Why Is the Needles Highway Such An Amazing Experience?

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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.

custer state park

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.

needles highway custer state 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.

south dakota scenic drives

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.

Admission

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.

custer state park south dakota

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.

needles highway

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.

needles highway tunnel

The Tunnels

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!

needles highway tunnel

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.

needles highway tunnel

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.

needles highway south dakota

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.

custer state park south dakota

However, the most challenging and spectacular aspect of this drive are the tunnels that you have to carefully pass through.

needles highway scenery

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.

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.

needles highway custer state park

Summary

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.

needles highway overlook

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?

8 COMMENTS

  1. We visited Custer State Park and viewed more animals than at Yellowstone – prairie dogs, coyote, pronghorn, the wild burros that want you to feed them and a bison traffic jam during a thunderstorm. We had a wonderful visit and loved Custer. Then we traveled the Needles Highway to Mt. Rushmore. All were fantastic! I would love to return!

    • We had torrential rain during our visit to Custer State Park also but that didn’t take anything away from the beauty of the Needles Highway! It’s an epic experience and one that I think everyone should drive at least once…you will likely want to make a return trip, I know we do 🙂

  2. My mother grew up in the Black Hills, but so far I’ve never seen able to go see them. I never dreamed they were this beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Hopefully, you will have an opportunity in the near future to explore the Black Hills of South Dakota for yourself Barbara! We too were surprised at just how spectacular this is especially given that we assumed this area was mainly all about Mount Rushmore. As you can see though, there is so much more to see and a whole bunch of adventure waiting to be experienced.

  3. WE LOVE WESTERN SODAK(as my husband and I named this endearing state) We lived in Rapid City briefly but spent as much time discovering the area. There is so much beauty there that is truly awe-inspiring. I love the accurate descriptive article here and vouch of its validity.

  4. I had the pleasure of this experience on June 12th, 2018.
    The experience of driving through Custard State Park and having the Bison create a traffic jam was great.
    The Needles Highway was something i will never forget.
    I thought The Iron Mountain road was cool, but the Needles Highway left me speechless in some of the areas.
    Don Wigard
    Houghton Lake, Michigan

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