Another scenic loop through Custer State Park is Needles Highway. It is named Needles Highway after the granite like needles in the rock that you view from the road. The highway commences at the intersection of US Highway 16A and US 16. Travel is on US 16.
In the fourteen miles it runs, it goes through three tunnels and winds among some interesting and very narrow rock formations. Traffic on this road slow to about 20 mph in some spots both because of the scenery and the winding roads.
The signature attraction on this road is the Needles Eye. A very long, skinny needle like formation in granite. I did not get a picture of it but VT member Basxxxx got a general picture of it in his review. We did not observe any wildlife on this highway.
The road continues up past the Sylvan Lake Resort until nearly the town of Hill City at the Junction of US 16 and SD 385.
The Wildlife Loop Road not only has some of the best opportunities to see a range of wildlife but also offers some spectacular scenery.
The road which is about 18 miles long begins from the north at the intersection of South Dakota (SD) 16 and Wildlife Loop Road. As you enter the park from the north, it is the first turn south. The road runs through a series of turns then you cross a large valley which contains wildlife in all directions. Slow down and even stop because some animals such as antelope can be hard to see. Even bison in small numbers can be hard to see.
The road will continue to meander across streams and rolling hills. When you reach SD 87 you will go north until the end of the Wildlife Loop Road just after Mt. Coolidge.
Without doubt you will see bison in Custer State Park. With over 1,500 bison roaming the park, Custer State Park contains one of the worlds largest publicly owned bison herds.
Bison, as opposed to buffalo which are found in different areas of the world, are characterized by short crooked horns, a big forequarter, and a large head with a heavy mane. The bison in Custer State Park have also been called Plain Bison. While many Indian tribes relied on the bison, the Sioux Indians used the animals for food, shelter, and trading.
Generally, it is easiest to find the buffalo along the Wildlife Loop Road. However we found out that portions of the herd tend to reside in different areas of the park during the year. We took a turn off of the Wildlife Loop Road and down in the valley to have our close encounters with these magnificent animals.
Iron Mountain Road is one of the best designed scenic roads anywhere. The road is also known as US 16A begins in the town of Keystone, South Dakota. It then winds through the Black Hills, around Mount Rushmore , into Custer State Park, and up to the top of Iron Mountain.
The road offers some amazing views of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota. There are three tunnels that have been beautifully designed to take advantage of the scenery. A series of extremely well designed "pig tail bridges," also are found along the road.
The road takes just under an hour to complete possibly longer if you stop and observe some of the outstanding views and cross sections of the pig tail bridges.
US 16A is the only highway through Custer State Park that does not have a fee pay station for entrance to the park. The road is closed during winter months.
These bridges, sometimes called spiral or down under bridges, were built in several areas of the U.S. during the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The ones along US 16A were built based on guidance from Cecil Gideon the superintendent of Custer State Park in 1932. The bridges were created to maximize scenic views and minimize the drop in elevation for the views. There are three pig tail bridges that are part of Iron Mountain Road. They were constructed of natural materials primarily timber to blend in with the surrounding areas.
The tunnels on Iron Mountain Road have also been constructed so as to offer framed views of Mount Rushmore as you exit the tunnels. All and all very spectacular!
Sylvan Lake is a strange landscape. This lake, formed from the damming of the river at the end, is beautiful and austere at the same time. The rocks which lay to the northern end of the water give it an alien appearance, yet definitely reinforce the fact that you're in the Black Hills.
The lake is prime vacation spot, and is always crowded. It is a jumping off point for numerous hikes, including the Sunday Gulch Hike. It also is good for wandering around the edge on the Sylvan Lake shore trail. The lake is usually stocked with trout, and you can fish right from the edge of the path (assuming you have a license of course!). Boats are rented for paddling around the water, and there's a designated swimming area which is off-limits to fishermen. All in all, a location that can provide nearly any recreation you're hankering for.
Custer SP has a wealth of wildlife. The hills support large herds of bison, pronghorn, and deer (both white-tailed and mule). Other smaller mammals abound as well, including the cute and very social prairie dogs. If you come through, , going out to watch the wildlife is an absolute must. Most of the larger animals can be seen from the roadside, as they use the roads as easy passage among the hills. There are regions in the south of the park that are terrific for viewing wildlife, with large open fields which the animals love to graze in. Just keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
This trail is nearly level, just gently sloping as you walk along side Grace Coolidge Creek (which was named in honor of the former first lady). I counted 15 creek crossings one-way, heading from Center Lake down to the the Grace Coolidge campground. Lots of marshy areas, complete with reeds, prairie flowers, and butterflies, dragonflies, and bees. It is a lovely hike, with lots of opportunities for fishing; there are 6 low spill dams where fish congregate.
Total Trail length: 6 miles round trip (2-3 hours)
The Sunday Gulch trail is a very beautiful hike. It starts along the lakeside walk by Sylvan Lake, but soon takes a different turn. You drop down the gulch, literally climbing down among boulders (there are hand rails to help you!) as you reach the narrow canyon at the bottom. From there you hike alongside the creek, before turning and making the inevitable hike back to the top (luckily no rock climbing necessary).
It is interesting to watch the vegetation change as you walk. Along the gulch itself you are surrounded by lush greens, including ferns and mosses. Small cascades pour over these rocks as you hike down. Then it changes, becoming the drier open coniferous forest characteristic of the Black Hills. But the diversity of plant life is incredible. When you're down in the canyon it's very quiet, even though you're just about a half mile from the road. The one downside is that as you begin your ascent (which is rather steep), you pass near the road, and the sounds of civilization intrude on your walk.
Note: Make sure you take the trail counter-clockwise... otherwise you have to clamber up the rocks on the final leg of the journey and that's not easy at all.
Total length: 3 miles round-trip (2-4 hours)
Trail difficulty: strenuous
There are several small lakes in Custer State Park - all extremely popular places for swimming and relaxing. They were particularly full the week we were there, when unusually warm temperatures for this area sent people looking for some place to cool off.
Here's where you can feel like you're on the set of the "Dances with Wolves" movie. This part of Custer State Park has vast grasslands - and buffalo herds grazing in the distance. The wide open spaces.
The drives around Custer Park are some of the more beautiful - through forests, interesting rock formations, and past a couple of small lakes. Allow yourself plenty of time. Traffic doesn't move very fast because of the winding roads, traffic, and numerous sight-seers. After all, that's why most of us are there - to see the sights.
Stop here at the northwest corner of the Wildlife Loop road for some beautiful views of the park and black hills, as well as a few displays regarding forest fires. It's at the top of a small winding mountain road, and worth a few minutes to see.
We did spot this lonely coyote near the entrance to Wind Cave - he's in the middle of the picture. Needless to say, this park has a lot of wild animals to see. There also were prarie dogs and antelope.
As you can see, they aren't shy! The first guy got his head in the car before I could get my camera up, but I was ready for his friend. Apparently they are looking for handouts - spoiled even though you are told about a dozen times not to feed the animals! It's wild to see these guys just come on up to your car.
Pictures of these abound everywhere, and sure enough, as we turned south onto the Wildlife Loop Road from the visitor center, we ran into the herd. They're gigantic animals, so don't get too close. This was the first of three herds we ran into between Custer and Wind Cave NP.