French Creek, SD

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#1)  French Creek, SD

Postby Jess Riddle » Tue Dec 24, 2013 9:56 pm


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.  

Fire scarred old ponderosa pines surrounded by dense regeneration

Talus slope and 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.

Two tiered forest in flat along French Creek

Ponderosa pine and bur oak along French Creek

Paper birch on north facing talus slope below cliff

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’.

FrenchCreekMeasurements.JPG (41.8 KiB) Viewed 1251 times

8'7" cbh  x 126.9' tall ponderosa pine on the left and 10'0" cbh x 130.5' tall pondersoa pine in middle distance on the right

The largest diameter pondersoa pine seen, 10'6" cbh x 119.6' tall

The tallest ponderosa pine see, 7'5" cbh x 144.4' tall


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#2)  Re: French Creek, SD

Postby dbhguru » Tue Dec 24, 2013 10:55 pm


 I'm humbled. Your finds in the French. Creek Area have pushed the envelope right off the table. You probably measured the tallest tree in the Black Hills. Way to go! In all my time in the Black Hills I never got to that location.

Robert T. Leverett
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Native Native Tree Society
Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
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#3)  Re: French Creek, SD

Postby Iowa Big Tree Guy » Wed Dec 25, 2013 1:41 pm


Congratulations on that 144' ponderosa. I agree with Bob, you may have found the tallest tree in the Black Hills! I have been reading your posts about the your finds in the Black Hills with much interest. I have been wanting to respond with a report on some of the trees I have measured in the Black Hills but I never seem to have time. I have my South Dakota file out now so maybe I can submit a post soon. Do you know if the big ponderosa in Custer State Park is still alive? It had a cbh of about 11' when I saw it about 15 years ago. I think the height was 132'.

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#4)  Re: French Creek, SD

Postby Iowa Big Tree Guy » Wed Dec 25, 2013 9:47 pm


I measured trees in South Dakota in 1995 and in 1998. At that time, I was primarily looking for champion trees so I was concentrating on trees that would have the most points.  I'm sure I over looked many tall trees. Here is a list of some of the trees I measured in the Black Hills:

Species                             Common Name        CBH   Height  Spread  Index                    Location

Crataegus chrysocarpa  fireberry hawthorn        1'9"      16'       17'     41.25  Wildlife Loop Rd Custer State Park

Prunus americana         American Plum             2'4"                                       Wildlife Loop Rd Custer State Park

Betula papyrifera           paper birch                  5'2"     56'       33.5'  126       Near Little Devils Tower Trail Head
                                                                                                                 Custer State Park

Populus tremuloides     quaking aspen               4'11"    82'       28.5'  148      Near Little devils Tower Trail Head
                                                                                                                Custer State Park

Populus angustifolia     narrowleaf cottonwood  11'10"   84'        53'     239      Near City of Spearfish Campground

Populus angustifolia     narrowleaf cottonwood  11'2"     91'        47'     237      Near City of Spearfish Campground

Populus angustifolia     narrowleaf cottonwood  12'        97'        61'     256      Spearfish City Park

Pinus ponderosa          ponderosa pine            12'5"      92'        53'     254       E. of For. Rd. 134, .5 mi. N. of # 85

Pinus contorta             lodgepole pine               5'10"    78'        27'     155       S. of Rd. # 2062A, Black Hills Nat. Forest

Picea glauca (densata) Black Hills spruce           7'8"      116'      31'     215.75   W. of Hwy 89, Black Hills Nat. Forest

Picea glauca (densata) Black Hills spruce           9'2"      101'      30'     218.5    W. of Hwy 89, Black Hills Nat. Forest

Picea glauca (densata) Black Hills spruce           8'4"      114'      31'     221.75  W. of Hwy 89, Black Hills Nat. Forest

Picea glauca (densata) Black Hills spruce           8'3"      116'      29'     222.25   W. of Hwy 89, Black Hills Nat. Forest

Picea glauca (densata) Black Hills spruce           8'5"      114'      30'     222.5     E. of Hwy 85,  S.W. of Cheyenne Crossing

Picea glauca (densata) Black Hills spruce           8'9"      122'      27'     233.375  E. of Spearfish Creek (private land)

Picea glauca (densata) Black Hills spruce           9'6"      114'     28.5'   235.25    E. of Spearfish Creek (private land)

Since it has been quite some time since I measured these trees, some are probably gone and others have probably grown. The tallest spruce which grows near Spearfish Creek was nominated for the South Dakota big Tree Register. The state coordinator sent a nomination to Bill Cannon who was the national coordinator at the time but for some reason, I don't think it ever made the National Register.

The last spruce on the list is the largest one on points and it is larger than the current national champion. I received permission from the owner to nominate the tree, but it was about that time I learned that Picea glauca var. densata would no longer be recognized on the National Register. That was many years ago and P. glauca var. densata was still on the list the last time I checked. Since I already have the national champion Black Hills spruce I just let it ride.

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#5)  Re: French Creek, SD

Postby Larry Tucei » Thu Dec 26, 2013 6:04 pm

Jess- Wow 144' Ponderosa, awesome. Congrats from me to.  Larry
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