Skip to main content

U.S. Forest Service

Rocky Mountain Region Viewing Area


Pulsatilla patens Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) blooming under fire-scarred ponderosa pine. Photo by Cheryl Mayer.

Mertensia lanceolata Prairie bluebells (Mertensia lanceolata) are scattered on the rocky limestone slopes in the spring. Photo by Cheryl Mayer.

View from the upper portion of the Hell Canyon Trail View from the upper portion of the Hell Canyon Trail after a spring thunderstorm. Photo by Daryl Stisser.

Iris missouriensis Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis) is found in the drainage bottom and lower-slopes with rugged limestone cliff-bands above. Photo by Cheryl Mayer.

Hell Canyon

Forest: Black Hills National Forest

District: Hell Canyon Ranger District

Description: Hell Canyon and the surrounding landscape were burned in 2000 during the Jasper Fire. This was the largest fire ever recorded in the Black Hills, consuming 83,503 acres of timber, meadow and riparian habitat. The intensity of the fire varied, leaving small patches of unburned vegetation to provide seed sources and wildlife cover among the larger burned landscape. Although fire may at first seem devastating and destructive, it is an integral part of the ecological process. Many plant species are recharged by fire. The underground shoots and seeds of many native plant species can remain viable under the soil and in fact are often stimulated by the disturbance. Weed species are also often quick to become established after a burn, taking advantage of the open canopy and lack of competition. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find occasional patches of invasive species regenerating along with the native vegetation. However, you will find the Hell Canyon area is still quite alive with native plant and animal species.

Viewing Information: The Hell Canyon Trail is a 5.3-mile loop and is open to hikers, horseback riders and bicycles. The trail explores the drainage bottom and Hell Canyon riparian area where you might see a variety of wetland and deciduous shrubland species including chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Canada violet (Viola canadensis), cowparsnip (Heracleum maximum), Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis), Richardson’s geranium (Geranium richardsonii), wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) and blue giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). The trail climbs out of the canyon and contours around the limestone cliffbands offering spectacular views of Hell Canyon and the expansive open regenerating landscape. On the limestone slopes, you may encounter rock clematis (Clematis tenuiloba), spiny phlox (Phlox hoodii), slender wildparsley (Musineon tenuifolium), pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), darkthroat shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum), common starlilly (Leucocrinum montanum), and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum).

Hiking the Hell Canyon Trail is a great way to dive into this area a decade after the fire and witness first-hand how the landscape is adapting to the change.

Safety: Watch out for falling trees and avoid this area on windy days. Be sure to take plenty of water especially in summer, and avoid hiking in the heat of the day. Check the weather forecast before you go. Afternoon thunderstorms are always a possibility in late spring and summer. Poison ivy is abundant in some areas, so stick to the trail. Let someone know your itinerary, in case of an emergency.

Directions: From the town of Custer take Highway 16 approximately 13.5 miles west to the trailhead.

Ownership and Management: U.S. Forest Service, Black Hills National Forest, Hell Canyon Ranger District, (605)673-4853.

Closest Town: Custer, South Dakota