Cross-Country skiing at Big Hill, Spearfish, SD

Big Hill, a recreation area located on National Forest land just outside of Spearfish, SD, provides outdoor leisure opportunities year-round.  The easiest way to reach the main Big Hill trailhead is to take Exit 8 off of I-90 for McGuigan Rd.  Take this south until you reach the T-intersection with Tinton Road (this is also where the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary is located).  Turn right at the intersection to drive up the hill.  After about 8 miles, watch for a VERY tiny brown sign on the right-hand side of the road showing a hiker.  Shortly after this sign, at the top of the hill, you’ll see a LARGE parking area on your right.  (The trailhead is directly across the road from the parking area).  It’s difficult to miss as there are usually numerous other cars there (especially in the winter).  There are other routes you can take to reach this trailhead–coming from downtown Spearfish–as well as a Scenic Route coming up the other direction on Tinton Road from the south (from Roughlock Falls Road).  While this is a beautiful, scenic drive that I highly recommend in the summer, it should be approached with extreme caution in the winter.  This portion of the road is barely maintained for winter driving and is usually at least somewhat snow covered.  We have successfully taken this route in the 4×4 truck in the winter, but it’s not for the feint of heart (though it is necessary if you want to reach the Mt. Baldy trailhead to enjoy winter activities in that area).  The route from McGuigan road to the trailhead is usually maintained quite well and can be reached using a typical, 2-wheel drive vehicle (we made our first trip there in an old Civic).  It should also be noted that whether Summer or Winter, all of these dirt/gravel forest roads are dependent on current weather conditions and can vary greatly (and QUICKLY) as the weather changes.

Big Hill offers over 15 miles of trails formed by a variety of loops/routes (following old forest roads) that can be combined in a variety of ways.  I strongly recommend visiting a local Forest Office for a Trail Map before setting off on your adventure.  The trails are fairly obvious and well marked, but it’s still best to have a map to help determined the best route for you (the map also indicates the difficulty levels of the various trails).  Big Hill is available year-round for hiking/mountain biking/running in the warmer months to snowshoeing/Fat Tire biking/cross-country skiing in the snowy months.  Big Hill tends to be one of the snowier places in the Hills and cross-country skiing can potentially be enjoyed anywhere from October – May (dependent on current snow conditions of course).  We’ve enjoyed snowshoeing here as well, though there are times the snow isn’t quite deep enough so we tend to favor the Eagle Cliff area for our snowshoeing adventures (see more about this here).  Today, I’m going to focus on the winter sports available here, I’ll touch on warmer season adventures in future posts.  I will say though, this area is a must-see in the fall when the yellow Aspens are in full color.

We recently acquired our first pairs of cross-country skis thanks to a generous Christmas gift and set off to enjoy a beautiful, sunny, “warm” day cross-country skiing at Big Hill.  Thanks to the complicated, frequently contrasting weather in the Black Hills–while it remained in the single digits to low teens that day in the lower elevations–it reached the balmy mid-twenties on the Hill (that equates to perfectly comfortable conditions when skiing, in the sun, with little wind.)  The contrasting weather is due to an Inversion, put in super simple terms it basically means warmer air is lighter and floats over cooler air so its warmer the higher you go in elevation.  (If you want a more scientific explanation you’ll have to track down Mr. Trekker).  😃

Snowshoeing is great fun, but it’s HARD work depending on snow conditions (it and mountain biking are literally the hardest workouts I’ve ever done).  Cross-country skiing, in contrast, requires far less exertion (and I’ve found that working out with an elliptical during the week is perfect training for this sport as the body motions required for both are very similar).  HOWEVER…anyone who can walk can snowshoe.  It takes a little skill to keep from stepping on your own shoes, but once you master that, you’re golden.  Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, is FAR more difficult.  It requires balance, finesse, and the ability to relax and just “go with the flow”–all characteristics I SORELY lack (“sore” being the key word as that’s often the result of my endeavors).  I would also argue skiing is more dangerous as you’re moving faster and are more likely to slip/twist something when you fall (and you WILL fall).  If you fall while snowshoeing, you pretty much just end up on your rump or fall to the side into a several-foot, cushioning snowbank.  It may be cold, but not really injury-inducing.  We’ve gotten pretty good at most outdoor sports we enjoy, but with skiing we’re still very much beginners.  Standing on a thin object that’s meant to glide quickly and effortlessly does not lend itself to keeping one’s balance.  Neither do skis that are as long as I am tall and stick out several feet both in front of and behind you.  Not only do you have to learn how to move around without stepping on yourself (similar to snowshoes) but you have to do it while each leg is trying to slide in an opposite direction.**

For beginners, I strongly recommend starting with the initial Loop A.  It’s short and just goes in a small circle around a meadow/forested area near the front of the Big Hill trail network.  It’s fairly flat with only a few short rises and dips and doesn’t offer much opportunity for too many falls (though, full disclosure, I have fallen here).  There’s another Loop A that goes farther out.  This is also good for beginners once you get a little more confidence as it’s solely a “green” route–meaning it’s considered “easy”.  There are a few steeper slopes, one especially on the right hand (Western) side of the loop as you’re heading out.  I’ve had my worst spills in this area and though they were frightening, I’ve left without injury–so far–and haven’t even felt very sore the next day.  (A surprise as I was sure my ankles were being ripped from my body when I fell.)

This area is absolutely BEAUTIFUL in the winter.  It offers a mixture of forested and meadow areas containing leafless deciduous and evergreen trees, all covered in a soft blanket of snow.  On sunny days you’ll frequently hear birds chirping in the trees, and the ever-present breeze rustling through the pines provides a respite from the deafening, snowy silence.  It’s far enough from civilization that it offers an incredibly peaceful environment, sullied only by the occasional roar of snowmobiles that also enjoy this area–though not these exact trails.  Fortunately, they focus on the area on the other side of the road so they are usually only really heard when you near the parking lot.

So, if you’re enjoying a snowy weekend at Big Hill, and you see a bumbling idiot barely able to stay upright..it just might be me!  😇

**I mentioned the Eagle Cliff area above and I expand on its offerings at here, but Big Hill offers machine-groomed ski trails that are better for practicing the fundamental drills of skiing as they are smoother.  Eagle Cliff only has one groomed trail, the rest are just trails cut by outdoor enthusiasts.  The machine-groomed trails require FAR less effort, but I find I enjoy them less.  They are more crowded and while faster, I find it’s harder to control my skis.  The person-groomed trails require more effort and you’ll move less quickly, but I find the resistance the snow provides aides in control of the skis and balance.  So, while the groomed trails are usually recommended for beginners, I’d say you have to decide what is most important to you; ease of effort or less fear of hurtling down a hill uncontrollably…possibly towards a tree.  😳

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