Needles Highway SD: What to See and Do

January 18, 2022

The Needles Highway SD is one of America’s most scenic roads and the quintessential drive in the Black Hills region. Here the granite spires and pine-covered hills create an irresistible landscape unlike anywhere else on earth.

The Needles Highway is 14-miles of winding road that dances between towers and trees. Along its path you are entreated to vast panoramas of incredible scenery. Building the road was a significant achievement, overseen by then governor Peter Norbeck. The project was completed in 1922, and for the past 100 years it has been enjoyed by millions of tourists.

Whether you get out of your car or not, the Needles Highway is one of the most beautiful things to do in your USA travels. Of course we recommend getting out and hiking around as much as possible. The experiences available on this short stretch of road are numerous, and it’s hard to enjoy the view when you’re navigating a narrow, winding thoroughfare.

Here is a Map of the Needles Highway from start to finish. The road begins near Sylvan Lake and terminates at the 16A highway near Legion Lake.

This article will discuss the primary attractions along the Needles Highway. We hope it inspires you to include it on your itinerary when you visit the Black Hills of South Dakota. We believe it is easily one of the best things to do in the region.

Starting Point: Sylvan Lake

Needles Highway SD, Sylvan Lake

Located on the Needles Highway SD, Sylvan Lake lives amidst the granite boulders that enunciate Custer State Park. This is one of the more beautiful parts of the United States and is an absolute must-do when you visit. 

The lake was formed in 1881 when Theodore Reder damned the creek at Sunday Gulch. From the backside of the lake you can get a good look at the 30′ high dam, or if you like, you can walk out onto it.

To take it all in, walk the circumlocutory path that ducks behind the boulders at the back of the lake. The path is one mile long and full of surprises. On the backside of the boulders is access to the Sunday Gulch Trail. If walking isn’t your thing, you can swim, fish, rock climb, kayak, or picnic to your heart’s contentedness.

To read more about Sylvan Lake, South Dakota, check out this article.

First Stop: Black Elk Peak

Needles Highway SD, Black Elk Peak

The natural beauty of the Black Hills culminates emphatically in the Black Elk Wilderness, and at the very top is Black Elk Peak. At 7400′, this is the highest peak in the state. Endlessly magnificent in it’s grandeur, the payoff offers stunning, 360-degree, mountaintop views.

Also known as Trail #9, and formerly called the Harney Peak trail (map), the Black Elk Peak trail is a moderate, seven-mile out-and-back stroll into the heart of the Black Hills. The path becomes steep at the top, but there is nothing terribly dynamic to dissuade those motivated enough to make the journey.

The trailhead is found on the east side of Sylvan Lake. Drive through the gate and approach the lake, then follow the road around the right side and park in the loop near the swimming/picnic area. Look for the trailhead sign near the small bathroom.

To read more about hiking Black Elk Peak, South Dakota, check out this article.

Next Stop: The Needle’s Eye

Needles Highway SD, Needles eye

A significant point-of-interest on the Needles Highway SD is The Needle’s Eye, located 1.5 miles from Sylvan Lake. When you arrive at the first tunnel there will be room to park on the right side (a small amount on the left as well). The needle (pictured below left) is best viewed by hiking up the hillside fifty feet where you can stand atop a viewing area. If you continue to climb up the hillside the views open up even more.

If you are able, we strongly recommend climbing above the road and getting a better view. The view from the parking area is a fraction of what can be observed with a 5-10 minute walk. These are some of the most spectacular views along the route.

Needles Highway SD, View

Just Around the Corner: The Needle’s Eye Tunnel

Needles Highway SD, Needles Eye Tunnel

The tunnel is 8’4″ wide and 12′ high, just large enough to fit a 2002 class-C Winnebago (with the mirrors tucked in). Guess how we know that? You guessed it! We are that stupid.

Traffic flows one way at a time.

The Cathedral Spires Trailhead

Needles Highway SD, Cathedral Spires
This is literally the happiest we have ever seen Parker (far left).

We recommend the moderate Cathedral Spires hike to everyone who can handle uneven ground with some scrambling.  It’s about three miles total (out and back), and the setting at the top is a picturesque valley surrounded with needle spires (like standing in the center of a granite crown). 

The trail is very popular and the parking area is often full. The earlier you arrive, the better. At the top you will find the trail connects to a network of trails that run to places like Little Devil’s Tower and Black Elk Peak. It is a truly wonderland to wander the tops of these peaks. We haven’t found anywhere like it on earth.

As the Needles Highway SD approaches the parking area for the Cathedral Spires, take it extra slow. These are some of the tightest corners in the park. It is also incredibly beautiful, and hard to take in while you navigate.

The Final Highlight: Mt. Rushmore Inspiration

A South Dakota historian named Doane Robinson conceived the idea of carving the faces of historic figures into the granite mountains for the purpose of tourism. His original notion intended to lionize local, American heroes like Lewis & Clark and Buffalo Bill Cody, as well as Native American heroes Chief Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sacajawea. He pictured this carving in the beautiful needles section of the Black Hills (below is the mountain face that gave Robinson his inspiration).

Many shifting ideas transpired between the inception and commencement of Mt. Rushmore. When Gutzon Borglum was hired to actualize the design, he expanded the scope of the project to enshrine. American Presidents rather than local heroes. This didn’t sit well with everyone, but it’s hard to argue with the finished product.

We are left with this beautiful vista to admire. It isn’t hard to see why Doane Robinson was inspired.

What’s Left and Other Concluding Thoughts

Needles Highway SD, Mt. Rushmore Inspiration

You have driven less than three miles and you’ve seen all the highlights. Perhaps you weren’t in the mood for a hike or swim, so now what?

The Iron Creek Tunnel (photo below) is the next sight on the way, followed by the hole-in-the-wall picnic area. Neither are necessarily special, but they add variety to the drive.

Two miles past hole-in-the-wall the road will form a Y. A right turn will continue on the Needles Highway SD toward Custer State Park. A left will curve back toward Mt. Rushmore and Iron Mountain Road, another amazing drive.

Regarding Iron Mountain Road

To get to Iron Mountain Road from Needles Highway 87, turn left onto S. Playhouse Road at the Y and head north 4 miles. Next turn left onto 16A-Iron Mountain Road.

Iron Mountain road lays claim to 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, and 3 pig-tails. A pig-tail is a curve that loops back over the road, which allows the road to ascend quickly. The curviness of the road is by design, as it keeps speeds to 35mph or slower.

Along the way you will see everything that defines the Black Hills region: Tree-covered hills, huge rocky prominences, curvy roads, and beautiful vistas. The Norbeck Overlook is absolutely worth a stop, and the Doane Robinson tunnel has a ridiculous view of Mt. Rushmore.

All in all, we could spend more than a day exploring the sights along the Needles Highway SD and Iron Mountain Road. We’ve been here twice and it was just as wonderful the second time. We hope you enjoy your trip to South Dakota as much as we did.

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