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I love scenic drives. That’s no surprise if you’ve been here a while, so when we were in South Dakota in October I looked up as many as I could in the Black Hills.
While we didn’t make it to all of them (that’s you Spearfish Canyon) we did make it to two and one of those was the Needles Highway in the Black Hills.
This is such a pretty drive, it’s crazy. I wanted to stop for pictures constantly but there were only so many pullouts for this.
We made three main stops on our drive through here and those were for the Needles Eye and tunnel, to hike the Sylvan Lake Loop, and to hike the Cathedral Spires trail. And, no surprise here, I loved them all so much.
While you don’t necessarily need much time to driver the whole Needles Highway in the Black Hills, it takes about an hour, we spend a good portion of the day up here since we did a couple hikes and stopped a lot. We took our time with the drive and took a lot of pictures. It’s hard not to.
I would definitely say this is one of the best, if not the best scenic drive in the Black Hills. Next time I’d like to drive Spearfish Canyon so I can put that in the running, too, and really know what’s best. I would highly recommend this if you like scenic drives and have some extra time. It’s 100% worth it.
What to bring on the Needles Highway drive
Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side. They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.
Snacks – These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when you’ll get hungry! I like EPIC bars (kind of like beef jerky but different), Sahale nut mix things, and Moon Cheese. There’s always the good old Clif Bars and trail mix, too.
Water bottle – It’ll be hot and humid and you’ll need to stay hydrated. A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.
Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen. I like the Neutrogena a lot, but if you’ll be visiting a beach soon, you’ll want a reef-safe sunscreen.
Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes. A baseball hat should be fine but a bucket hat or sun hat could help keep the sun off your neck.
Sunglasses – This is a must, especially with the strong desert sun. Sunglasses are best paired with a hat on those really bright days.
Light Jacket – Because you just never know. Weather can change quickly depending on where you are and if you’ll be in any slot canyons, they can get cool depending on the time of day and season. I usually use my rain jacket for this.
Dramamine – This is a must if you get carsick like me. Buy a three pack here.
Where is the Needles Highway?
The Needles Highway is about 12 miles from Keystone and eight miles from Custer. Depending on where you’re staying you’ll be closer to one end than the other. If you’re looking for it on a map, it’s SD-87, part of the greater Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway.
How long is the Needles Highway in the Black Hills?
Just 14 miles from end to end. It takes about an hour to drive but if you want to hike along it at all (you totally should) you’ll need more time. RVs and large trailers aren’t recommended on here due to a lot of curves and sharp turns.
What is the best time to drive the Needles Highway?
Spring, summer, fall. It’s closed in the winter so that’s not even an option. I would personally choose fall to see the leaves change and the weather was perfect when we did it in early October.
What to do on the Needles Highway
Poets Table hike
This is a secret little hike in Custer State Park that takes you to, well, a table. A real, literal table. This looks like such a fun hike, but can be a little challenging to find. It sounds a little bit like Geocaching to a hike destination.
Hike the Sylvan Lake Loop
This is a nice, easy walk along the Needles Highway that takes you right around Sylvan Lake. This is such a cool lake with all the rock formations on the shore. It was also very pretty with the leaves changing. This would be great place for a picnic lunch.
Hike the Sunday Gulch Trail
This is a more difficult hike by Sylvan Lake. If you want something a little longer and more challenging, consider this one. It looks pretty cool and is probably the number one thing I want to do when I go back (and see the Poet’s Table!)
Hike the Cathedral Spires Trail
This was the coolest thing we did on this trip. This is a moderate hike taking you into a small little pasture/valley surrounded by the spires that you’ve been driving through the whole time.
It’s so unique and if you’re a climber, you can even climb these. I would say this is one of the coolest hikes on the Needles Highway, but I do have to go back and do more, so the final word isn’t in yet.
See the the Needles Eye
This is the iconic Needles Eye (duh) shaped art right before the coolest tunnel ever. There’s a parking area here so you can stop to look at it and take picture of the arch and tunnel, just make sure you don’t get in the way of cars on the road. There’s a pretty good view from here, too.
So, Iron Mountain Road or the Needles Highway?
Both! They aren’t that long and both are part of the bigger Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, so if you have time do both. But if you can only do one, I’d go with the Needles Highway.
I thought it was a lot prettier and has more hiking options (both are fantastic though) but Iron Mountain Road has great views of Mount Rushmore, so I guess it will depend on what you want to see and do.
Have you driven the Needles Highway in the Black Hills? What did you think of it? What is your favorite Black Hills scenic drive?