Fat Okie Far from Home: Needles Highway
I love living in Oklahoma, been here my whole life and my family has been here for 5 generations, but if I were to move, it would be to the Black Hills of South Dakota. So beautiful there, mountains, streams, and lots of wildlife. We first visited this area in 2011, I hated leaving and have wanted to go back for many years. I finally got my wish this past May, we packed my little Jeep and headed north. Once there, I found many fun things to do but the one I liked best was taking on the Needles Highway.
I normally hate being on curvy mountain roads, Big K has always driven and I sat in the passenger seat, taking pictures and looking down the side of the mountain. We’ve done several roads like this- the Blue Ridge Parkway and Route 66 to Oatman AZ are 2 that I really hated. But this time was different, I drove. I don’t drive on vacation since we have always taken Big K’s vehicles but this time we took my new Jeep and I wanted to drive. The long stretches of interstate were boring but when I got into the mountains, it was different. I had to pay attention to the curves and where the side of the road was, plus make sure I could squeeze through the one-lane tunnels.
Officially this is South Dakota State Highway 87, it starts at the junction with US 385 and heads north into Custer State Park. This part is the calm before the storm- yes there are plenty of hairpin turns and the 1-lane Beaver Creek bridge (built in 1929) but it’s really not so bad. Goes through some nice rolling hills with plenty of wildlife. Nothing like coming around a curve and seeing a huge male bison on the side of the road. I even stopped to enjoy the beautiful mountain streams that flow through the area. Eventually you intersect with US 16A, just head east with a stop at Legion Lake, then another mile to go back north.
Now you are more into the mountains, lots more curves until you eventually get to the first tunnel. The Iron Creek tunnel is 1-lane (8 feet 9 inches wide and 10 feet 10 inches tall) but not too long. You just keep going, not realizing that you are actually going up into the mountains. The first time you get to turn off and enjoy the scenery is at West Custer Township View parking lot. That’s where you can look to the north and see the “needles” that you will be driving into, literally. There are also lots of turnoffs to stop and enjoy the scenery or take a break from driving. After a short drive you find yourself in the “Cathedral Spires”. These are named because the granite formations look like spires on a cathedral. There is also a place to park for hiking the trail, looks to be about a mile and a half and listed as strenuous. I didn’t try it this time but would like to go back and attempt it. Not too far from this you get to the needles part of the road and where you go through the “Needles Eye” tunnel. This tunnel is also 1-lane and when I say that I mean it, it’s only 8 feet wide and 9 feet 9 inches tall. This is the longest of the 3 tunnels, seems like it takes forever but really maybe only a minute. Best to make sure nothing is coming through the tunnel from the opposite direction or someone will have to backup. It’s tight but honestly thrilling to drive through. Then you start down from the needles past some more trailheads to Sylvan Lake, where there is a rock formation in the lake.
Just past the lake you meet up with SD Highway 89, just keep going north to experience the Hood Tunnel (8 feet 9 inches wide and 9 feet 8 inches tall) and down a bunch more switchbacks. Lots more curves finally take you back to US 385 where you can head north to Hill City or south to Custer.
This is definitely not a drive for a beginner or someone who is afraid of driving tunnels and mountains. Also don’t take a big vehicle or try to drag a trailer through here. I’ve heard some try and they have even succeeded but it would make the drive so much more stressful. My recommendation is get a car you love and take it. I also recommend a lot of patience, put something good on the radio and leave it. Don’t be in a hurry, there are times you maybe only get up to 15mph. If you are taking kids, tell them to look out the window and be quiet. This drive is totally worth the time and effort. I’m ready to do it again.
A bit of history, this highway was completed in 1922. It was planned by former South Dakota governor Peter Norbeck who marked the entire course by foot and horseback. This road is closed after the first snowfall of the year and reopens in the spring.