Outdoors: Botany Canyon and Frog City

Posted by Michael Zimny on

Whether you're visiting Rapid City or you live here, sometimes you might want to hike the Black Hills without first driving an hour.

The Buzzard's Roost, Flume and Stratobowl Rim trails are all fairly well-known options. Here's a couple more that explore unique nooks of the National Forest without burning half the charge on your Nissan Leaf. 

Botany Canyon

Some locals will bristle at the thought of Botany Canyon as a lesser-known locale, but most visitors will not have heard of it. Others would likely prefer that it stay semi-secret. On the other hand, hikers can help protect this lush riparian wonderland from unauthorized motor vehicles by serving as an overwatch. 

Since the Canyon was reclaimed for foot travel only, the watercress beds and kaleidoscope of mossy banks and lichen-rich rocks have begun to thrive again. The place is a paradise for botanists and flora fiends, hence the name, replete with rare species of flower like death camas. 

A black-capped chickadee munches on a hophornbeam along the trail into Botany Canyon.A black-capped chickadee munches on a hophornbeam along the trail into Botany Canyon.

To get there, you can follow the map on the free All Trails app. The parking area on High Meadows Road has enough room for maybe three vehicles, and might fill up early on weekends. The trail starts somewhat unimpressively as a Forest Service road. There are several forks, so you might want to use a resource like the aforementioned All Trails hiking map to find your way. At (44.18189, -103.39276) you'll want to hang a right and hike down into the canyon till you reach a fence and a sign that reads, "Closed to Motorized Vehicles." 

This is where you enter a Rip Van Winkle-ish world more reminiscent of the Catskills than the Black Hills — a pocket of moisture retention beneath a steep-walled spruce forest where bryophytes burst forth from your very exhalations. On your SDPB Outdoors correspondent's most recent jaunt, the trail seemed to disappear before I reached the end according to All Trails, but venturing further would have made for high impact hiking. Once you've entered Winkle-world, the joy is in leisurely strolling and contemplation. 

Botany Canyon is a moderate (about 640 feet elevation gain) five mile, out-and-back hike.

Pilot's Knob/Frog City Loop

The Pilot's Knob trailhead, on the the Centennial Trail, is also only about a half hour from Rapid City, give or take, and can be combined with a Forest Service 8089-B to make a loop trail.

Like the Botany Canyon trail, this section of the Centennial is a Forest Service road, and some people may wonder why, from a public relations standpoint, the Black Hills' signature thru-hiking trail should be so marred, in places, by logging activity and burn piles. Nonetheless, there are some beautiful views of granite outcroppings, and a diverse sampling of ponderosa pine, quaking aspen, and old-growth spruce, droopy with age and frazzled green beard lichen. 

Your correspondent refers to the 8089-B section of this hike as Frog City, because of the abundance of Estes Creek ponds with their cacophony of frogsong. This might be the froggiest spot you'll encounter in the Hills. With as many predators as enjoy them, they make themselves hard to spot, but you'll hear them for miles, at least until the ponds dry out. At night, their song must lure hungry owls, skunks, muskrats to an amphibian feast.

You can find the Pilot Knob trailhead on Google Maps. The first junction of the Centennial Trail and the 8089-B is at: 44.16006, -103.55510. The Frog City loop is about 7.6 miles with 988 feet elevation gain.

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