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What to See While Driving the Needles Highway in South Dakota

Needles Highway from a distance

One of the most popular things to do in the Black Hills is to drive the famous Needles Highway. But what about the Needles makes it so special?

The Needles Highway is one of the most beautiful and uniquely interactive drives in the country. The highway is just over 14 miles and is full of tight curves, switchbacks, and pigtails as it climbs about 2000 feet in elevation. It acquired the name, Needles Highway because of the needle-like granite formations that shoot up to the heavens. Cathedral Spires, fragment forests of pine birch and aspen, meadows, and tunnels are just a few of the stunning things to see along the Needles Highway. Not often is a highway considered a scenic drive but the Needles Highway located in the Black Hills of South Dakota is one of the exceptions. 

Frequently people will ask if the Needles Highway is worth seeing.  I’d give a big resounding yes! Keep reading below as I give some more insight into this adventurous road! 

Where is it Located?

The Needles Highway is located in the small town of Custer, South Dakota, or more precisely inside Custer State Park. It is about 18 miles from Mount Rushmore and takes about 30 minutes or longer to get there from the Monument.

Where Does it Start and End?

There are two ways to get onto the Needles.  The first one starts at Sylvan Lake and is the closest to the town of Custer.  The other end is more in the heart of Custer State Park and near Legion Lake. Because of the location, there are many different ways to come into Custer State Park to access the Needles so giving precise directions is a bit of a challenge. It all varies on where you are coming from. Using a GPS is the best way to direct you when the time comes.

Which End Should I Start?

Deciding which end you start will depend on where you are coming from and/or where you want to start. Driving in either direction has its pros and cons so it won’t make a big difference on which way you go and there’s always the option of doing both ways on the same day if you want to return to where you started.

My first time visiting the Black Hills my cousin had advised me to enter the Needles Highway at the Sylvan Lake entrance. However, we were coming from Keystone and the Mount Rushmore area and entered Custer State Park from there. This led us in the opposite direction of what he suggested. As we ascended the road, the views were so stunning and it was such a cool drive that I think that might be my favorite way to drive the highway. Although, it could be because it was my first trip and sometimes my first trip is often my favorite.

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How Long Does it Take to Drive it?

Driving the Needles Highway should take roughly an hour if you’re taking your time. You can always take longer if you stop at all of the overlooks to take pictures and enjoy the scenery. There are also some places to hike off the highway as well that will also add to your time.

The speed limit is 25 miles per hour and sometimes even that feels fast.  I like to cruise around 20 miles per hour and take my time.  There can be an abundant amount of wildlife off the highway as well which is wonderful to see but also can be treacherous.  Take your time and stay vigilant.

In addition to speed, the time of year can greatly affect the amount of time spent.  If you are driving in peak season which is June, July, and especially August then you will more than likely be caught up in long lines of cars up near the tunnels.  Pack your patience and just roll with it.

Is There a Fee to Drive It?

There is a fee to enter Custer State Park which is ~$20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.  If you are planning on staying longer or coming back within the year I’d recommend an annual pass for $36.  This is a great deal. If you have two vehicles in your party then they offer 50% off the second annual pass.

When is It Open or Closed?

The Needles Highway is open throughout spring, summer, and fall. It does close down in the winter due to the weather and icy roads. It is possible to snow-shoe or hike up along the highway in the winter for those with an extreme sense of adventure and not afraid of a little bitter cold.

Know about the Tunnels

There are two tunnels that you need to know about before embarking on your journey if you have tall vehicles or a motorhome. It would sure be a bummer to travel all this way in anticipation of seeing the Needles Highway only to have to turn around before you even get started.

The Needles Eye Tunnel which is the coolest and most popular is 8’ wide and only 9’9” high. The Iron Creek Tunnel is a little bit bigger, with 8’9” wide and 10’10” high. These tunnels are both one-way and you will need to take turns.  In the peak season, these lines can get very long and frustrating.  

Entrance to Iron Creek tunnel

Pro tip:  Drive the highway in the early morning hours or just before dusk for less traffic. This is also a time with better lighting for photos, but be extra vigilant as this is also when more wildlife is seen.

Can I Drive It in the Winter?

The Needles Highway will be closed in the winter due to snow and icy conditions. This will make the road too treacherous for travel.

However, people do walk or cross-country ski as I mentioned above.  The road will not be plowed so poles are recommended if you decide to go this route.  It’s about a 1.25-mile hike up to the Needles Eye from Sylvan Lake.  This is something I’ve heard is spectacular in the winter and I would like to attempt it this winter on a sunny day.

Iron Mountain vs Needles: Which One Should I Drive if I Can Only Do One?

The Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road are both extremely special and scenic drives.  If I had to choose and could only do one of the roads I would choose the Needles Highway because of the location and popularity. 

It is possible to do both drives in a single day if you have the time.  It would make for a long day of driving especially since a lot of our activities in the Black Hills take a good amount of time in the car. But if you don’t mind that, then I’d say do both!

Things to See

Overlooks with Stunning Views

No matter which way you come along the Needles Highway, there will be several places to pull over and breathe in the fresh air and take in the expanse of the Black Hills.  Every direction whether it be in front or behind you will be engulfed in beauty as well as the uniqueness of the needles.

Some of the views are located in small places along the road to pull off and some will be actual parking lots.  The parking lots can be filled up at times but if you plan your day out right, and arrive early, you will have supreme lighting and plenty of room to explore.

Woman looking at view of Needles from rock
Mountain goats up in the needles

Animals

It’s no secret if you’ve read many of my articles at We’re in the Rockies that I love animals and especially love viewing them.  We try to always have a pair of binoculars in our car in the event that we come across a need for them and most of the time it is to check out caves, (my husband’s hobby) or animals.

The most common animals that you will see along the highway will be white-tailed or mule deer but a huge bonus and also a great possibility is catching the mountain goats hanging out on the rocks.  I have also seen marmots on several occasions, a bald eagle, and several osprey. 

Custer State Park also has bison, big horn sheep, mountain lions, prairie dogs, coyotes, pronghorn, burros, elk, and many species of birds.  Though most of these will more likely be found inside the park, it is possible to stumble across another species along the drive.  Last summer, there were multiple sightings of a rogue llama that brings into question, “Where in the world did that come from?”

Needles

Of course, maybe it goes without saying you’ll see the needles on the actual Needles Highway but let me impress upon you that from a distance they don’t seem as massive or spectacular as they do in person. Even in pictures, you can’t grasp the significance.  Up close while you are in the midst of them, winding in, out, and through them is quite the experience!

Some stunning views along the Needles highway

Traffic

While I love to highlight all the pros and wonderful things about the Black Hills and most of them are, in fact, pros, driving the Needles Highway in the middle of peak season or weekend holidays can be frustrating.  Trying to find a place to pull over so you can enjoy the views or waiting in a long line of cars so you can squeeze through the famously cool tunnels isn’t exactly fun.  Especially when you just want to have the experience of taking pictures or videos of your vacation or maybe get a chic video of your car rolling through the eye of the needle.  

I already mentioned the time of day to see the highway during peak season but I’d like to address the time of year as well.  The entire month of May aside from Memorial weekend is usually great and low in traffic flow.  June can be mellow as well as some of July if you avoid the holidays.  Midweek will draw less traffic than the weekends so if you come to town for a long weekend, hit the needles on Friday or Monday if you can!

Motorcycles

People from all over the country come to the Black Hills to drive their motorcycles on our scenic drives.  You will see them all summer long but especially the end of July until the middle of August when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is in full swing. The rally takes place the first week of August yearly. This is particularly fun for me because watching the motorcycles is great! They can be extremely creative, beautiful, and cool.  Sometimes you will see riders in crazy gear or costumes as we’ve seen “Waldo” and a storm trouper from the Star Wars franchise.

Things to Do Nearby

Hiking

One of the things I like to do most in this region is hiking.  There are numerous trails to hike from simple and short to long and strenuous.  One of my favorite hikes in Custer is actually, right off the Needles Highway and is called Cathedral Spires.  This trailhead has a tiny parking lot directly off the highway and does fill up.  A great plan for the day would be to come up early to drive the highway and stop for a nice morning hike along the spires.  I’ve seen mountain goats each time I’ve hiked this trail and two large bucks on one occasion.

Views in Cathedral Spires hike

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When you come into Custer State Park you will be given a guide to the park with all the information you will need for your journey.  If you are interested in hiking take a minute to look at the page, “What do you want on your hike?” and find one that will fit your group. This will break down some of the best hikes in the area and lead you to what you will be looking for whether it be, waterfalls, lakes, strenuous mountains, or simple grasslands.  The guide is super helpful!

Custer State Park

With the Needles Highway being inside Custer State Park, it may be obvious that this is something you would already be doing. In case you weren’t planning on it, let me encourage you to add some time to your day and drive the wildlife loop and stop at the visitor center and the new bison center which was added in 2022. 

Custer State Park has my favorite attraction, the begging burros.  They are wild (ish) burros that roam the park and they literally beg for food and will even put their faces inside your car window if you’ll let them.  We always bring a huge bag of carrots to feed them, but be careful because they will slime your windows and maybe you and your family as well!

begging burros at Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake

Lakes

Custer State Park is home to several lakes.  Each one with a different backdrop but each one of them is beautiful in different ways.  My favorite of the lakes is Sylvan Lake. It’s not only the most popular of them all but has the most recreation available. For more information, you can read my article on Sylvan Lake.

Along with Sylvan Lake, there are several others and all of these lakes offer fishing, swimming, non-motorized boat activities, rentals, and hiking trails.  Plan a picnic and bring your swimming or hiking gear with you!

Where to Eat

There are plenty of good eats in the area but I’ll list my 3 favorite restaurants plus a great little coffee shop that serves made-to-order breakfast and lunch on the go!

Black Hills Burger and Bun

Hamburgers are my favorite food if I had to choose one and this place is my favorite burger joint in all of The Black Hills.  Black Hills Burger and Bun is located in Custer on the main drag in town and is so popular with locals and visitors that you may have trouble getting a seat! Here you walk up to the window to order and find a seat after so usually by the time your food arrives you’ve found a spot! Check the website before going because the hours vary.  My recommendation is the “hot granny” burger because it has all of my favorites, bacon, cream cheese, fresh jalapenos, and sweet-spicy jalapeno sauce!

Begging Burro Mexican Bistro

If you love Mexican food the Begging Burro Mexican Bistro is authentic and delicious and large enough to handle big parties.  The service is friendly and welcoming and everything we have ordered down to the chips and salsa was scrumptious!  This Bistro is also located in Custer.

Miners Cup

The Miners Cup is also located in Custer if you want a quick snack, coffee, or even a full meal. The Miners Cup is easy to miss because it’s a small and cute log cabin coffee house that is drive up or walk up only.  The menu is ridiculous with the many options and the food is cooked fresh.  They have fun drinks that are Instagram-worthy as well as enhanced flavor.  They do close at about 1:00 pm so if you are heading there, make sure to get there before then.

Miners cup specialty drink

Alpine Inn

Outside of The Alpine Inn - decorated for fall

One of my favorite places to eat in the Black Hills, which I even gave its own review article is The Alpine Inn. This gem is located in Hill City and is open for lunch and dinner.  The food is authentic European Cuisine and one of the staple places for residents of Hill City and travelers.  There is frequently a line to get in but they have ample spots to sit and the wait goes fast!

Now that I have given my suggestions on traveling along our famous Needles Highway, it’s up to you to take my advice and seize the day!  Pack some snacks, water bottles, binoculars, and maybe your swimsuit and a towel in case you stop off at a lake. It wouldn’t hurt to also bring a bit of Dramamine in case someone in your car is prone to car sickness!  

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

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Not only that, but we’ll tell you about the park while you drive with our audio guide! Stop planning and start having the vacation of your dreams now!

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO THE BLACK HILLS

BLACK HILLS TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about the Black Hills, check out our Black Hills Homepage

AREAS: The Black Hills is home to some amazing national parks and monuments: Mt. Rushmore, Windcaves and Jewel Caves, Badlands, and Crazy Horse.  Plus, the amazing Custer State Park

THINGS TO DO: There is much more to do than hike and look at Mt. Rushmore.  Explore the 1880 train, Reptile Gardens, slip down a natural waterslide, or go on a scenic drive

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing mountain towns including Deadwood, Keystone, Hill City, and Rapid City

GET QUIRKY: Want something REALLY different? Check out Devil’s Tower and Wall Drug

WHERE TO EAT: Check out the best places to eat in and around Mt. Rushmore plus where to eat in each city
WATCH: Enjoy videos of the amazing Black Hills while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Black Hills YouTube Playlist

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