Peter Norbeck wanted to simultaneously preserve and provide access to some of the most beautiful regions of the Black Hills. In 1919, he designed the route for the Needles Highway, a road that many engineers deemed impossible to build. Two years and 150,000 pounds of dynamite later, the road was opened to automobiles.
The most dramatic way to travel the Needles Highway is from south to north. Begin in Custer State Park at the junction of Highway 16A and Route 87. Route 87 north turns into the scenic highway.
The 14-mile highway slowly climbs in elevation as it winds through narrow tunnels and weaves its way through towering granite spires and ponderosa pine forests. The road is named for the many towering, pointed rock columns that look like needles of rock piercing the sky.
Several turnouts along the way allow viewing some spectacular formations. Cathedral Spires is a massive collection of rock towers pointed to the heavens. The Eye of the Needle is a narrow spire over 30 feet tall; time, wind, and water have eroded it to create a three-foot-wide slit in the top of the formation that looks like the eye in a sewing needle. There is parking at the base of the eye. There is also a tunnel leading to the formation that is so narrow that busses driving the route look to have less than two inches of clearance on each side.
Initially, it was this region that was suggested as a location for massive stone carvings in South Dakota. Doane Robinson, considered to be the father of Mount Rushmore, visualized a series of heroic characters carved into the spires. His vision included both Native American and white leaders. When sculptor Gutzon Borglum came to investigate the area, he rejected the Needles due to the fragility of the towering spires. Borglum selected nearby Mount Rushmore instead.
The Needles Highway ends at Sylvan Lake, the most northern and western spur of the park. Sylvan Lake is not a natural lake. It was created in the 1930s when a dam was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This high-elevation lake is surrounded by towering granite peaks and ponderosa pine. It is one of the jewels of the park.
The Needles Highway is the only road in Custer State Park that is closed with a locked gate in the winter time. Officially, the road is closed from November through April, but the actual closing time depends on the weather. Once the gate is closed, the road remains closed until spring.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition