Needles Highway is an engineering masterpiece. With its twist, turns, and hills through some mountainous terrains, they deemed it impossible to build. One trip on it and you’ll know why.
But thanks to one persistent governor and his horse, they could get it mapped out and accomplished. Today, we are eternally grateful just to get the chance to drive the route.
Driving along Needles Highway’s scenic drive is something you’ll never forget. 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 find 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.
Things to know about Needles Highway:
Needles Highway, also known as the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, is inside of Custer State Park in the Black Hills South Dakota. 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 attendant will inform you before entering the park if you are too big.
That is because of some of the narrow tunnels and other natural wonders along Needles highway. They have attendants at the beginning of the highway to confirm you’ll make it.
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 altogether, unless you are a biker.
Don’t forget to check out Wildlife Loop Road. It’s absolutely stunning and is where you’ll find the bison heard.
Needles Highway Wildlife
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 Tunnel
The tunnels are incredibly narrow. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you may reconsider this route. You’ll experience three tunnels.
Iron Creek Tunnel is 9′ wide and 11’4″ tall, Needle Eye Tunnel 8’4″ wide by 11’3 Tall, and the Hood Tunnel 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.
For 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 are pull-off spots on either side of the rock 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, give the all-clear wave to those waiting.
Skip the stress. Schedule a private tour with My XO Adventures through Needles Highway, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore. It’s a great way so everyone can sit back and enjoy the views.
Other Stops on Needles Highway
Hiking the Cathedral Spires Hiking Trail is a great way to spend some more time there. Parking is just past the Cathedral Spires trail overlook for 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. The rock formations are spectacular.
Sylvan Lake is a gorgeous alpine lake located in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. The lake is surrounded by towering trees, lush foliage, and massive granite cliffs, which provide a tranquil and scenic atmosphere.
The lake’s crystal-clear water reflects the natural beauty of the surrounding environment, making it a popular spot for swimming, kayaking, fishing, and photography.
Visitors can hike around the lake on various trails that lead to nearby landmarks, including the Harney Peak Trailhead and the Fairyland Loop.
Moreover, Sylvan Lake offers several amenities, such as picnic areas, a beach, and a campground, making it an excellent place for a day trip or an extended stay.
It’s definitely worth checking out for anyone visiting Custer State Park, as it offers a stunning natural escape that will leave a lasting impression.
How Long Does it Take to Drive Needles Highway?
The highway is 14 miles long. There are multiple elevation 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.
There are a few gas stations in Custer State 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 quickly before venturing onto 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.
Is Needles Highway Scary To Drive?
Needles Highway in South Dakota has a narrow and winding road with sharp turns and steep drop-offs, which some drivers may find challenging.
However, with caution and attentiveness, it can be safely navigated, and it offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
Checking weather and road conditions before driving is recommended, as well as using turnouts to allow other vehicles to pass.
While not for everyone, Needles Highway can be a thrilling adventure for those up for the challenge.
Does it Cost Money to Drive on Needles Highway?
Driving on Needles Highway is free of charge. As a scenic byway in the Black Hills National Forest, there are no tolls or entrance fees to access the road.
However, visitors may need to purchase a pass or permit to enter Custer State Park which contains Needles Highway.
These fees can vary depending on the location and time of year, so it’s always a good idea to check ahead of time and plan accordingly. The pass is typical $20 per vehicle and last for up to 7 days.
Where does Needles Highway Begin and End?
Needles Highway is a 14-mile long scenic byway located in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
It begins at the junction of US Highway 16 and SD Highway 87, just south of the town of Hill City, and ends at the junction of SD Highway 89 and US Highway 16A near the entrance to Custer State Park.
Other Fun Drives
Iron Mountain Road
This scenic byway runs for 17 miles through the Black Hills, from Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Along the way, drivers will encounter several unique features, including three tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore in the distance.
If you are planning to visit Mt Rushmore, make sure to check out: 6 Best Reasons to Visit Mount Rushmore National Monument
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 known for being flat. It is entirely different from the Badlands drive because of the rich forest and rocky narrow roadway.
What is your favorite part about Needles Highway in South Dakota road trip? Don’t forget to visit some of the other great things to do along I-90 in South Dakota.
The only thing impossible about Needles Highway is that you’re there.