AFB to Spearfish on I-90 in less than an hour.
Since we've driven through Spearfish Canyon before Jim knew where he
wanted to begin his bike ride. He got a sandwich at Subway to eat later
for lunch, then we found the beginning of the short bike path on Rt. 14A.
That's the highway that is designated the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.
Here's a weathered
map of the byway and nearby towns from an interpretive panel at
the north end of the canyon near Spearfish:
The bike path lasts only about a mile south of Spearfish. I took the
next photo of Jim from the parking area as he began his ride:
He wore a neon yellow-green cycling shirt today for greater visibility.
After the bike path ended Jim had to ride on the shoulder of the scenic
byway. In some places it’s about 4 feet wide. In others it’s more
narrow. Here's an example of the shoulder width about ten miles up the
Despite all the traffic (on a Monday!) everyone gave Jim enough space
except one person who was distracted, probably leaf-peeping like most of
the other folks on the road today.
Since we weren't sure about traffic volume and how well Jim would like riding
on this road,
I drove ahead a couple miles at a time, stopping at pull-offs to take
pictures and make sure he was doing OK. He rode uphill from 3,750 feet
elevation in Spearfish to 5,150 feet at Roughlock Falls, a mile beyond
At the lower
elevations near Spearfish the birch, aspen, and other deciduous trees
are more green. The higher we rode/drove, the more colorful the leaves
Close to Spearfish the trees are still more green.
Within a couple miles there is more color.
Almost all the deciduous leaves have turned yellow,
and red at the southern (higher) end of the canyon
Although it looked like Jim would have an easy downhill ride back to
Spearfish, he had a headwind going northbound and had to pedal most of
the way “down.”
He got a total of about 28 miles and said it was the hardest workout
he’s had in a while – more difficult than any of his rides at Denali
National Park in Alaska. That's probably because of the higher elevation
today. He was riding more at 1,600-3,000 feet at Denali and less than
that in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Several miles into the ride Jim said, “On a scale of 1 to 10, the
rides I did at Denali were a 20. This is about a 7.”
He revised that to an 8 at the end. I’ll remind him of that when I
start talking about going to Alaska again and all he can remember was
the rain and the long drive!
[Addendum: After only a few months, Jim
was the first to suggest going back to Alaska in 2014!]
The colors were brighter than I expected, mostly yellow birches and
aspens and a few splashes of red shrubs and vines. I was surprised
because it's been very dry
However, there was a fair amount of water in Spearfish
Creek, Bridal Veil Falls, and Roughlock Falls.
When I reached the little town of Savoy I parked at the trailhead for
Roughlock Falls. I enjoyed that one-mile hike out and back to the falls
last year so Cody and I did it again today.
Jim arrived at the parking area while I was getting ready to hike. He rode his
bike about a mile on the narrow dirt road to the upper parking area at the top of the
falls and looked around.
I didn’t see him again until we both got back to Spearfish.
Despite the headwind and traffic he rode the 14 miles "down" to
Spearfish in good time (without me crewing for him since I was hiking)
and had to wait a few minutes until I got there.
Above and below: driving back to Spearfish
I'll show photos from my hike at Roughlock Falls in the next entry.
We got back to the campground about 4 PM and relaxed the rest of the
day, enjoying the warm sunshine.
We both had a great day outdoors. At the risk of even more
people in the canyon during peak leaf color, we highly recommend both a
ride and hike in the Spearfish Canyon area "in search of gold" in late September.
Next entry: striking more gold at Roughlock Falls
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil