Trail Review: Hell Canyon, Custer, SD



Hell Canyon has some great views, but beware your footing, the ticks, and the sun!!!

Two days after I raced the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon Fast 5K, I headed out to the west of Custer, SD to run/hike the 5-5.5 miles or so of Hell Canyon.  [Hell Canyon Trail Data]  The trailhead parking lot is something to keep an eye out for as it is on the right as you go downhill and the road curves left.  The brochure, (which, btw, they had the wrong trail brochures at the trailhead, so get one from the ranger's office in Custer), gives the route proceeding up to the top of the canyon, around it, and then down and through it back to the parking lot.  Since it is a loop, you can go either way.  

I headed up and the trail does just that, steeply and quickly.  After about ten solid minutes of fast uphill hiking, I was nearing the top, and noticed my gps watch was not working right.  As I would later figure out, (since I kept fidgeting with it trying to get it to work for the first third of the hike), the casing was loose and the watch wouldn't stay on and was now basically useless.  At one point, as I stopped to fiddle with it, I looked down and noticed three ticks on my lower legs!  Ambush!!!  I got those off and kept going.  The hike after it tops out initially, has a short spur, which since there were some logs across it and the trail was faint, I actually did not go all the way on it thinking it was a mistake.  So again, you need a sharp eye.  Eventually the trail starts turning as you get more into the canyon and curves around and tops out again before you end up on a trail skirting the canyon along a shelf probably 20-30 feet below the top.  As singletrack and rocky, this is definitely not a place to trip and fall I thought as I went along.  

Some of the dead trees along the first part of the hike at the top of Hell Canyon.

Since I was being careful of my footing, still trying to get my watch working, and taking in the canyon, I didn't notice right away that the sun was getting hot and blaring down on me.  The top half of the hike really has little if any tree cover, so another thing to be aware of is the potential need of sunscreen.


A neat rock outcropping from the top half of the Hell Canyon trail.
For me, unfortunately, my adventure in "Hell" was going to take a tumble, (literally), as I headed down into the canyon.  The canyon starts to descend as you near the northern end.  The trail as it goes downhill puts you into tree cover which was great for dealing with the hot sun, but unfortunately, since I was back to running at this point, my foot caught a rock, and I couldn't catch my balance before I was landing off the side of the trail, mostly on my right side.  My right arm and leg got good and scratched up and my ribs really hurt.  I retrieved my camera and said a quick prayer that my ribs weren't cracked or broken.  (They weren't, but are still sore today.  Likely muscle damage below the rib cage and/or some type of bone bruise.)  At this point, I pretty much was ready to get out of Hell, which is, well, rather ironic, since I am a senior pastor on sabbatical!!!  The lower portion of the trail is mostly singletrack, rocky in places, almost overgrown in others, but good overall.  The picture below is one of my favorites of the day as it shows the trail in the bottom of the canyon and the walls surrounding it.  


Seeking to get out of Hell, I'm reminded of Psalm 23:4a "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
A little bit after crossing the one stream that runs through the canyon, which I did on the rocks, I saw the parking lot and kept on running all the way to the gate and my Jeep.  A vehicle had just pulled in, and we talked about my adventure.  The lady in the group noticed another tick on me that needed to be brushed off, and then as I got ready to drive back, the three of them, a little bit older than me, headed out on their adventure.  It didn't take me long to realize that if I had fallen and gotten hurt worse than I did, it might have taken them as much as 2 hours before they would have found me, half way through the loop.  The data on the link at the beginning of this post rates the hike as moderate with a time of 2-4 hours.  Though my watch fritzed out, I was ambushed by ticks, the sun was blaring down, and I fell, I thing my time was around 90 minutes.  Not super fast for 5.4 miles +/-, but okay considering my interesting time in Hell Canyon.  

Psalm 23

"The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me; 
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

I'm glad I have a God who was with me in Hell Canyon, I'm even more glad to have a God who delivered me from Hell through the good shepherd His Son, Jesus Christ.

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Below are additional pictures taken in Hell Canyon that I didn't realize I had access to when I originally wrote this post.  Enjoy!

Part of the initial steep uphill to get on top of Hell Canyon.

Great view.  Also notice the road access is as you come downhill going westward, before the U starts to curve.

On top after the initial steep ascent that begins Hell Canyon.

Notice the canyon walls on the LHS of the picture.



Pretty neat to run partway along some of the canyon wall just below the top of the rim, but just a bit freaky too on singletrack with the rest of the canyon beside you!