Hill City, South Dakota.
There are three scenic drives through the Black Hills in and around Custer State Park. In 2017, we traveled the Iron Mountain Road. You can read about that journey here. Almost every trip, we take the Wildlife Loop Road, though I’ve never done a specific post about that highway, it is one of the major drives through Custer State Park. This post, however, features the shortest, and probably the most beautiful, scenic drive in the park. The Needles Highway is 14 miles (22.5 km) long and takes but an hour or so to drive. Allow yourself extra time if you like to stop and take photos or just enjoy the view. Remember, the person driving doesn’t get to see as much as the passengers. On days when the park is crowded, you will also need extra time to enjoy the scenery.
You can pick up the drive out of Hill City. Head southerly out of Hill City on US 385. About 3 miles (5 km) south, you will find SD-87, the start of the Needles Highway, and 14 miles (22.5 km) of beautiful scenery. From rolling plains to spectacular views of The Needles, the upward-pointing spires are aptly named.
You can also travel on the Needles Highway from the eastern end. That connection is via US 16A. At some point on the journey, you will come upon an entrance station to Custer State Park. You will be required to pay the entrance fee to travel on the Needles Highway within the park.
You may note the tight spaces on the highway. As a result, large RVs or vehicles pulling large trailers are not recommended (or even unable) to travel the highway. Needles Eye Tunnel is only 8 ft 9 in (2.7 m) wide by 9 ft 8 in (3 m) high. The sharp switchback turns are difficult for large RVs or vehicles with trailers to navigate.
SD 87 is also closed from the first snowfall until the last, basically late October through early April. At the beginning and end of the season though, it’s best to call to find out if the highway is open. You can find out more about the scenic drives in Custer State Park here.
As you climb, you will move out of the forest areas into areas that have fewer trees and more granite. The highway was completed in 1922 and consists of sharp turns, beautiful scenery, and lots of granite views. It is actually part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway that winds throughout the park. South Dakota Governor Norbeck planned the byway on foot and horseback and oversaw its completion. He was governor from 1917 to 1921. The Needles section was completed shortly after he left office.
The narrow, winding road can be crowded on certain days. There is often a bottleneck at either side of the one-way-at-a-time tunnels. We were lucky when we approached this tunnel that it wasn’t busy, but at the next tunnel we approached, there were many cars parked in a limited parking area where people stopped to enjoy the views. Even our Chevy Suburban was almost too big to navigate around the traffic and parked cars.
At one stop for photos, we happened to notice a climber working on climbing a granite spire. A small crowd gathered to watch his progress. Fortunately, my 300mm lens brought the climber close enough for me to share these images.
It took only about 5 minutes for this climber to ascend from the moment of my first photo to this last photo in the sequence. My Flickr gallery includes a few photos documenting his progress as he climbed the last two sections of granite.
I’ve shared 20 photos of the Needles Highway on my Flickr site. You can click on any of the images above to check out the details in 2K HD, or to see all of the images in gallery style, check out my Needles Highway Flickr album here.