2014 South Dakota – Day 27 – Hell Canyon Hike: If this is hell, then it’s a pretty ‘cool’ place

Sunday June 15, 2014, 30 miles (48 km) – Total so far: 1,326 miles (2,134 km)

On a hot, dry day in late August 2000, a woman stopped on the side of the road about a mile and a half west of Jewel Cave National Monument. She lit a cigarette. Then she dropped the match. It was a day of record low fuel moisture and gusty winds in the middle of a drought. But she wanted to watch a fire; she just never imagined that it would get so big.

On that day, she started what became known as the Jasper fire, the largest fire to ever burn in the Black Hills National Forest. Over a two-week period, it consumed 83, 510 acres. In the first day, the fire burned quickly and severely. It started crowning (burning into the tree tops) within 30 minutes, and at one point was consuming an average of seven football fields a minute. Two days after the fire started, it burned an estimated 48,000 acres in one day. The fire burned through seven percent of the Black Hills National Forest and 90 percent of Jewel Cave National Monument.

No one was killed; no homes were lost. The woman was jailed for 25 years on a combination of state and federal charges and is not eligible for parole until 2017. The fire was estimated to kill more than 1 million trees, though it did burn in a complex mosaic of patchiness (which is healthy for a forest). Twenty-five percent of the forest burnt at low intensity; 48 percent burnt at moderate intensity; and 27 percent burnt at high intensity. In April 2014, 160,000 ponderosa pine seedlings were planted over 400 acres within the burn area that was not regenerating. It will be 80 years or more before the area looks like it did before the fire.

Our hike today will be fully in the burn area, and will feature areas of high, moderate and low intensity burn. The area was all burnt on the first day of the fire. Our ride today on Hwy 16 has a wide shoulder and a lot of uphill and headwind on the way out. There is road construction, with everything down to dirt, but it doesn’t feel unsafe or difficult.

The trail climbs above the road quickly.
The fire burnt hot through here.
The trail hikes along the rim of the canyon first (if you go in a clockwise direction) and then traverses down to the creek.
Kermit is my climbing guy – can’t keep him off the rocks.
Down in the canyon on the way back to the trailhead.

The hike is 5.3 miles long and takes you up on top of the Madison limestones with good views down over the gullies and hills below and to the south. Then you hike along a ledge above Hell Canyon before returning along the creek bottom. It’s a fun hike and not too hard. I don’t see anyone until I’m within a mile of the trailhead on the way back. I kind of speed-hike, because I’m not entirely comfortable with the bike locked to a signpost at the trailhead on such a busy road (more backcountry trailheads don’t bother me so much). You can also link this hike with the ones at Jewel Cave National Monument to put together about 10-15 miles of hiking.

I decide to ride down to the monument visitor centre after the hike. I’m curious about how the cave has been affected by the fire, since there would be significantly increased run-off afterward before grasses began to stabilize the soil. I’m also curious where the cave network lies under the surface topography. So far, they have not seen any detrimental effects in the cave from the fire but don’t know what will happen long-term. They do have a monitoring program in place.

The cave network is the second-longest in the world (Mammoth in KY is the longest), but it is estimated less than five percent has been discovered and mapped. They think it might connect with Wind Cave. It lies under the land pretty much everywhere south of Hwy 16 and west of Hwy 87 (more or less).

Curiosities satisfied, I head back to find food and water and enjoy a fast, tail-wind assisted, downhill back to Custer. Yippee! Keep the great days coming.

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