Rocky Mountain Region Viewing Area
LOCATION and PHOTOS
A lush, multi-layered forest with a Ponderosa pine canopy and well developed midstory of ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) awaits wildflower enthusiasts as they begin their ascent of Crow Peak. Photo by Jill Larson Welborn.
Sawsepal penstemon (Penstemon glaber) frames the foreground as the Crow Peak trail rises above the forest to reveal territorial views. Photo by Jill Larson Welborn.
After the fire, snowbrush ceanothus (Ceanothus velutinus) forms a large, sweet smelling stand in an old burned area on the east face of Crow Peak. The view also displays the Black Hills geomorphology of the red valley, hogback, and plains extending beyond to the north. Photo by Jill Larson Welborn.
Crow Peak Trail
Forest: Black Hills National Forest
District: Nothern Hills Ranger District
Description: Due to its accessibility and great views, Crow Peak Trail is a local favorite for hiking and mountain biking. While it may not boast the eye-catching wildflower displays of other areas, the trail is one of the District Botanist’s favorite hikes in the northern Black Hills. The trail winds through pristine stands of mature Ponderosa pine forest and the changes in altitude and aspect along the trail provide a great sample of the diverse array of native plants and wildflowers common in the area. True to the area’s reputation as a biological crossroads, the trail showcases plants more common both to the east and west but are only found growing together in the Black Hills region. Crow Peak trail begins in Higgins Gulch, where Ponderosa pine towers over a rich hardwood midstory of ironwood (Ostrya virginiana, also known as hop hornbeam) and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), with occasional paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and aspen (Populus tremuloides). The understory is a diverse mix of shrubs, grasses, and forbs. Sunnier southern exposures are too warm and dry for the paper birch; instead you will see chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), and smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). As the trail climbs, the ironwood disappears, and finally the bur oak is absent as well. Here the forest is more open and lacks a well-developed midstory, and is closer in appearance to Ponderosa forests in the Rocky Mountains and southwestern US. The trail switchbacks up a steep talus slope, revealing Crow Peak as an igneous intrusion as are other area landmarks such as Spearfish Mountain, Bear Butte, and Terry Peak. Views from the top of Crow Peak offer a wonderful vista of the northern Black Hills, Bearlodge Mountains, the towns of Spearfish and Belle Fourche, and the hogback and plains extending to the north. Crow Peak is a key landmark and sacred site to area Native American tribes.
Wildflower viewing: Depending on snowmelts, the best wildflower viewing is in mid-June to early July, although flowers bloom throughout the spring and summer. The trail traverses primarily southern and eastern aspects, offering subtle shifts in wildflower habitats as you follow the path. The forest is wonderfully rich and multilayered as you hike up the hillside above Higgins Gulch. White spiraea (Spiraea betuifolia), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), and Jersey tea (Ceanothus herbaceus) are common understory shrubs. Flowering forbs along the lower part of the trail include star false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum), sulphur Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sulphurea), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata), and silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus). Southern exposures feature a flora with hints of the Great Plains, with big bluestem (Andropgon gerardii), prairie milkvetch (Astragalus laxmannii var. robustior), soapweed yucca (Yucca glauca), and dotted blazing star (Liatris punctata). You’ll find a wonderful display of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in mid-June along this part of the trail. This plant is on the eastern edge of its distribution in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Another turn in the trail offers flowers of moister habitats, such as mountain deathcamas (Zigadenus elegans), elkweed (Frasera speciosa), wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum), Seneca snakeroot (Polygala senega), and western brackenfern (Pteridium aquilinum). As the trail climbs the rocky scree of the west face of Crow Peak, the forest understory becomes sparser. Look for Rocky Mountain woodsia (Woodsia scopulina), Richardson’s alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), sawsepal penstemon (Penstemon glaber), maiden blue eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), and tiny trumpet (Collomia linearis) among the rocks. The top of Crow Peak has burned in the past. A large stand of snowbrush ceanothus (Ceanothus velutinus) covers the eastern side of the peak. Enjoy the view. You have earned it! The charming trail register is a local tradition that lets visitors express their pride and joy at reaching the top on scraps of paper protected in a ziplock bag.
Directions: From Spearfish, South Dakota, take FSR 214 (Higgins Gulch Road) for approximately 7 miles to the trailhead, which is a large parking area (the trailhead sign is near the start of the trail but not visible from the road). FSR 214 is a well-maintained gravel road suitable for most passenger cars. There is parking at the trailhead, but no other facilities. The trail is 3.2 miles one-way, and climbs from 4,200 to 5,760 feet elevation. It is a strenuous hike.
Safety: Western poison ivy is frequent along the lower portion of the trail. There is no water along the trail, so bring plenty for yourself and any pet companions. The trail is well maintained, but is steep and rocky in a few places. Watch for mountain bikers on the trail. Ticks and rattlesnakes are not frequent, but always a possibility. Afternoon thunderstorms accompanied by lightning are common during the summer months.
Ownership and Management: USDA Forest Service, Black Hills National Forest, Northern Hills Ranger District, Spearfish, South Dakota. Phone (605) 642-4622. Botany contact: Jill Larson Welborn.
Closest Town: Spearfish, South Dakota.