2021 Fall Canyon Color Report

By Kimberly Talcott
Spearfish Canyon Enthusiast and Freelance Writer


September 28th, 2021

Color Change: 95% (High)

Leaf Drop: Minimal

The Canyon is at its peak of fall color, meaning the majority of leaves are at their boldest and brightest now before their winter shed.

Brisk wind this morning made the Quaking Aspen shimmer in the breeze. If you listen, you’ll see why they live up to their name.

Leaf drop is still minimal. The lack of storms and above-freezing forecasted temperatures mean the leaves should hold strong for several more days.

In addition to the gorgeous 76 Trail and Roughlock Falls areas, other places to notice this week include the southeast Canyon wall after Rim Rock Lodge and Devil’s Bathtub parking area. See the vivid Canyon colors close up after Rim Rock Lodge as the Aspen’s sprinkle the hills with their gold nugget leaves. Devil’s Bathtub is abundant in color from the ground shrubs to the trees. Throughout the Canyon Scenic Byway, watch for radiant red, leafy vines climbing the trees searching for autumn sunlight.

September 24th, 2021

Color Change: 75% (High)

Leaf Drop: Minimal

It is officially the fall season and the Canyon trees are flourishing in their fall color. Taking a Canyon cruise this weekend, you will know it is fall right away as you enter the Scenic Byway. The trees at the mouth of the Canyon are reaching full color.

Keep cruising (slowly, the deer are enjoying the roadways, too) and watch for the Long Valley Picnic Area. Nearly every bend in the road after Long Valley will provide spectacular fall sights. The bowl of trees before Savoy is abundant with lime green trees ready to turn along with many golden hues. Take advantage of the pull-off near Savoy to take it all in. The Canyon walls adjacent to the Spearfish Canyon Lodge main entrance are also sprouting with color right now.

For the first time this season I saw leaves floating in the breeze across the roadway. Leaf drop is minimal. Tap into all your senses when visiting the Canyon this weekend – see the leaves, feel the cool Canyon breeze, smell the fresh forest air, listen to the creek. You are in for a treat!

September 21st, 2021

Color Change: 65% (Moderate) 

Look on up! My earlier leaf reports mentioned looking low in Spearfish Canyon to see the color transitions in the grasses and shrubs. Now it’s time to peer up into the highest points of the Canyon rim and cliffs for a cascade of color from the top down.

The higher elevation leaf color changes are most noticeable at mile marker 21, before you reach the Long Valley Picnic area, and at the Iron Creek trailhead parking area.

If you’re trying to capture the Canyon’s fall beauty on camera, here are a few tips from former Canyon Leaf Reporter Jerry J. Boyer. Try to photograph after 10 a.m. and take photos in the north/south direction because of sun glare. Rainy or cloudy days are ideal for Canyon photos because they diffuse the bright light.

September 17th, 2021

Color Change: 55% (Moderate)
Today, Jerry J. Boyer accompanied me to the Canyon to survey the leaves. Leaf Report readers will know Jerry’s name as former president of the Spearfish Canyon Foundation and an avid leaf reporter for 20 years. Jerry is also author of several books including “Canyon Echoes: A Spearfish Canyon Photo Essay.”

The leaves are nearing 55 percent color change today, with a noticeable slowing down of their gradual change to fall colors. The leaves are giving us time to notice, and look! The more than 80 bends in the Canyon Scenic Byway each reveal a different stage of change. As Jerry says, “every curve has its own magic.”

The area around Spearfish Canyon Lodge to the 76 Trail is beginning to show its colors, with bursts of lime and blonde among the pines and limestone. You will notice radiant scarlet Sumac and purple Dogwood along the lower levels of the Canyon. Nannyberry shrubs near the Long Valley Picnic Area are beginning to reveal their crimson hues.

I tried to get Jerry to reveal his prediction for our peak color change. It looks like we may have a slightly earlier, although still within normal range, leaf peak around Sept. 27-28. As Jerry says, “You can’t fool Mother Nature.” Weather in the coming week will be our determining factor. 

September 14th, 2021

Color Change: 50% (Moderate)
Mountain Goats were grazing at the bend in the road after Bridal Veil Falls this morning. They were enjoying the leaves too, eating green leaves on trees and sauntering through the colorful grasses. A small, migratory population of Rocky Mountain Goats has lived in the Black Hills since the 1920s, according to the S.D. Game, Fish, & Parks. A goat sighting is a good reminder to drive slow through the Canyon. You never know when the next turn will reveal a sighting of these slow-moving, agile animals.
The Canyon leaves are at 50 percent of their peak color change. The ground shrubs and grasses continue to show off vibrant reds and the mid-levels of the Canyon are showing vibrant yellows. Some trees are noticeably dry, and on a close inspection you can see the crackled edges of a dry tree compared to a tree going through its fall color change.
I included a photo from my Aunt in this week’s report. A love of nature runs strong in our family. She noticed a large number of pinecones on her conifer or cone-bearing trees such as Ponderosa Pine this year. The dry, hot weather means the conifer trees are more interested in reproducing, rather than growth. The cones contain their seeds. So not only is the weather hot, but the trees are apparently “in heat,” too!

September 10th, 2021

Color Change: 30% (Low to Moderate)

The Canyon is noticeably more colorful today, with the contrast of the conifer evergreens and the deciduous lime hues. Birch and Aspen deciduous trees are sprinkling the Canyon with golden yellows. This weekend, you will notice a swath of lighter green trees at Bridal Veil falls. The entrance to the Canyon in Spearfish through Devil’s Bathtub are the most colorful areas to view right now.

The leaves are indeed “changing,” but we might consider referring to the leaves as “revealing” their colors. The yellow leaves of the Birch and Aspen, for example, are always yellow. We just cannot see the yellow during the growing season because it is masked by green chlorophyll. Production of chlorophyll is necessary for photosynthesis, the chemical reaction where plants use sunlight to make food. In autumn, the leaf’s production of the pigment chlorophyll slows and is eventually destroyed. Then, the leaf’s colors are unmasked for us to see and enjoy.

Enjoy watching the chlorophyll destruction this weekend as the leaves reveal their true colors!

September 7th, 2021

Color Change: 5% (Low)

We are on the cusp of fall in these early days of September. The days become shorter and the temperatures cool – both are vital to the leaves changing.

A dry, hot summer like the one we experienced means we may have a later than normal leaf color peak. The weather forecast this week remains warm, which will likely slow down the leaf change a bit. The weather of July and August also give us hints about the timing of fall foliage. South Dakota had much below average precipitation this summer. In July, for example, we had nearly 2” less precipitation than the year prior.

With the steady decrease in daylight hours, the leaves are decreasing their production of chlorophyll. The greens in the Birch, Aspen, Oak, and Cottonwood leaves in the Canyon begin to fade and the yellows and oranges will emerge.

Right now, we are at the “fade” stage in the Canyon where some trees are beginning to lighten up their greens.

September 3rd, 2021

Color Change: 3% (Low)

This is the first Spearfish Canyon Leaf Report of 2021. Leaf peepers, get ready for a spectacular September in Spearfish!

The Canyon is currently showing its fall colors at 3%.

If you drive through the Canyon this weekend, watch for small bursts of yellow on Aspen trees just starting their fall transition. You will notice trees starting to lighten their intense greens around Devil’s Bathtub.

Get low, too. Ground cover and grasses are the first to lighten their color in the Canyon. At this time, Sumac are still mostly green but are beginning to sprinkle yellows and reds along the Canyon’s lower levels. Don’t let the rain stop you, either. Fall colors pop against the rain.

We expect the peak color change to occur between September 23 – October 4. This is based on 20 years of research by Jerry J. Boyer, who tracked the Spearfish Canyon fall foliage for years. Teaser: Keep reading the Leaf Reports this year to hear from a special guest on their estimate for the Canyon’s color peak!

2021 Leaf Report and photos by:

Kimberly Talcott
Spearfish Canyon Enthusiast and Freelance Writer


Kimberly Talcott, MPA, is an internationally published writer and public relations consultant with experience in the business, science, and non-profit sectors. Her favorite projects include grant search and writing, website content creation, and outcome measurement. To her freelance clients, Kimberly offers content creation along with a deep understanding of data, logistics, and project evaluation.