Take a Hike: Waterfalls of Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon is a true natural wonder, one that Frank Lloyd Wright found “even more miraculous” than the Grand Canyon! It’s a dramatic landscape of towering limestone cliffs carved by the waters of Spearfish Creek. It’s a very popular attraction in the Northern Hills, especially for visitors driving the Scenic Byway (US Hwy. 14A). Every season offers something unique; a handful of waterfalls are one of the Canyon’s most appealing features, drawing people year-round.

The Lowdown

The ancient 1000-foot cliffs of Spearfish Canyon are a natural conduit for rainfall and snowmelt; gravity encourages runoff to spill down the walls, resulting in a number of waterfalls of varying sizes. Some are seasonal in nature, while others flow freely all year. The three most popular are Bridal Veil Falls, Roughlock Falls, and Spearfish Falls .

Bridal Veil Falls is the first waterfall you’ll see when driving from Spearfish, and the most accessible. It’s easily visible from the road, with a large pullout offering plenty of parking. The 60-foot falls are most impressive in the spring, when snowmelt all but guarantees a vigorous flow. A wooden observation deck offers prime views, but there isn’t much hiking to do in the immediate vicinity of Bridal Veil. The more adventurous might choose to cross the creek for a closer look; in the winter months, ice-climbers often scale the sheer cliff walls.

Early settlers traversing the steep terrain of the Canyon “roughlocked” the wheels of their wagons to prevent them from moving freely and giving birth to the name of the popular, multi-tiered waterfall.The Roughlock Falls trailhead is located just behind Spearfish Canyon Lodge and offers a leisurely, mostly-level one-mile stroll through the forest that parallels the creek. The backdrop is stunning even before you reach the waterfall, the surrounding limestone cliffs rising sharply all around. The trees – a mix of pine, spruce, birch, aspen, and oak – eventually give way to a lush, open meadow where colorful wildflowers are prominent in the summer. The falls aren’t much further; you’ll hear them before you see them. The sheer beauty of this trail, coupled with its ease, makes it one of the most popular hikes in the Canyon.

Though a little shorter than Bridal Veil Falls, most people consider Spearfish Falls (sometimes called Little Spearfish Falls) to be the most stunning in the Canyon. Its fanlike shape and constant, rushing flow (the falls are spring-fed) are picture-perfect, and spray from the mist is a great way to cool you off on a hot day. The falls are especially impressive in the winter, when they freeze over. Catch the trailhead behind the Latchstring Restaurant across from Spearfish Canyon Lodge. The hike isn’t long; it’s only 3/4 of a mile, but the descent is steep and can be slippery. After passing through a forest of ponderosa, aspen, and birch, you’ll cross a wooden bridge spanning Spearfish Creek before coming to a clearing. Wildflowers and berries dominate in the summertime. The trail levels out here, and the falls are a short distance ahead, through another stand of trees. Spearfish Falls isn’t as heavily-trafficked as Roughlock Falls – possibly because the water feeding them was diverted to supply power to a hydroelectric plant operated by the Homestake Gold Mine from 1917 until 2003.

PROS: Stunning scenery; abundant flora and fauna; hikes are short and easy enough for all ages.
Bridal Veil Falls can slow to a trickle in the summer and fall; crowds may obscure your view of Roughlock Falls during tourist season.

Insider’s tip: Don’t miss an opportunity to visit Spearfish Falls in the winter! Be sure to wear a good pair of hiking boots and bring along trekking poles in case the trail is slippery.

The Wow Factor

Spearfish Canyon is a feast for the senses all year long. The sheer limestone cliffs jut 1,000-feet into the sky, offering awe-inspiring views; wildflowers are plentiful when in season; birds and other wildlife are abundant; and from late September to early October, you’ll find the region’s best display of fall foliage.

Odds & Ends

  • The waterfalls are extremely popular with tourists in the summertime and especially during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, held the first two weeks in August. Plan your trip for earlier in the day to avoid crowds, or visit during the offseason.
  • Weather in the Canyon is unpredictable; it’s a good idea to dress in layers or bring extra clothes (sweatshirt, jacket, hat) in the event of a sudden storm or shift in temperature. Pay attention to the forecast – large hail is common during the summer months.

Don’t forget these essentials: Camera, change of clothes, mosquito repellant.