Problems caused by the exploding popularity of Devil’s Bathtub are receiving some action — including a changed parking area — after several years of growing alarm.
John Kanta, western South Dakota regional supervisor for the Department of Game, Fish & Parks, spoke to the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board on Wednesday at the Mystic Ranger District Office in Rapid City. He unveiled short- and long-term plans to deal with parking problems, traffic congestion, trespassing and environmental damage caused by the annually growing herd of visitors to the natural swimming hole in Spearfish Canyon.
Devil’s Bathtub was formerly something of a local secret, Kanta said, but sharing on social media in recent years has spread its popularity far and wide while drastically increasing visitation to the site. On many summer days, parked vehicles line both sides of a short gravel road near the trailhead and spill out onto both shoulders of U.S. Highway 14A, the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.
“It’s gone bonkers,” Kanta said.
This summer, signs will direct Devil’s Bathtub visitors to drive a little farther south along U.S. Highway 14A and park near the historical Homestake Hydro Electric Plant No. 2 building.
A path will be cut in the grass next to the highway for visitors to walk safely from the new parking area to the trailhead, rather than walking on the highway shoulder.
Motorists who park along the shoulders of Cleopatra Place — the short gravel lane that has traditionally been used as a parking area by Devil’s Bathtub visitors — may be ticketed and towed by the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, which plans to increase enforcement this summer.
Efforts will also be made to direct hikers onto one definitive hiking trail to Devil’s Bathtub, rather than any of the numerous winding trails to the attraction that have been worn into the forest.
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“This is our short-term solution,” Kanta said.
Kanta said the long-term solution will hopefully involve a land transfer.
The area around the current Devil’s Bathtub trailhead is a mix of state-owned public land and privately owned homes and cabins. The private landowners have suffered littering and trespassing on their property and have had difficulty accessing and leaving their property when vehicles clog Cleopatra Place and Highway 14A.
The state also owns the Hydro 2 building, a structure farther down Highway 14A that was formerly used by the Homestake Mining Company to generate power for its mining operations. The rest of the hiking route into the forest to Devil’s Bathtub and the swimming hole itself are on federal public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Kanta said the state would like to transfer ownership of its land and the Hydro 2 building to a willing partner, possibly for eventual transfer to the U.S. Forest Service. He said various people have discussed the possibility of refurbishing the Hydro 2 building for a visitor center or museum or some other use. He said that would probably cost someone “a few hundred thousand dollars.”
A new trailhead could ultimately be built near the Hydro 2 building to keep hikers away from the privately owned homes and cabins, Kanta said. The new trail would require a bridge to cross Spearfish Creek, and would then go over a ridge and require a metal staircase to help hikers descend to Cleopatra Creek, where the new trail segment would connect with the existing trail. Kanta said the estimated cost to build the bridge and new trail section is $250,000.
All of those long-term plans are yet to be arranged and funded. Kanta said numerous people and entities are discussing ways to make it all happen.
The goal is to have a plan for a land transfer in place before the winter, Kanta said, so the Legislature can consider it during the 2020 legislative session that starts in January.