History and Timeline of the Proposed Spearfish Canyon State Park and Bismarck Lake Areas
“But how is it that I've heard so little of this miracle and we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much of the Grand Canyon when this is even more miraculous.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
When Frank Lloyd Wright wrote this passage to the Huronite Newspaper following his visit to the Black Hills in 1935, he clearly had an unforgettable experience. He predicted Spearfish Canyon, without the advances of transportation and communication at the time, would eventually become a destination of worldwide significance.
While Wright’s experience was based upon a first impression, my affirmation of his claim increases every time my family and I visit the canyon.
Spearfish Canyon is truly a miracle of nature. Much older than the Grand Canyon, its sculpted limestone canyon walls and forested slopes of ponderosa pine, aspen and spruce make for a tapestry of earth and life that draws the soul.
In 1989, the drive along U.S. Highway 14A was designated as a scenic byway by the U.S. Forest Service, and a state scenic byway by the State of South Dakota. But as Peter Norbeck once stated about the Black Hills Needles Highway, areas of true beauty cannot be simply experienced from the car. Spearfish Canyon is no different. Streams, waterfalls, caves, plants, wildlife and breath-taking views are best experienced through more intimate interaction.
In January 2016, Governor Dennis Daugaard announced a plan to provide for the establishment of a new state park in Spearfish Canyon. Governor Daugaard recognized the area’s significance to South Dakota’s heritage and saw the need and opportunity for future generations to have a memorable and quality experience in this part of the state.
His plan called for the transfer of 1,468 acres of Black Hills National Forest through a land trade. This proposed 1,600-acre state park includes property in the Little Spearfish Canyon area. More specifically, the Savoy fishing pond, Spearfish Falls, Roughlock Falls and up Little Spearfish Canyon to the Little Spearfish trailhead. It does not include property north of Savoy to Spearfish in the main canyon. In July, Senator John Thune introduced legislation in the United States Senate to facilitate the transfer with the support of Senator Michael Rounds and Representative Kristi Noem.
Modern day preservation of the canyon began with Homestake Mining Company, later known as Barrick Mining Company in the late 19th century. While Spearfish Canyon was never actively mined for gold, it provided one of the most critical components to the gold mining process—water.
The reliable streamflows of Spearfish Creek and Little Spearfish Creek were impounded and channeled for use in the mining process and to generate electricity. One of those areas where Homestake owned property and water rights was the area from Savoy pond up Little Spearfish Creek to Roughlock Falls.
Roughlock Falls is one of the most spectacular falls in the canyon. As a result, the area began to experience the pain of overuse. The area lacked facilities to effectively and responsibly connect people to the resource. . Streambanks, water quality, vegetation, and wildlife were all being impacted by the level of use.
In 2006, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) acquired the property from Homestake and immediately went to work to find methods for people of all abilities to experience the site while reducing the impacts. Through strategic planning and construction of amenities that considered access as well as preservation, the site now hosts thousands of visitors each year without degradation of the environment and scenic qualities of the canyon.
In early 2016, GFP acquired another 73 acres of land containing Spearfish Falls, another spectacular waterfall that was restored in 2003 when water rights were transferred from Homestake to GFP. This acquisition was made possible through the continued support and a donation from the Spearfish Canyon Foundation.
Improvements have already taken place that restored access to the lower falls viewing area across Spearfish Creek. This past summer GFP staff with the assistance of the National Guard through the Golden Coyote Operation constructed a new bridge that reconnects visitors to the lower falls. The trail on the north side of Latchstring Restaurant was also reestablished.
This fall and winter will bring additional updates to the falls. A lower viewing platform will be constructed to enhance the view of the falls along with protecting the shoreline. An upper platform will be installed by next spring which will cantilever over the side of the falls, offering breathtaking views. The proposed state park would have additional trail improvements tying all three areas (Savoy pond, Spearfish Falls and Roughlock) together providing safe and sustainable trail connectivity, access and viewing.
A master planning effort has been initiated that will take a more in-depth look at the Governor’s proposal by providing opportunity for public comment and participation. The master plan will address the state’s desire to provide effective and responsive management of the area, preservation needs and recreational opportunities such as additional hiking trails and camping. Utilities and infrastructure such as improving the road to Roughlock Falls will be analyzed. Natural resource management, as well as scenic, historical and cultural preservation will be considered.
Through this master planning process, the state will also assess the operational impacts and needs of the proposed state park. GFP provides recreational services and facilities through efficient management, user fees and partnerships. There will be no entrance fee charged for people to access the canyon via U.S. Highway 14A, but the master plan will look at a variety of fiscally prudent strategies that will not be a burden on the larger state park system.
The master plan will also assess a land trade of another U.S. Forest Service managed area adjacent to Custer State Park, Bismarck Lake. Bismarck Lake is a popular recreation site that is immediately north of Stockade Lake. Access to the area takes place through the Custer State Park. Many of the guests at Bismarck Lake use the facilities and amenities at Custer State Park.
The incorporation of Bismarck Lake into the operations of Custer State Park will reduce confusion for visitors by providing information about the area in online platforms and incorporating the campsites in the state park reservation system. The inclusion of the area will streamline operations and bring possible enhancements to the current campground.
The exchange also includes Camp Bob Marshall, but does not propose any changes to the current status of this popular group camp.
Frank Lloyd Wright attempted to describe Spearfish Canyon with a poetic prose at a time when images were not easily available and shared. Now, Spearfish Canyon is anything but a well-kept secret. Images of hiking, camping, fishing, picnicking, family vacations and picture-perfect landscapes flood our electronic devices. It now has the recognition and status that he envisioned, and once again we have the opportunity to continue its legacy and provide people of all abilities to experience this “miracle” in person, for generations to come.