Scenic Drives In The Black Hills
On our first day in The Black Hills, we visited Mount Rushmore, then set out on a very scenic drive through Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park. Technically, these are listed as three different drives, but they flow perfectly together with the end of one being right at the beginning of another. This was a great way to spend a few hours seeing the incredible scenery of South Dakota’s Black Hills.
You can take any or all of these Black Hills scenic drives, but we chose to head south from Mount Rushmore (for obvious reasons) on Iron Mountain Highway, pick up Wildlife Loop Rd in Custer State Park, and finally head towards Sylvan Lake on Needles Highway. Because of the mountainous nature of Iron Mountain Highway and Needles Highway, they are likely impassable in winter (if they’re even open).
At A Glance
From: Mount Rushmore, SD
To: Sylvan Lake, SD
Length: 60 miles
Nearby Cities: Custer, SD; Rapid City, SD
Iron Mountain Highway
Iron Mountain Highway is part of US-16/US-16A. It’s a curvy, winding, forested road running just inside of the eastern edge of Black Hills National Forest. Aside from just being incredibly beautiful as it winds up the mountains, Iron Mountain Highway has a few distinguishing features.
First, there are the “pigtail bridges,” helical areas where the road crosses under itself, gaining elevation rapidly. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a good vantage point to get a picture of these. You’ll just have to go visit.
Second, there are the split roads. When building this road, great care was taken to disturb the landscape as little as possible. At some areas, that meant dividing the road into two different one-lane roads, one going, the other coming. Often, you can’t even see the other road carrying oncoming traffic.
Finally, there are the tunnels. Iron Mountain Highway features three one-lane tunnels, each of which is aligned to face directly at Mount Rushmore. You could actually skip the trip (and $11 parking fee) to Mount Rushmore if all you really want to see is the faces.
Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop
Next up was Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop. You can drive through Custer State Park on US-16/US-16A without paying a fee, but to see the good stuff, you’re going to have to pay the $15 entrance fee. There’s a reason this road is called “The Wildlife Loop”. If you’re a wildlife lover, it’s worth the fee.
The Wildlife Loop meanders through Custer State Park’s rolling green hills and grasslands. Along the way, you’re likely to see buffalo, bighorn sheep, antelope, deer, elk, coyote, prairie dogs, and numerous birds. Near the southern end of the loop, you’ll probably also meet the burros.
There’s a story behind the wild burros. Years ago, the donkeys were used for treks to the top of Harney Peak. When they were no longer needed for that task, they were set free and they’ve returned to being feral. Sort of. They’re commonly known as “the begging burros” because they are quite habituated to humans and like to gather around roads where they’ll convince tourists to feed them.
On our drive, we came across our first Burro Jam with 6 or 8 donkeys right on the road and another 8 or 10 sitting by on the sides. Perhaps they were taking shifts. Unlike the other wildlife that has no desire to be anywhere near you, these burros will walk right up and stick their face in your car, hoping for a morsel of food. Of course, they are wild animals and you shouldn’t feed them. And all wild animals can be dangerous, but mostly, these guys seem pretty friendly, with one even letting a little girl in the car ahead pet him. Exercise caution and make your own decision about how friendly to get with the burros.
The final part of the drive was Needles Highway, part of South Dakota Highway 87. The name “Needles Highway” comes from the granite needles that the road winds through. Like Custer’s Wildlife Loop, this one will cost you the $15 entrance fee. (A single fee covers both drives and other areas of Custer State Park.)
This road is another of Peter Norbeck’s creations. Norbeck was a conservationist on par with President Teddy Roosevelt and played a role in the establishment of Badlands National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Custer State Park, and Wind Cave National Park, along with designing both Iron Mountain Highway and Needles Highway.
We don’t recall the exact phrase, but along the way, an informational exhibit described Needles Highway as “the road that shouldn’t have been built,” or some such thing. When Norbeck asked his engineer, Johnson, if the road could be built, Johnson replied, “If you can supply me with enough dynamite!” It took two years and 150,000 pounds of dynamite later, but the road was built.
Besides winding through the steep, mountainous terrain and giving you incredible views of the granite spires, Needles Highway also passes through three tunnels. Like on Iron Mountain Highway, these are one-lane, very narrow tunnels. One of them is actually named Needles Eye Tunnel. If you’re driving an RV, you might have trouble with Needles Highway, due to the tunnels. The narrowest is only 9 feet wide and the shortest is just under 11 feet tall.
Don’t forget to check out the formation known as “The Eye of the Needle”. You can’t miss it. There’s a parking area and, most likely, a huge gathering of people.
Here are some of the unbelievable views we saw on our scenic drive of The Black Hills.