South Dakota’sÂ Black Hills are full ofÂ natural wonders, andÂ one of the most wondrous is the stunning feature known as Spearfish Canyon, a twisting, 22-mile gorge through which Spearfish Creek meanders. Deep within Spearfish Canyon, tucked back away from Spearfish Creek like a side room that could easily be missed, is one of the most beautiful and restful spots in all of South Dakota: Roughlock Falls.
The site got its name from early pioneers who had to “rough lock” their wagon wheels to keep them from speeding out of control on the canyon’s steep grades. Chains were used to lock the wheels in place and keep them from spinning, and the wagons would grind and slide their way down the slope.
A trip to enjoy slowly
A trip to Roughlock Falls can easily consume a morning or afternoon for a family. The easiest route to the falls begins in the lovely college town of Spearfish. From the city, state Highway 14A — the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway — winds into the heart of Spearfish Canyon. Lush vegetation and rocky outcrops are visible all along the way, and a starter waterfall of sorts — Bridal Veil Falls — can be viewed from the highway.
After about 12 miles, which will take a while given the slow speed of travel on the winding road and the opportunity to stop and enjoy breathtaking views, motorists will notice Spearfish Canyon Lodge alongside the highway. The road into the lodge also serves as the turnoff for the Roughlock Falls Nature Area. After turning right off the highway, it’s about one more mile on a gravel road. (On the opposite side of the highway, there’s accessibility to the canyon’s third waterfall, Spearfish Falls.)
Visitors to the nature area are greeted by ample parking and new restroom facilities. Wooden walkways leading to decks over Little Spearfish Creek are immediately visible, as is a concrete walkway headed down toward the falls. Picnic areas and benches offer peaceful resting spots.
An accessible natural wonder
The creek tumbles and bubbles over many small drops until it reaches Roughlock Falls proper — a drop of about 30 feet. Walkways, decks and bridges lead all the way to the bottom and offer numerous chances to stop, enjoy the view and breathe the fresh, misty air. Informational panels also line the walkways, sharing information about the area’s unique ecosystem and the many flowers, plants and wildlife found in abundance near the falls. Among the birds found in the Roughlock Falls area is the rare American Dipper, which can walk and swim underwater. In the creek, brook trout and brown trout serve as enticements to anglers.
At the bottom of the falls, a two-mile round-trip hiking trail entices visitors to continue their journey. On a nice day, there are few better spots in the world to be than the bottom of the Roughlock Falls Nature Area. Surrounded by canyon walls and evergreen trees and wildflowers, walking along a clear mountain creek, gazing at falls rushing down from above, visitors can experience some of the most serene scenery and silence available in the Black Hills.
The site hasn’t always been as tranquilly perfect as it is today. Roughlock Falls, until 2006, was owned by the Homestake Mining Co. Visitors were allowed to view the falls, but only minimal infrastructure was in place and the falls were being loved to death. In 2006, the state of South Dakota used money from a mining-related environmental settlement to buy the Roughlock Falls area and some other Spearfish Canyon sites for $2.7 million.
About $600,000 in additional state money was used to spruce up the area and make it more accessible. Many of the walkways are raised above ground, which minimizes the impact of visitors on the highly erodible and delicate banks of the creek.
Incredibly, the site is free to visit, and there is no staff on hand. Visitors can take in the falls year-round (though in winter the paths are often snow-covered and can become treacherous).
As seen on the big screen
If the area seems strangely familiar, as though you’ve seen it before, there’s probably a good reason. It served as the backdrop for some of the final scenes of the 1991 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Dances with Wolves.” When Wind in his Hair shouts his farewell from high atop a cliff to Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), that’s the Roughlock Falls area serving as the set.
It’s no wonder the area was chosen for inclusion in the film. Doug Hofer, parks division director for the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks, summarized Roughlock Falls and its improved amenities this way in a 2008 interview with the Rapid City Journal:
“It’s beautiful. All the work really helped beautify one of the most beautiful spots in South Dakota.”