Needles Highway, Peter Norbeck Scenic Highway, Black Hills


The Needles section of Custer State Park is definitely the most exciting part of the park, and it’s the area you shouldn’t miss, even if you’re in a hurry.  Despite worsening weather conditions (it was raining steadily now), I decided to drive through this portion of the park, not really knowing what I would find.

From Alt-16, which cuts a horizontal line across Custer State Park, Route 87 turns north, and remains a nice two-lane road for a while (albeit curvy).  The fun begins when you reach this tunnel.  From here on (until the next tunnel), the road is a wide one-lane road, with no center stripe, but plenty of turnouts.

Former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck deserves credit for the scenic highway which now bears his name.  He plotted out the road’s path on horseback and on foot.  Construction was completed in 1922 — but at the time, road work had cost so much, angry locals called it the Needless Highway.

Needles Highway quickly climbs, taking you directly underneath one rocky outcropping after another.

There are plenty of places to stop and take pictures, and I would have taken more, if it wasn’t for the rain.  I tried to take as many photos as I could from inside the car (or I hid my camera under my jacket as much as possible).

The road just keeps getting better…

… and better…

… until you finally reach the most awesome part.  This tunnel is really only half a tunnel.  About halfway through, the ceiling opens, and you’re passing through a very narrow rocky passage.

You’re not supposed to stop on this end of the tunnel (but yeah, I did anyway).  Instead, squeeze through…

… to the other side, where there are several parking spots.  See what I mean, about the tunnel opening up on this side?

While the tunnel was thrilling, what I saw next was simply awesome.  It’s a formation called Needles Eye, and it was formed by wind, rain, thawing, and freezing.  Isn’t it funny how almost all of those forces of nature were happening when I was there?

The Needles Eye is between 30 and 40 feet tall, with a slit that’s 3 feet wide.

You’ll want to wander around the small parking area for at least a few minutes.  Jagged granite spires are shooting up all around you.  I can only imagine what the view was like beyond them, since I was in the middle of a raincloud.

This area is the road’s high point.  Beyond this spot, the road widens to two lanes once again, and starts to lose a little bit of elevation, on its way to…

Sylvan Lake

Even on a cloudy, miserable day, it’s easy to see why Sylvan Lake is known as the crown jewel of Custer State Park.  This small lake is bordered on one side by huge, rounded granite boulders.  On a better day, the reflections would be stunning.

There is plenty of space here, to walk around the boulders and find a nice, secluded spot on the lakeshore.  There’s also a resort, campground, and store nearby.

Sylvan Lake isn’t a natural lake.  It was formed by the construction of a dam in 1881.

You might recognize Sylvan Lake from the movie, National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  Filmmakers used the lake, but made it appear that it was closer to Mount Rushmore than it actually is.

South Dakota’s tallest mountain, Harney Peak, is located near Sylvan Lake.  One of the trails that leads to the peak begins at the lake.  Look for Trail #9, a 6 mile (round trip) trail that gains about 1,500 feet.

Route 87 ends at US 16/385.  Take a right and travel just a few hundred feet, and you’ll reach the junction of Route 244, which will return you to Mount Rushmore and Keystone.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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