Community Caves in Winter

Ice Ice Baby: Hiking Spearfish Canyon’s Community Caves in Winter

Spearfish Canyon’s Community Caves is a remarkable spot year-round, but winter transforms this spot into an ice castle complete with crystal columns and a glass-like floor. It’s a a steep trek up sheets of ice, but here’s how we conquered the ice cave — and how you can do it too.

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In the past few months, several people have told me that I should make visiting Community Caves in winter a priority. I’ve heard amazing things, and seen incredibly looking photos, so I’ve been eager to make the trek. I have visited this spot before; during my second visit to the Black Hills, our friends Eric and Alicia brought us into Spearfish Canyon, then led us up the steep trail to Community Caves. It’s not a long hike – only about a mile and a half out and back, but it quickly turns steep and rocky after you cross Spearfish Creek. We found it difficult to scramble up the rocks amidst branches, but after we made it to the top and the trail opened up, the trek was well worth the effort!

The steep trail to community caves
The path is steep and rocky. It’s not a long hike, but it isn’t easy either.

The cave doesn’t go deep into the canyon wall, but the opening is massive. The small waterfall adds a beautiful percussion that echos through the cave as the cool entrance offers a reprieve from the sweat built up on the way up. For such a short trail, the experience feels incredibly fulfilling.

community caves
The mouth of the cave is wide, but it’s not very deep.

We made that trek in autumn. Come winter, the waterfall grows into icy columns that spread down the trail. The rocky path becomes a road of ice that borders on treacherous. But the more I heard about how beautiful this spot becomes in winter, the more I wanted to make the trek.

Hiking Community Caves in Winter

So this weekend, we bundled up and grabbed our snowline Chainsen Pro Traction spikes – they’re not quite as robust as true crampons, but they do a solid job. We tossed them in our Luzons, climbed in the truck and drove into Spearfish Canyon.

Community Caves doesn’t have a formal trailhead. You just park on the pullout on the side of the highway, cross the road, and get to stepping. There’s a clear path leading down to Spearfish Creek. This time of year, it’s frozen over, but be careful crossing – we spied a few open sections as we hiked across it. Once you cross the stream, continue hiking northward and look for a small trail. In winter, it’s easy enough to see the way.

If you’ve made it this far without your spikes or crampons, I’d advise you to put them on now, because the trail is about to get icy. Very icy. In warmer weather, the waterfall trickles down the canyon wall, flowing toward Spearfish Creek. For the majority of the trail, it flows beneath the rocks that you clamber over on your way up.

An icy path to the top

In cold weather however, that water freezes, leaving a ribbon of ice twisting and turning down the side of the canyon. It’s beautiful, but dangerous. Hence the need for some form of traction system strapped onto your boots. I would also recommend some trekking poles or other form of support. I used my Black Diamond ice axe that I picked up during my Mount Whitney trip, and Clarissa used my set of trekking poles. They made a world of difference when it came to staying upright (ie. not busting our asses).

Take it slow and steady. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s all ice.

Clarissa making her way up the icy path
Without some sort of traction system, this hike would be impossible.

Keep going!

The hike is steep and challenging, but not long; only a half mile, maybe a little more. Once you reach the boulder on the right, you’re getting close. Take a quick break here and listen for a moment; you’ll hear the gurgling of water from beneath the boulder as it flows under your feet. As you continue past the boulder, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the falls, frozen into pillars of water. It’s beautiful, but don’t rush – this might be the slickest and steepest section.

The ice columns and ice wall
It’s beautiful, but don’t rush here. If you start to slide, regaining your footing can be very difficult.

Take your time, and make sure you have steady footing as you go. With each step, you’ll get closer, but it’s all ice. If you lose your footing you’ll quickly slide a long way down.

Inside Community Caves in Winter

The draw of making this hike is the massive wall and pillars of ice formed by the overhead waterfall.

Standing in front of Community Caves in winter.
These columns are massive, and the water is still flowing underneath the ice!

You can explore all around the cave, back behind the columns and ice walls. Just be careful – the columns can come crashing down and the ice covers the ground as well. Water leaks in from the rear of the cave, creating a column in the back that blankets the cave floor in a glassy ice that’s crystal clear in some spots.

The column in the rear of Community Caves
The column in the rear of the cave that blankets the floor.

On the day we made the trek, the temperature hit -10, but the wind chill came in at around -20. Add to that the fact that we were walking around on six inch thick ice, and we started getting cold pretty quickly. As our toes started going numb, we tried to make our visit quick, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to leave without getting some pictures among the crystalline columns.

Ice columns in Community Caves
Looking out into Spearfish Canyon from behind ice columns. You can see where a section has collapsed.

While I didn’t want to spend to much time below the falls, I couldn’t resist posing next to the central column. I almost lost my footing in this spot, which would have made for a much different picture. What’s amazing to me is that the water is still flowing inside that column. Sometimes you can hear it trickling down, and you can see it through clear spots in the ice.

The central column at Community Caves
This was the central column in the center of the cave. You could look into certain spots and see water running underneath.

I felt much more comfortable inside the cave, sheltered from the wind. Of course, it did nothing to thaw my feet, which were beginning to feel like blocks of ice themselves at this point, so we knew we needed to hurry up and get back to the car. We didn’t want frostbite, but we decided to take a couple more minutes to snap a few more pictures, like this one looking out from a window in the ice wall.

Looking out from behind the ice wall at Community Caves in winter
Looking out from behind the ice wall.

And this one, which I almost lost my footing while taking. This shot gives you a decent view of the whole cave and its ice formations.

The ice formations at Community Caves in winter
Here you can see the central column, the rear column and the ice wall on the far end.

Heading back down the canyon

With our feet and noses numb, we decided to stop pushing our limits and head back down the canyon. The path is the same, just in reverse. When making your way back down from the cave, you will need to exercise every bit of caution you used on your way up, if not more. You’ll be cold, perhaps a little tired, and I personally find it more difficult making my way down a steep grade than I do going up.

And of course, as I mentioned previously, it’s incredibly icy.

Heading back down the canyon
Be every bit as careful on your way back down. You don’t want an uncontrolled slide back into the canyon. I’ve had the uncontrolled glissade before, and I’d like to avoid repeating it.

Slow and steady. Take your time. No sense in getting hurt if you can avoid it. It probably took about twice the time to get back to level ground than it took us to get up to the cave, but at just over a half mile, it still didn’t take us long until we crossed back over the creek, removed the spikes from our boots, and ran across the road to the truck – and cranked the floor heat on our frosty toes!

Getting there

Hiking Community Caves in winter is a magical experience. Though the trail is short, it provides quite a challenge, and yet the experience is completely worthwhile. In fact, we may very well return before the spring thaw – and if you want to experience the beauty of the ice columns and walls, you should too!

Community Caves isn’t hard to find. The pullout is right at 2.7 miles after you turn off Colorado Boulevard onto Spearfish Canyon Highway (14A) as you come from Spearfish. It comes up on Google Maps too, so you can navigate to the trailhead that way too. Park on the side of the road, jaunt across, and make your way down the trail to Spearfish Creek. Then you’re on your way!

Selfie of Wade and Clarissa on the trail
An obligatory selfie of me and Clarissa after crossing Spearfish Creek. We’re about to start gaining elevation, fast.

What you need to know about hiking Community Caves in winter

If you plan to hike Community Caves in winter, you absolutely MUST have some kind of crampons or traction system on your boots. No matter how good the tread on your soles may be, it’s not adequate for scrambling up the steep grade covered in a foot of ice. We each used a pair of snowline Chainsen Pro Traction System spikes, and they worked incredibly well on this trek.

I would also recommend that you use some kind of trekking pole or other aid to help keep you upright, and keep an extra point of contact with the icy ground. Clarissa used an affordable but reliable set of trekking poles. They’ve got carbide tips and snow baskets and she had no problem getting around with them. I carried my Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe that I picked up at the beginning of my Mount Whitney experience. These made the difficult trek significantly easier, and we were both grateful for the advantage!

Otherwise, layer up and wear warm boots and gloves. Wind sweeps down the canyon along the path up to Community Caves, so the gusts will chill you to the bone without proper winter wear.

The most important thing to have when hiking Community Caves in winter, however, is patience. I know I’ve repeated it a lot in this post, but it’s incredibly icy and slick. Take your time, and enjoy the experience. It truly is a magical one.

Looking out from behind the ice wall at Community Caves in winter
Looking out from behind the ice wall at Community Caves. Trust me, it was absolutely worth the frozen trek.

 

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