This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of our print edition.
On the north end of Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota is a wilderness of limestone—lots of limestone. Spearfish Canyon is one of those gems that is just far enough away from everything that you can relax and climb without the distraction of those twitchy, beta-spraying, self-proclaimed climbing gods that increasingly inhabit just about every other great crag in America. Here you’ll find a plethora of aggressive sport routes tailored to those looking to bump up their game among the serene backdrop of lush forests, waterfalls, and creeks. With close to 600 routes and roughly 19 crags (a higher concentration than anywhere else in the region), you’ll be hard-pressed to leave the quality climbing here. Another lifetime’s worth of climbing sits only an hour away in the Black Hills, but for now, we’ll focus on Spearfish. Enjoy the scenic drive through the canyon or skip into the rad little town for live music and a hefty brew. But save yourself for the rock because there are more classics than you can possibly climb in one trip to what will likely become your new favorite climbing destination.
Where to Eat/Drink
If you like to get to the bottom of things at the locals’ burger and beer spot, Killian’s Tavern (605-717-1255) is the place to be. With $1 beer cans on Tuesdays, a tasty grill-focused menu, and a five-star Yelp review, what climber wouldn’t want to stop here for a post-send debrief and recharge? And just in case you’re not in the mood for juicy beef, you’re in luck. Right next door is The Dough Trader (605-642-2175), serving up mood lighting, too much good wine, and did we mention gourmet sourdough pizza? But let’s say an overwhelming burrito craving has overtaken you. Well, Guadalajara’s Mexican Restaurant & Bar (605-642-4765) has everything from humongous nacho plates and scalding fresh fajitas to one-and-done margaritas. On the cheaper and faster side is Barbacoa’s Burritos and Wraps (605-722-1774), a one-stop burrito retreat that will satisfy the dirtbag on a budget with huge burritos and a surplus of salsas that will keep you busy for several visits.
Although the drinking wells in this town are few, they are world-class—at least as far as we’re concerned. Crow Peak Brewing Company (605-717-0006), a monolith of craft beer taps and fair-priced pizza, overlooks the elegant Black Hills. And if you’re looking to kick it up a notch there just so happens to be the biker bar of all biker bars. The Back Porch and B&B Bar (605-642-2134) puts rowdy in a glass and serves it hot with live bands, a seemingly clothing-optional atmosphere, and a grimy 1980s feel; if you have an Appetite for Destruction concert T-shirt, pack it. For the college-style drinker, refuge can be found at the False Bottom (605-642-1552), with the occasional musical performance, plenty of table games, and Long Island Iced Teas. And no town would be complete without the token Irish pub. Flanagan’s Irish Pub (605-722-3526) is a go-to for the thirsty climber seeking asylum in the arms of an Irish Car Bomb. Come ready to test your sobriety at the same time as your musicianship because they have all the amenities for an impromptu instrument-filled open mic just waiting for the next American Idol contestant.
Where to Stay
The Spearfish City Park Campground (605-642-1340) is 25 minutes from a few crags and $20 for a single-tent site, but it offers bargain prices for group sites. If you are traveling fancy and have an RV, sites range from $25 to $39 for basic to full hook-up sites. A more bare-bones alternative is the Rod and Gun Campground located about 17 miles up the canyon. It’s $16 a night with seven campsites and a single restroom. You also get the peace of mind that comes with sleeping near where the final scenes of Dances With Wolves were filmed. On the north side of Spearfish is a KOA campground, offering plenty of accommodations and a pool, but rates may fluctuate. A wonderfully hot shower can be found at the Spearfish Rec Center for $5.
Where to Buy Gear
Base Camp Adventure Sports (605-559-331) set up shop in 2011 and quickly became Spearfish’s top specialty retailer. Geared toward human-powered, low-impact adventure travel, this shop is about the only thing saving you from a bummer trip if you happen to have left your shoes, belay device, harness, or any other fundamental piece of gear at home. Stop in, grab a guidebook, and get some beta from the locals who have plenty more to offer than just directions to the best crags.
Where to Spend a Rest Day
Blackbird Espresso (605-717-0022) definitely hits the spot. Get your morning started here or check out the popular and intimate open mic on Tuesdays. If a rest day is absolutely needed and hiking out to one of the picturesque lakes is too much to tackle, the Spearfish Rec & Aquatics Center (605-722-1430) is a solid summer option. Take a day to tan your front side and slip and slide your way around the heady water slides, just watch for kids and yellow patches in the pools. And for more summer options, Friday nights and Saturday mornings are the toast of the town. Downtown Friday Nights runs from June through the first week of September and hosts live music, plenty of vendors, and a closed-off main street for a traditional small-town block party. From spring until fall, Saturday mornings include the popular farmer’s market at the city park. Here you can grab some quality homegrown produce or shoot the breeze with a local artist. And on the off chance town life is not for you, check out Pactola Lake for a variety of recreational opportunities, including mountain biking, trail running, scuba diving, kayaking, jet skiing, and cliff jumping.
What to Climb: The 10 Best 4-Star Routes
As ranked by Mountain Project users
Bugs Bunny (5.8)
The Bunny Slope
“Fun! Fun! Fun!”
“I climbed this the other day between working my 5.12 projects, and it still sent a chill down my spine. Get on this awesome route!”
Pakistani Route (5.9+)
Big Black Face
“Beautiful pocketed stone. Pump factor increases the difficulty of the ending mantel move.”
Marsha Gets Creamed (5.10a)
Big Picture Gully
“Big reaches and pumpy as hell! Exposure! Brute strength! Touchy-feely technique! Mystery moves! This route has it all and then some. If you can hold on, you can get ’er dun and take it all the way to the top.”
Peace Pipe (5.10c)
Trail of Tears Wall
“This route is a long, slightly overhanging line with killer moves. It packs a wallop with a battle-of-the-bulge crux and only has one good rest before the final push into enemy territory that leads to the anchors. Do this route! Do it over and over again!”
The Euphamiah Beresford Memorial (5.11a)
The Butt Rocks Wall
“Solid, sustained movement on well-mapped-out holds will ensure a rowdy, good ol’ pumpy climb that might just have you saying, ‘Dagnabbit! This here is the good stuff!’”
Indecent Exposure (5.11c)
“This is an incredible climb! My partner and I both agree it is definitely in the top three sport climbs either of us have ever done. Long, flowy, sustained, techy, and super-exposed. All the holds are just good enough. Would be a tricky onsight. WOW!”
Black Slabbath (5.12a)
Lord of The Flies Wall
“This truly is the route that all other Spearfish Canyon 5.12a’s should be judged against. Positively the sickest line I have ever done. If you only have one morning to spare on your road trip to our fine canyon, start your session with Tasting Time, then do Indecent Exposure, get on Slabbath, and cool down with either The Beast or The Conch. You will not be disappointed.”
Ya Bud! (5.11d)
“Sick moves on sweet slabby to overhanging stone that is nearly perfect!
Crimps, monos, and great holds galore await your hands and feet that are shaking with the anticipation of an excellent send!”
Flight of the Bumblebee (5.12d)
“Amazing climbing on stellar stone. Considering it’s one of the finest routes in the canyon, one would think it would get a little more attention. Excellent introduction to the harder routes in Spearfish. Technical edges with a little power tossed in for good measure. Easier on the tendons than Big Train but slightly more technical. Another must-send!”
Spearfish, South Dakota Climbing Metrics
Excellent for intermediates
More than a lifetime of classics
Sweet spot for summer
*Stats are for the immediate Spearfish area. Get route beta, photos, and topos at mountainproject.com.