General Custer’s men found gold in French Creek in 1874, and triggered a boom of European settlement in the Black Hills. Despite setting off exploitation of the region, by way of an industry known from reducing mountains to rubble no less, French Creek retains one of the least disturbed areas in the Black Hills. Straddling lower French Creek in the heart of Custer State Park, the French Creek Natural Area preserves about 2000 acres of forest and rock.
Rugged terrain has preserved the natural area. The stream ping-pongs between vertical cliffs like an out of control driver on a mountain road careening between guard rails. However, many of the cliffs rise directly out of surprisingly calm water. Cattails fringe sunny pools, and riffles rather than rapids separate the flat-water stretches. Opposite each cliff, flats separated the stream from rocky slopes.
Those highly sheltered flats and a series of north facing coves along French Creek caught my eye when I was trying to figure out where in the Black Hills I might find productive forests. A regional travel guide also noted that one of the largest ponderosa pines in the state grew along the French Creek Trail.
I parked in a valley south of French Creek, and walked up a gated road/horse trail through thin stands of young, even aged, actively managed ponderosa pines to a deep gap 500’ above French Creek. Descending into the natural area via a gentle, sheltered, north-facing cove, the forest immediately changed. Ponderosa pine still made up the entire overstory, but they were now uneven aged with many old trees. In the understory, patchy thickets of pine regeneration surrounded old fire-scarred trees. Underneath them grew a patchy and fairly sparse but diverse shrub layer that included common juniper, bearberry, and ninebark. A few cut stumps and possibly the remains of an old road bed also lay on the forest floor, but those signs of past disturbance disappeared farther down the cove. Rock replaced them. Soils in the upper part of the cove were rocky, but in the lower cove a mini canyon occupied the center and a large talus slope swept in from the side. Despite the favorable looking topography, the rockiness apparently limited pine heights to around 100’. A few paper birch took advantage of the more reliable water supply in the lower cove.
A distinctly two-tiered forest of bur oak below and ponderosa pine above occupies all the flats along French Creek. A trail cut pine showed roughly 222 rings, and some of the oaks certainly reach that age too. Ponderosa pines also occupy the surrounding slopes, but paper birch forms woodlands in the shady talus below the larger cliffs. A band across the middle of the largest cliff also supports rocky mountain juniper.
Horse traffic from the camp at the upstream end of the natural area had entrenched the trail, and the melting snow filled it with icy slush. That situation and the need to cross the melt swollen stream every couple hundred yards made for slow hiking. However, the open forests made for easy measuring, and I measured my way upstream. Pine heights where I hit the trail were in the 100-110’ range, similar to what the taller trees I had seen driving around Custer State Park. Pines in the flats appeared consistently taller than those of slopes, and the heights gradually inched up as I moved upstream.
I eventually came to a sharp bend in the stream where steep coves descended the opposite north to northeast facing slope. A grove of spruce and a few aspen saplings grew at the bottom of the slope, the lowest elevation populations I saw of either species. At the edge of the spruce grove, stood a few tall pines. I roughed out the lowest and tallest of the pines, and realized it was at least 10’ taller than any of the pines I had measured in the flats. My initial measurement turned out to be short. The pine was 144.4’.
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