Get Away for the Day at Otherworldly Needles Highway

By Bryan Harley

There’s no better way to experience the magic of the Black Hills than from the back of a motorcycle. And while it’s hard to tear away from the carousel of entertainment at the Buffalo Chip, the urge to ramble around the Black Hills is as irresistible as the song of the Sirens. The abundance of incredible riding opportunities helps set the Sturgis Rally apart, because no matter which direction you set out from The Chip, splendor awaits.

One of the most spellbinding rides in the Black Hills is Needles Highway.

How to get there:

For this particular adventure, you’ll be heading almost due south from the Buffalo Chip. It starts with a short jaunt down Interstate 90 to Rapid City where you’ll jump on US-16 West toward Hill City. If you roll by roadside attractions like Reptile Gardens and Bear City USA, you’re headed the right direction. Just outside Hill City is the turnoff for SD-87 South, also known as Needles Highway.

Find your way to Needles Highway from anywhere in the Black Hills using the free Black Hills Motorcycle Map! Pick yours up at convenience stores across the region or download the PDF here.

Calling this 14-mile stretch a highway is a misnomer. You’ll probably never see third gear on this tight two-lane road. That’s just fine because your head will likely be on a swivel trying to take in the uniqueness of the rocky landscape.

It’s also single-file through its thin tunnels, and during rally time, the popular tourist destination will undoubtedly be packed. Which works out fine because you’re going to want to enjoy the view at scenic overlooks and trailheads along the way. Be sure to bring your camera!

A Highway with History

Rebellious by nature, bikers can appreciate that Needles Highway beat the odds. Many thought it was impossible, the land too rugged, its granite pillars unmovable. Luckily, Peter Norbeck, the enterprising governor of South Dakota who personally helped chart the territory, knew Needles was special. Special enough to spend the energy and resources necessary to chisel a road through it.

Scovel Johnson, the man tasked with building the road, shared the same sentiments. Respecting the land and its inhabitants was paramount to both, further complicating its construction. It was no easy task, Johnson reportedly using 150,000 pounds of dynamite to make it happen according to The Weekly South Dakotan.

In 1922, Needles Highway opened, and today it’s one of America’s National Scenic Byways. One caveat, though. The road is within Custer State Park, and admission to the park is $10 for motorcyclists. Consider it money well spent.

The dividends begin directly as granite pinnacles rise above the pines and spruce. Wrought like earthly stalagmites, eons of erosion have shaped each granite spire’s identity, their countenance singular and strange. It doesn’t take long before the turns get tighter and the rocks get bigger, anticipation building as to what lies around the next blind corner.

Needles Eye is its signature tunnel, and Needle analogies quickly become apparent, from the delicate connection that forms the eye of its namesake rock formation to the way tour buses thread the tunnel. From the fluctuations in light to the slight drop in temperature, tunnels are best experienced on two-wheels.

Not far from the tunnel, pausing to admire the family of granite giants gathered on the side of a mountain is highly recommended as the cluster called Cathedral Spires towers in the distance.

The vertical facades of Cathedral has earned it a spot on the rock climbing map as some of the best come to challenge the Khayyam and Rubaiyat Spires. Others come to tackle popular climbs like The Thimble and The Totem Pole. The 637 acres occupied by Cathedral and Limber Pine Natural Area was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1976.

If you’re looking to get off the bike and get the blood flowing, a hike on Cathedral Spires trailhead is the perfect tonic. It’s worth it for the photo opportunities alone.

Where to go once you’ve reached the end

Needles Highway is the type of ride that ends before you want it to. At the end of the road, decisions loom. The scenic strip, after all, is just a small portion of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. There’s plenty more of Custer State Park to explore, or you can do the daily double of epic Sturgis rides and hit up nearby Iron Mountain Road as well.

You can also turn right back around and go back in the direction you came to see the formations in different light and angles. Heading back gives you a chance to stop at Sylvan Lake, too, a great place to cool off on a hot summer day. Its waters are clear and refreshingly cool. You can rent a canoe or paddleboat for a spin on the lake if you’d like. Sylvan Lake is picture perfect, literally, as it has served as a movie backdrop and is a favorite with photographers and artists alike.

A trip to Needles Highway itself is like riding through a movie set, an otherworldly adventure through alien-like terrain, and ranks up there with the best the Black Hills has to offer.

To learn more about other great Black Hills motorcycle rides, check out the Black Hills Ride Guide!

Have you ridden Needles Highway? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

About Bryan Harley
Ten days each August, Bryan calls the Black Hills home during the Sturgis Rally and considers himself an extended member of the Buffalo Chip family. He’s been covering the rally for the past decade thanks to his job as a motorcycle journalist, penning stories for many of the leading magazines. Bryan hails from a small town in Oregon where he and his wife Angelyne have the pleasure of raising two beautiful children (when they’re not out riding motorcycles together!).