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"The banks of Spearfish Creek support aspen, birch, and oak trees (among others),   
which are primarily responsible for the golden Fall colors the Spearfish Canyon is so
famous for.  In the Fall time, some of the mountains get bands and rifts of yellow 
just like the miners find gold in the rich gold veins of the Black Hills rocks."
~ from the Blackhills.com website
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  entry 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 -- Bridal 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 canyon:


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 Savoy.

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 became:

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, gold,
and red at the southern (higher) end of the canyon near Savoy.

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 around here.

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

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil