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Little Elk Creek Canyon

Jenna Wystosick, 24, of Black Hawk walks her boyfriend's dog Osa along the Little Elk Creek Canyon trail.

No iPods welcome. Forget sunglasses. You’ll need clear eyes and ears.

A walk — or a run, as I prefer — through Little Elk Creek Canyon is a full sensory experience. It’s a mental massage, an encounter with nature and maybe the best way to lose a summer afternoon.

It’s my favorite place in the Black Hills.

The journey begins just 20 minutes outside downtown Rapid City. The trail head, while not marked, is simple enough to find and has no complicated junctions or splits.

The route starts on a single-track gravel trail. It widens for a short time into a gravel road before narrowing again not long into the voyage. You’ll hear the creek flowing on your left, and as you progress, the sound will slowly build.

Looking left to the creek is tempting, but best views might be straight up. The rock formations and colors dominate the canyon, but despite their massive size, the rock formations are simple to miss if you spend more time staring at your feet, trying not to trip.

As the trail winds, it gets more technical, with rocks that need side-stepping and tree branches that need ducking under. Take it slow and enjoy the scenery. The creek becomes wider and louder the deeper into the trail you go. A few points are wide and calm enough for swimming on a hot day, especially for dogs.

The trail splits to a higher and lower section. Take the higher section and enjoy the expansive panoramas down to the creek and out through the canyon. Take the lower route and soak in the rushing waters. Find a rock, rest your feet and unwind. Do you like yoga? There are more than enough dry flat rocks for your poses. Pack a lunch and have a picnic.

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The trees lining the canyon are still healthy and relatively unaffected so far by the dreaded pine beetle. Recent rains have the creek filled, but the water may be a little too cold for a mid-afternoon swim. Come July, it may make a perfect wading pool.

The trail spans 3-1/2 miles, with a slight upward climb out, but nothing intimidating for the beginning hiker. The trail ends at the Dalton Lake trailhead and campground, which can also serve as the back entrance to the canyon hike. If the short hike through the canyon isn’t enough on your legs, continue onto the historic Centennial Trail and expect a climb for the first four miles in either direction.

The canyon won’t make it into the hotel tourist destination brochure rack, which is exactly why you should go. Don’t plan on making too many friends; passing five fellow hikers on a weekend jaunt might be on the high side.

Bring your camera and leave your distractions behind. A trip through the canyon is a perfect and nearby escape from a hard week at the office.

Tennis shoes or light hiking shoes are enough for the trail, which has an intermediate difficulty because of a few technical spots. It’s about 3-½ miles to Dalton Creek trailhead.

Getting there

From Rapid City, take Interstate 90 west to Bethlehem Road. Go under the overpass and take a right on the access road for about 100 yards. Your first left is Little Elk Creek Road. Follow the gravel road until it dead ends into a circular dirt parking lot.

Contact Ryan Lengerich at 394-8418 or ryan.lengerich@rapidcityjournal.com.

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