There are places on earth that are just naturally beautiful. At the same time, there are some natural phenomena that are so unique that you can’t believe they are real. The Needles Highway in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a combination of both. It’s one of those places that you have to see for yourselves, in order to really appreciate how impossible of a geological phenomenon this was to create.
Natural environments frequently offer spectacular scenery but this stunning scenic byway takes this philosophy to the extreme. After taking this breathtaking scenic drive, it’s no surprise to hear that critics have claimed this is an impossible stretch and one that is unbelievable to the naked eye…nevermind thinking about taking a vehicle along this route.
Where is the Needles Highway?
Located at the western edge of Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Needles Highway is an epic experience that you cannot afford to miss. Having spent the morning exploring Rapid City and Mount Rushmore, our plan was to head over to Badlands National Park.
However, when we researched scenic drives in and around Rapid City, the Needles Highway immediately sparked our interest…and we can certainly attest that we have zero regrets.
If you are approaching this drive from Mount Rushmore, you will take a winding drive through the scenic Black Hills and it is about a 30-minute drive to the entrance of Custer State Park from Mount Rushmore.
We were completely unaware that to take the scenic drive through the Needles Highway, you have to pay the $20 admission fee for Custer State Park. This temporary pass gives you access to the state park for 7 days but of course, we were solely interested in taking the scenic drive.
Is it worth $20 you may be wondering? YOU BET IT IS!! We were a little pessimistic as we handed over our money but that was short-lived. We immediately started the gorgeous drive passing by stunning spires, through intricate tunnels naturally carved into the side of the mountains and sharp turns that require meticulous care as you drive around.
As this drive is closed throughout the winter months, we strongly recommend you plan on visiting this part of South Dakota between spring and fall. We were a little disappointed by the weather conditions that we experienced given the heavy rainfall, but we weren’t going to let a little rain dampen our spirits and enjoy this amazing scenery.
Needles Highway – The Impossible Route
When you think about a 14-mile drive through pine and spruce forests with an array of geological formations surrounding this route, it’s inevitable that you will be intrigued by the potential of this scenic byway.
This roadway dates back to 1922 when construction of this carefully planned route was completed. Former South Dakota Governor, Peter Norbreck, marked the entire course on foot and horseback and after you drive this route I think we will all agree that it was worth the effort.
On numerous occasions, we stopped before the tunnel because we couldn’t quite believe how narrow they were. I couldn’t begin to imagine a tour bus or larger vehicle navigating along this route but fortunately, we were able to enjoy the scenery and challenges without fearing for our cars safety!
For the bus drivers that drive this roadway, kudos to them for having little fear because you need to be confident and aware of your vehicle size before passing through some of these tunnels.
Here are the dimensions of the two ‘narrow’ tunnels you will encounter on this drive:
8’4″ Wide by 12′ Tall and 9′ Wide by 12’3″ Tall
It’s a cool experience though navigating through them and as long you don’t suffer from serious claustrophobia, you will be completely fine! The Needle’s Eye tunnel is the most famous but mainly because of what you see once you get through to the other side.
The Overlooks and Granite Spires
There are a number of overlooks where you can pull over and admire the panoramic views across Custer State Park. The granite spires are probably the most iconic of all the geological features here and of course help to give the name to this highway.
However, the most challenging and spectacular aspect of this drive are the tunnels that you have to carefully pass through.
Once you pass through the Needle’s Eye tunnel, be sure to check out the actual rock formation where ‘the eye of a needle’ gets its name from. Through the forces of nature, this geological phenomenon was formed and it really is a great representation of the Needles Highway.
The Cathedral Spires are also a popular formation in Custer State Park that can be seen from this scenic drive. For the adventurous folks out there that love hiking and rock-climbing, the Cathedral Spires are a true climbers paradise.
The beauty throughout Custer State Park and particularly along the Needles Highway may frequently be left in the shadow of nearby attractions like Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park but that shouldn’t take anything away from how breathtaking it is here.
Regardless of your appreciation of nature, just taking this drive to admire the beauty will surely inspire you to want to explore more natural landscapes. This was the perfect appetizer for the Badlands Scenic Drive which we experienced later that day. Both are epic drives and certainly South Dakota should now be on your radar for geological beauty!
Have you experienced the Needles Highway? Are the Black Hills of South Dakota an attractive area that you are inspired to visit?