You won’t find Spearfish, South Dakota on a lot of travel lists, but somehow that only adds to this city’s charm. As long ago as 1935, famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright visited the area and later praised it for its unparalleled uniqueness, wondering how something even more miraculous than the Grand Canyon could be so unheard of. The situation hasn’t changed too much in these last one hundred years, and we’re not sad about that. Spearfish and the surrounding area is an almost undiscovered oasis of beauty and wild outdoor adventure.
How Spearfish Got Its Name
Spearfish, South Dakota is clustered around a creek by the same name that flows from Spearfish Canyon, just south of the city. Nestled in the north-west corner of South Dakota, just east of Wyoming, the city boasts a population of roughly 10,000 residents year round. This is the land of reservations, Yellowstone, and the Badlands and it is beautiful.
The canyon that gives the area and creek its name is crowded with Ponderosas and Spruce Pine trees, evergreen trees that draw the eye even in the dead of winter. On the banks of Spearfish Creek, you’ll find tall, straight Aspens, Birches, and Oaks, which turn the canyon a fiery gold in the fall and herald the gold miners used to hunt for in the Black Hills.
Like most old settled sites, how Spearfish got its name is under some contention. Some suggest natives used to spear fish in the creek. What we do know is how the Black Hills got their name. The Black Hills border Spearfish, South Dakota to the south and are a small mountain range that begins in western South Dakota and ends in Wyoming.
The top layer of rock on the hills is composed of PahaSapa Limestone, so named by the Sioux Indian Nation (“paha” means “hills” and “sapa” means “black”). In addition to this top layer of black rock, the needles of Ponderosa pines, which thickly cover the hills, absorb light.
The Cheyenne held sway over the area until the 1770’s, when the Lakota conquered the Cheyenne and made the hills integral to their culture. The Sioux also used the area but in the 1800’s, the gold rush took over and despite a treaty between the US government and the Lakota, miners rushed in. Today, the small town is fueled by farming activity as well as tourist traffic.
Don’t Miss The Canyon
One of the best ways to soak up everything Spearfish, South Dakota has to offer is by spending time at the Spearfish Canyon. Scientists estimate this rough gorge was formed over 30 million years ago. When the water that covered South Dakota began to recede, it carved out softer rock. This, combined with volcanic action, has created this stunning piece of natural beauty.
You can drive through the canyon if you’re strapped for time, but the best thing is to hike it. The dry weather in Spearfish, South Dakota makes this possible nearly year round. You can try the Big Hill Trails network or take a stab at the Crow Peak trail, both in the Black Halls. Don’t forget to visit Roughlock Falls or the Bridal Veil Falls!
Here are some of the things you’ll see in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota specifically:
Unique Rock Formations
Thanks to the changing temperatures of weather in Spearfish, South Dakota, the rock is always expanding and contracting as it freezes and thaws and interacts with water from snow and rainfall. It’s not uncommon to see smaller boulders fall and create new changes to the rock ace.
In addition to changing formations, you’ll also see three main layers of rock as you cut through this canyon. The highest peaks are composed of the black limestone we mentioned earlier and it is in these areas that people find the most fossils. In fact, famous fossils found in South Dakota include the Dakotaraptor, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the Triceratops. Imagine climbing the same hills these massive creatures once roamed!
The middle layer that you’ll see in the rock is the Englewood limestone, which is mauve, pink, or red and the bottom layer, which can be as deep as 400 feet, is known as the Deadwood Sandstone. It appears highly stratified but is normally a brown color.
Thanks to lots of protection and a unique landscape, the wildlife in the canyon are varied and impressive. You can see Whitetail Deer, Mule Deer, Mountain Goats, and even perhaps a Bobcat. Visitors have even reported seeing eagles swooping down to help themselves to a trout from the creek!
If you’re a real adventurer who wants to take things up a notch, you’ll love the extreme sports available here, including:
Cross-country skiing is a popular way to take advantage of the snow here in Spearfish. The trails that were closed to you on foot open up in the Black Hills on the Big Hill and Eagle Cliff ski trails, just west of the canyon. If you arrive in February, you can enjoy the cross-country ski challenge held every February. Even if you don’t have your own gear, that’s not a problem. You’ll find numerous, friendly outfitters who can help you get started.
You can’t ride a normal bike on snow, but a fat bike? Now we’re talking! Fat biking is a type of biking that lets you pedal on hard surfaces like sand and packed snow and it’s an activity that’s highly encouraged in Spearfish. Many trails are specifically prepared for the blood-pumping activity, and if it’s racing you’re after, you’ll find a fat bike race called Below 28 held annually at the end of winter.
You won’t find expert-level ice to climb here in the Black Hills, but it’s a great place to practice and get started. The area is heralded for reliable ice and usually uncrowded areas with short approaches.
Need a Little Culture?
On a list of things to do in Spearfish, South Dakota, the great outdoors is a requirement. If you’re ready for a break, though, or just want to learn a little more about the varied and fabled history of the land you’re visiting, try visiting one of these awesome destinations:
The Matthews Opera House
The Matthews Opera House, recently restored and located in downtown Spearfish, has doubled in its long past as a shooting gallery and movie theater. In 1906 it was built and opened to host stage productions and traveling shows. It did just that until the 1930’s when moving pictures took over and the demand for live productions dwindled. Today, the house once again serves as a stage for live theater and also as a central hub for the community.
D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery
Highly rated and full of glowing reviews, this fish hatchery, located on Spearfish Creek, is a surprisingly fun way to a spend a weekend! Established in 1896, the hatchery is now dedicated to fish culture and resource management. It is one of the oldest operating hatcheries in the United States and is always free to visit (though paid admission to the museum and other attractions on the property is sometimes required).
Visitors can check out the fish–brown and rainbow trout–through underwater viewing windows or they can feed them from above. The ten-acre site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is filled with ponds, water systems, rock walls, and buildings that are preserved and explained historically. You can also visit the Yellowstone Boat, the Railcar, the Booth House, and the Museum to learn more about this rich culture and vibrant time in history.
High Plains Western Heritage Center
Another highly rated activity in Spearfish, South Dakota, this museum is known for being not just another cowboy museum. The center will regale you with indoor displays of cowboy life back in the “good ol’ days.” A restored stagecoach and schoolhouse give depth to the old legends, and you can view and learn about relics of Native American culture. Take a nature walk and enjoy scenes of live longhorn cattle, much as they might have been seen on cattle drives over a hundred years ago.
Crow Peaks Brewing Company
Crow Peaks Brewing Company prides itself on crafting South Dakota’s beer culture (perhaps the pun is intended?). Open every night until late, the company gets high ratings for its laid-back atmosphere and delicious craft products. The pizza is a must-have, and the beer is cold. What’s not to love?
Where Should We Stay?
Can’t wait to visit Spearfish, South Dakota now? You have a handful of lodging options. A quick perusal of sites available on Airbnb reveals a wide selection of private retreats nestled in the Black Hills. Everything from charming cabins to exclusive mansions to suburban dwellings is available. If you’re interested in a truly unique stay, this is a great way to go!
If you’d prefer a more traditional stay, Spearfish, South Dakota hotels include everything from the Holiday Inn in Spearfish to other four-star hotels such as the Super 8, Days Inn, and Best Western. You can also find longer-term vacation rentals if you’d prefer a condo.
Spearfish, South Dakota is a hidden gem of a place. Thanks to beautiful scenery and gorgeous outdoor adventures and deeply interesting culturally- and historically-relevant sites, whether you’re just stopping by, planning to stay a while, or looking for something off the beaten path, we think you’re going to love your stay. We also have a feeling that it won’t be long before it’s discovered so get out there and start exploring today!