Spearfish Canyon–near Spearfish, SD–is older, shorter and narrower, than the Grand Canyon, but arguably more beautiful. A man with an eye for beauty commented:
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. All the better eventually… that the Dakotas are not on the through line to the Coast…
— Frank Lloyd Wright
The Limestone walls of the canyon tower 1000 feet above the roadbed, which was built on the railroad bed built in 1893 to serve the gold mining industry. The Canyon, at 3780 feet, features multiple natural waterfalls—one visible from the highway—and is probably the most popular tourist feature of the Northern Black Hills. The Black Hills—Mt. Rushmore is there—are an ancient, granite mountain range, one of the oldest on the continent.
In general, the oldest rocks in South Dakota were formed more than 2 billion years ago, during the Precambrian Period. They consist of the granites and metamorphic found in the core of the Black Hills.
In the Black Hills of western South Dakota, great sheets of granite intruded the igneous and metamorphic rocks. This Harney Peak granite provided the solid base for the carving of Mt. Rushmore. Many thousands of pegmatites were also formed during Precambrian time. In the southern Black Hills, these pegmatites contributed to the mining economy of the region with their crystals of feldspar, quartz, mica, beryl, and lithium minerals. Some have also been mined for tin and tungsten.
By the end of the Precambrian (570 million years ago), South Dakota had been deeply eroded and worn to a nearly flat plain interrupted by low knobs of granite and ridges of resistant quartzite. The top of Precambrian rocks in South Dakota slopes generally from east to west across all but the southwestern part of the state.
The highest peak in the Black Hills is Harney Peak at 7,242 feet. It was renamed Black Elk Peak in honor of the legendary Sioux Holy Man in 2016, but locals still call it Harney Peak. It figures prominently in the last chapter of the classic of American western literature Black Elk Speaks. The view from the fire look out built during the WPA days is extraordinary.
It’s about a 45-minute hike from Slyvan Lake, which is itself amazingly beautiful. I’ve hiked it many times. Now that you have a thumbnail sketch of the area, gentle readers, let me tell you how I successfully and roundly kicked my own posterior in Spearfish Canyon.
Riding on the Wyoming high desert, with its rolling prairie and bluffs can be very satisfying. True, there is almost always wind—often real wind—but there is a solitude and beauty to those wide open spaces. Still, I occasionally like a bit of adventure, which in bike riding means differing terrain and surroundings. Mrs. Manor and I have been planning to ride Spearfish Canyon when she has had the chance to build up a bit more strength and endurance, so I decided to ride it myself as sort of a scouting mission. So last week, she sagged, and I rode.
This time I was on the new—used but like new—bike, the one I wrote about in 2003 Bacchetta Giro A26: A Bike Review back in May. It’s a pretty fast machine, and I was looking forward to the adventure. Since heading south in the Canyon is constantly uphill, with varying degrees of incline, and loads of curves, I suspected I’d be able to maintain at least 12 MPH, which wouldn’t be too bad considering I was planning on riding about 19 miles, at which point one reaches the Latchstring Inn, and the wide and debris free shoulders of the wide, two lane highway disappear and riding would be just too dangerous.
I figured at that point, I’d meet Mrs. Manor, have a cold Gatorade from the cooler—I carry two large, insulated water bottles on the bike—and enjoy a pretty much pedal-free and rapid descent back the way I’d come. What’s that you’re asking? Only 12 MPH? Well there Speed, I’m 67 years old, and while I’m in pretty good shape, I’m not in 25 year old, 5’9”, 155 pound, nothing but legs and lungs riding a unobtainium bike that weighs less than a loaf of bread and costs $14,000 dollars plus shape. That kind of speed on that particular stretch of road isn’t bad, and more particularly, it’s realistic, for me, at least. I’m still not quite 100% dialed in on the new bike either.
So, at about 1000 one bright summer morning, we unloaded the bike, I strapped on my bicycling armor, girded my loins (I’ve been looking for an opportunity to write that), told Mrs. Manor to meet me five miles or so up the road, and set off. It was 95°, which was my first mistake.
As regular readers know, I recently finished a teaching career in Texas, so riding great distances in 95°–and more—heat was no real trick. I forgot 95° in Texas at about 700 feet elevation is a very different matter than the same air temperature at nearly 4000 feet. Being that much closer to the Sun is a big deal, but I was oblivious.
The first five miles were physically unremarkable, and I enjoyed the natural beauty of the Canyon without a vehicle wrapped around me. The traffic wasn’t nearly as heavy as one might expect of tourist season, and everyone was very polite. As I was carrying three very bright flashing taillights and a brightly colored flag, it was rather hard not to see me, considering I was the only rider I saw the entire ride. That should have set off alarms, but I was having too much fun.
I met Mrs. Manor at the Bridal Veil Falls parking area, and realized I was more fatigued than I should have been to say nothing of hotter, but hydrated—which I was doing constantly on the ride—asked her to meet me in another five or so, and set off again. The road is really interesting. More or less constantly curving as it was carved by all that water over geologic time, it can be a bit tricky. A relatively easy pace can suddenly become difficult as the slope steepens, and there are parts of the road that can appear to be going downhill, but no, it’s a cruel trick! It’s always an uphill downhill.
It was about two miles down the road I realized what was happening. The sun, reflecting off the asphalt, was heating the air over the roadway, and the sun was also heating the limestone and granite cliffs, which were quite close to the shoulder on the way up/south. That too contributed to what had to be a temperature of at least 105°. Interestingly, there is wind in the canyon, but I wasn’t feeling any, and was sweating more than I normally do. I didn’t figure out the reason for no breeze for awhile longer, probably because I was inadvertently microwaving my brain.
At about 11.5 miles, I came upon Mrs. Manor and pulled over to chat. I got off to rest a bit and hydrate a bit more, and quickly realized it wasn’t making much difference. Normally, downing a Gatorade quickly makes me feel better, more energetic, but it wasn’t working. Then, fortunately, I remembered a conversation I had with my sister a week earlier when she learned I was riding the Canyon:
Sister: “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Me: “The incredibly stupid, of course not. The merely stupid, of course.”
I realized continuing would fall into the “incredibly stupid” category, so I settled for merely stupid, turned around, and headed back the way I came: North. It wasn’t what I expected.
I figured I’d be able to pedal little, or not at all, and maintain at least 20 MPH all the way down, but as John Belushi used to say: “But noooooooo!” The heat was softening the asphalt, so it felt like my tires were 40 pounds underinflated, and lo and behold, I had a headwind. That was why I wasn’t feeling any breeze on the way up; I had a tailwind! Of course, with the steady climb, I really didn’t notice it, other than the overheating.
Rather than maintaining a no-energy-input 20 MPH, I found if I didn’t pedal, I was doing only about 13-14 MPH, and sometimes, less. So I pedaled more or less constantly, and on a few of the steeper sections, managed only a bit more than 30 MPH. Fortunately the headwind, which was hot, hot, hot, helped a bit with the overheating, which allowed my brain to function well enough to tell me it was a good thing I didn’t opt for incredibly stupid.
One thing about riding a recumbent is they’re sufficiently unusual, you get quite a bit of friendly, even surprised, attention from drivers and pedestrians. On the way uphill, I was working a bit too hard to really notice, but on the way down, it was fun to wave and smile. Kids particularly are all: “what’s that?!” and “wow!”
By the time I met Mrs. Manor at the bottom, I was absolutely convinced turning back at 11.5 miles was one of the smarter things I’ve ever done. I spent the rest of the day constantly hydrating, and feeling the way you do when you’ve narrowly missed heat stroking yourself. If I could have set up a 10-gallon IV, I would have done it. The next day, I awoke feeling refreshed and normally energetic. I’ve done enough miles already this summer to recover quickly, but settling for merely stupid made the difference.
If one gains any wisdom with age, it becomes easier to learn from one’s mistakes, or at least, from one’s not so bright choices. I’ve definitely learned one shouldn’t ride the Canyon until Fall, when there are more clouds in the sky, the leaves are turning—it’s extraordinarily beautiful then—and the air temperature is more conducive to a bit less stupidity. What’s that? How fast did I end up going? An average of about 16 MPH for 23 miles. Something to beat in the future.
But it was a grand adventure, Mrs. Manor got in a bit of reading, and I’ve staved off knee replacement for a little while longer. That’s got to be at least a small win. I’ll take any I can get.