South Dakota Sights: Needles Highway and Custer State Park

During our recent trip to Wyoming and South Dakota, we spent a good deal of time in the great outdoors, hiking and exploring new national parks. While this was a particularly wonderful way to spend our mornings, we were open to other ideas to beat the heat in the summer afternoons.

Our Rapid City AirBnB hostess gave us a couple local maps and outlined some of her favorite spots to eat and play. We had planned to make our way down to Custer State Park via Needles Highway and welcomed her recommended stops along the way.

After a morning outdoors we set out in the car for our afternoon drive, stopping first in Hill City, South Dakota for lunch at the Alpine Inn.

I’ll admit that summer is not the right time to visit this super cute town in the Black Hills – all of the tourists visiting Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse seem to stay and visit there, and we were a little overwhelmed by all of the people.

Lunch, however, proved to be worth the wait. The inn is charming and bustling with people, and we enjoyed our German fare at a quaint table for two in one of the back rooms. I’d love to return in the offseason and spend some time exploring the town and surrounding area.

After lunch we set off for our loop drives, exploring Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road.

Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road

I know Brian would have preferred riding the motorcycles along Needles Highway – and is trying to convince me we should still do that! – but I thoroughly enjoyed making the trip in our car.

We took route 385 south from Hill City to grab route 87 (aka Needles Highway) and instead of turning toward Mount Rushmore we began winding up and through the ‘needles’ toward the much acclaimed tunnels.

The Needles Highway is a spectacular drive through ponderosa pine and Black Hills spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needle-like granite formations, which seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. The roadway was carefully planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback. Construction was completed in 1922.

We encountered Needles Eye Tunnel first, which is only 8′ 9″ wide by 9’8″ high, and pulled off for several reasons – to capture some pictures of the incredible views, to watch other vehicles narrowly make their way through the eye, and to wait our turn!

You can see some of the vehicles coming through in the photo below, but what’s not pictured is the large tour buses that navigate people through. We took our turn and then pulled over at the Needles Highway Scenic Overlook to watch one of those from afar, and it was hard to watch – I know the drivers do it all the time, but it was making me very nervous!

One of my favorite stops was at the Cathedral Spires Pullout – some clouds were rolling around atop the spires and they looked so majestic across the valley below.

The information plaque at this area included a callout from the 1964 Wilderness Act, which created the legal definition of ‘wilderness’ in the U.S. and protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. Giving the unsustainable growth of the world’s population, this commitment to protecting wild places is so important.

We transitioned from Needles Highway to a portion of Iron Mountain Road, noting a number of trailheads along the way.

The Iron Mountain Road is a work of art in itself. The highway connects Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial and passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in the Black Hills, including three tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore in the distance. The road is famous for the “Pigtail Bridges” that allow travelers to drop or gain altitude quickly. The highway was constructed in the 1930s under the direction of Governor Peter Norbeck, “this is not meant to be a super highway, to do the scenery justice you should drive no more than 20 mph and to do it full justice you should simply get out and walk.” Experience the road that engineers once said couldn’t be built; you’ll be happy you did.

The ‘pigtails’ were wild and tested my stomach, which doesn’t always do well on winding roads. It was all worth it when we exited one of the tunnels to see Mount Rushmore straight ahead!

There were cars behind us but Brian slowed just enough for me to snap a shot out the front window. It was a very unique perspective of the monument.

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road

We continued along route 87 into Custer State Park to join up with the Wildlife Loop Road. One of our first stops was the Mt. Coolidge Lookout Tower. This one required us to actually turn off the road and drive up the mountain to a parking area and facility with incredible views of the surrounding area.

Completed in the 1930s, the Mount Coolidge Lookout and Fire Tower was built using local stone, sits at 6,023 feet, and is still used as a fire lookout/dispatch center. It was a perfect day and several other groups came and went during our time walking around the summit.

After paying our entry fee, we truly set out on the Wildlife Loop Road. I kept one of the park manuals they handed us when we entered, which detailed out things to see and do in the park year-round. We’d love to visit again in different seasons to hike, snow-shoe, and experience more of the park than we could view from inside our car.

As advertised, we ended up seeing quite the variety of wildlife on our loop drive through Custer State Park!

Wildlife Loop Road twists and turns its way through the prairie and ponderosa pine-studded hills that harbor many of the park’s wildlife species. On most days, guests will come face to face with the number one inhabitant of the park, 1,350 free roaming buffalo. White-tailed deer, mule deer, and elk are most visible early in the morning and late in the afternoon; if you’re lucky, you may see big horn sheep, burrowing owls, coyotes, or even a mountain lions. 

Two of the most colorful characters along the way are the prairie dogs and a band of the park’s feral burros.

Although we prefer to be boots on the ground when we explore new places, there was great appeal in a warm afternoon drive through Custer State Park via Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and the Wildlife Loop. Highly recommend!

2 thoughts on “South Dakota Sights: Needles Highway and Custer State Park

  1. Pingback: Winter Weekend in Custer State Park – Heather's Compass

  2. Pingback: Custer State Park: Winter Hikes – Heather's Compass

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