Last updated on September 12th, 2018
Needles Highway is an engineering masterpiece. With its twist, turns and hills through some mountainous terrains, it was deemed impossible to build. One trip on it and you’ll know why. But thanks to one persistent governor and his horse, they were able to get it mapped out and accomplished. Today, we are eternally grateful just to get the chance to drive the route.
Driving along Needles Highway is something of beauty. It’s one of those scenic drives that you sit there and wonder, “am I really here?” if you are like me, you may also be finding yourself pulling over to stop and take a million pictures. While pictures are cool, I got back from this adventure realizing how many missed photograph opportunities I had because I was enjoying my surroundings so much, I forgot to snap the pictures.
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Things to know about Needles Highway:
Needles Highway is inside of Custer State Park. It costs $20 for a week-long pass. You can not buy a single day pass. Chances are if you are in the area, you’ll make a few stops.
You cannot take a Travel Trailer Camper, Large Truck or anything too big on the Highway. Their gate attended will inform you before entering the park if you are too big. They also have attendants at the beginning of the highway.
The highway closes at the first snowfall of the season and doesn’t open again until April 1st or when conditions deem it to be OK. It is still open to hiking and other activities. I recommend visiting earlier in the day when it’s still cool, and the traffic doesn’t pick up too much. Also avoided the first couple of weeks of August all together, unless you are a biker.
The southern half of the highway is primarily a trip through the Black Hill forest. With streams and plenty of wildlife to see including bighorn sheep and deer. Stop and the picnic area and check out the stream and small cave. The second half of the journey is the more mountains needles region. I dare you to drive the whole thing without stopping once for a picture.
Needles Highway Tunnels
The tunnels are incredibly narrow. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you may reconsider this route. You’ll experience three tunnels. Iron Creek Tunnel that is 9’ wide and 11’4” tall, Needles Eye Tunnel 8’4” wide by 11’3 Tall and the Hood Tunnel that is 10’6” wide by 9’10” tall. In case you are wondering if your car can get through, a Ford F250 Super Duty is 7’11” wide mirror to mirror. Your car will fit. People with Trucks and larger SUVs, I recommend pulling your mirrors in. This will give you a few more inches on either side of you.
The tunnels are also one way. There is pull off spots on either side of the tunnel. This gives you an excellent opportunity for the passenger to snap a picture and check for oncoming cars. Though it isn’t necessary to get out to venture into the tunnels as long as you give yourself enough room. If you are there during a busier time, drive behind another vehicle going through to ensure the coast is clear. If you are the last one, make sure to give the all-clear wave to those waiting.
Hiking the Cathedral Spires Hiking Trail is a great way to spend some more time there. Parking is just past the Cathedral Spires overlook fir your driving North on the Highway. If you are coming from the south, you’ll see cars parked along the side of the road and can go to the overlook for additional parking. It’s considered a strenuous 1.5-mile hike, because of the altitude changes. But everyone that does it says it’s not that bad. Just be prepared with water. Go early if you are concerned about parking.
How Long Does it Take?
The highway is 14 miles long. There are multiple elevations changes. There is no gas station or anything like that on the road. Even if your car is currently estimating that you have 70 miles worth of gas, you will most likely burn through a lot of it. There are a few gas stations in the park, one by Blue Bell Lodge and one Near the State Game Lodge. If you have a half tank or less, I recommend filling up quick before venturing on the road.
Even though the highway is only 14 miles, you’ll be traveling at speeds of 10-25 miles per hour. And no one cares! Expect to spend an hour to get to the other side. Especially if you plan on making any stops for a quick photo or selfie.
If you want to compare this drive to anything else, the best thing I’ve got right now is the Road to Hana but in the mountains, in a state that is somehow known for being flat. It is entirely different from the Badlands drive and beauty. What is your favorite part about Needles Highway in SD?
The only thing impossible about Needles Highway is that you’re there.
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