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Spellbinding Spearfish Canyon
Oct 1, 2012
There is a place in the northern section of the Black Hills that can legitimately be called a “must see” destination for every South Dakotan. That is purely my opinion, but I’ll bet you’ll agree with me (if you don’t already) after stepping foot in the area where Little Spearfish Creek joins Spearfish Creek at a place called Savoy. It is a landscape that will simply take your breath away. This is true for all seasons of the year, but if you can, visit the area in autumn. Come early on a sun-filled morning. Come and marvel at the yellow, red and orange of aspen, birch and oak coloring the canyon walls. Add deep greens of ponderosa pine as well as the rich blue sky above and it won’t take long to fall under the spell of one of the state’s most beautiful places.
I was in grade school the first time my dad turned the wheels of the family car up the scenic Spearfish Canyon byway. I remember looking out the backseat windows in awe. I also remember daydreaming about flying a fighter jet through the canyon chasing some alien spaceship. Quite an imagination for a farm kid, I guess. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to linger in the beauty. I’ve also learned that it is a superb yet challenging place to take nature photos. I took some of my first long exposure waterfall photos in Spearfish Canyon. Roughlock Falls to be exact. I was in college and at that time there wasn’t much for groomed trails or any viewing decks. Nowadays the Game, Fish and Parks Department maintain an interpretive trail, as well as wide walking trails and sturdy viewing platforms in what is called the Roughlock Falls Nature Area.
Last week I was able to spend two full days in the area. The fall colors were nearing their peak as I hiked the trails with my tripod and camera gear. Just below Latchstring Inn is a trail that leads to Spearfish Falls. It is one of my favorite places in the whole canyon. Further up Little Spearfish Creek is lower and upper Roughlock Falls. In between these waterfalls is the trout-filled Little Spearfish Creek which affords many opportunities to spot wildlife and wildflowers. There is a small dam along the way that allows for fly fishing and/or watching the trout glide through crystal clear waters. I spent at least an hour watching and attempting to photograph brown trout feeding on aquatic insects with quick strikes to the surface.
Driving further up the Roughlock Falls road towards Cement Ridge on the Wyoming border has become another favorite trip for me. The winter scene from Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning film, Dances with Wolves, was filmed in this area and there is a sign pointing out the exact place. Mature aspen groves, as well as thick birch stands, add brilliant colors to the drive. Abundant wildlife such as deer, squirrel, chipmunk and marmot can also be found along the way.
The approaching drive from Spearfish to Roughlock Falls Nature Area is also beautiful. Bridal Veil Falls is a well-known pull-off for tourists. You’ll often pass bikers peddling away as well as motorcycles cruising through the scenery. Photographing such a place is both easy and hard. Easy, because it feels as if anywhere the camera is pointed, a great shot can be taken. Hard, because good fall foliage photos require compelling composition, good light and interesting detail. Each of these aspects can be daunting in their own right, but combining all three takes a lot of thought and patience. I’m still learning myself as often the euphoria of the autumn scene in front of me at Spearfish Canyon can turn my photographic brain off. That is why I took the time to linger in the canyon this time around. I went back at different times of day to discover and enjoy the different moods and scenes spread out before me. I’d do it again tomorrow if I could. It’s really that good, but don’t take my word for it. Get out and see it yourself!
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing our prettiest spots around the state. Follow Begeman on his blog. To view Christian's columns on other South Dakota state parks and recreation areas, visit his state parks page.