Big Trees: Iron Creek Trail and Spearfish Canyon

Our first full day in the northern Black Hills was dedicated to driving the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Drive and hiking for a few hours in Iron Creek Canyon. Driving south from the town of Spearfish into the canyon it was easy to see why this area of the country was so popular with motorcyclists: driving in our truck my head became permanently craned sideways as the limestone cliffs soared on either side of us. With a ready source of water, the ponderosas stands thickened the further we went, clustered along the creek and perched along the rim of the gorge. In addition to hosting millions of healthy conifers, the canyon is also home to several very pretty waterfalls that drop off the edge of the mesa to join Spearfish Creek below; of these we stopped at 3, though all of them were shaded and did not photograph well.

11 miles into our drive we found the trailhead for Iron Creek, a 4 mile roundtrip moderate hike though a narrow gorge filled with picturesque spillovers and towering ponderosas. It was marvelous. Just past the end of the route at the upper end of the canyon we encountered two trail junctions and decided to continue on as we were enjoying the opportunity to walk in amongst our beloved arid forest after so many months of hiking in dense vegetation. The route we selected wound up the mesa through thick, healthy ponderosa for a mile or so until we reached the rolling terrain of the top. Thinking we’d soon have views upon the main canyon below we decided to walk on for another 45 minutes as the single-track turned to an old logging road. Each clearing ahead was tantalizing, but alas, none of them were more than meadows nested in the sea of trees. And so after awhile we turned around toward the trailhead, deciding to save some time to enjoy the rest of the scenic drive.

Retracing our steps down the mesa and into the canyon proved to be more than just a repeat as the angle of the sun revealed new opportunities to photograph the shadowed creek. It also allowed us to really savor the opportunity to be in the open, arid forest that’s so familiar to us. Though I’d never been there before it felt exactly like home – from the scent of caramel in the air to the sound of the wind blowing over the peaks to the wild grasses and blue skies – and I honestly couldn’t have been happier.