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Scenic Drives in the Black Hills

by Grant

The scenic drives in the Black Hills are one of the main reasons why anyone who visits needs to spend longer than just a day. 

The funny thing about the Black Hills is there are many roads that would be considered scenic drives in other locations, but in the Black Hills, it’s just a road. US Highway 385, which runs the length of the Black Hills and has a lot of beautiful views, is just one example. Seriously, you’ll get great views on just about every highway. Those that are designated as scenic byways… yeah, they’re pretty spectacular.

A bison jam on the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park, one of the scenic drives in the Black Hills.
A bison jam on the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park, one of the scenic drives in the Black Hills.

These five Black Hills scenic drives (plus one in the Badlands) are nothing short of jaw-dropping. You will find staggering views, gorgeous waterfalls and wildlife galore. So, get your tank filled up and let’s hit the road.

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Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

18 miles | Custer, SD

Start your drive after hitting the Visitor Center on the east side of Custer State Park. Yes, this drive does require admission to the park ($20 per car), as does Needles Highway (below). The drives are well worth the price, though. And, hopefully, you’ll have time to explore the rest of Custer State Park while you’re in the area.

As you head south along the road, keep an eye out for lone bison. We have often spotted bull bison hanging out in this area. You will pass the airport and as you make your way further south, be sure to stop at the Wildlife Station Visitor Center. Check-in with the rangers for the location of the bison herds if you haven’t spotted them yet. 

Read more about visiting Custer State Park here.

Watching the bison is one of our favorite things to do at Custer State Park.
Bonnie checking out the bison grazing right by the Wildlife Station Visitor Center at Custer State Park.

If you want, you can turn onto Fisherman Flats Road, a well-groomed dirt road, and head into the interior of the park and turn it into a loop by taking Swint Road to North Lame Johnny Road and back on Oak Draw Road. If you have time, we recommend this second loop. Bison move around a lot on the south end of the park and sometimes this is the best way to see them.

One of the dirt roads in Custer State Park
One of the dirt roads in Custer State Park

As you pass south of the Wildlife Station, look for the Buffalo Corrals on the right. This is where they do the Buffalo Roundup every fall. It is well worth the trip to see it in person!

Read more about the annual Buffalo Roundup.

West Side of the Wildlife Loop

As you pass the corrals, keep an eye out for the burros, which like to hang out at the south end of the park. They are quite friendly and will sometimes stick their heads in your car windows to get a snack. 

As you head back north, just past Oak Draw Road, there is a nice switchback which has a great vista. There’s not much room to stop but if you can, the view is nice. You will link up with SD 87 where you can turn north and complete the loop OR you can turn south and head to Wind Cave National Park, which is scenic in its own right!

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

If you keep heading north, you will pass the Blue Bell Lodge area. There are a couple of stops on the right near Mount Coolidge that have really nice views. If open, the drive up to Mount Coolidge is really nice and takes you up to an active fire tower which keeps an eye out for fires in the park. One actually flared up while we were there!

Continuing north, keep an eye out for bighorn sheep ewes. We seem to spot them often in this area. SD 87 will intersect with US 16A and you can turn right to cross the north end of the park and pick up either the Needles Highway or the Iron Mountain Road. 

You'll get some great views of Custer SP and the Black Hills National Forest from the Mount Coolidge Fire Tower.
A fire popped up shortly before we got to the top of Mount Coolidge where the fire lookout tower is.

Needles Highway

14 Miles | Custer, SD

Start your drive by turning off US 16A and following SD 87 north in Custer State Park. Like the Wildlife Loop, driving this road requires admission to the park ($20 per car). As you drive north, the road winds through a Ponderosa pine forest on its way past the turnoff for the Black Hills Playhouse.

Soon, you will find several pullouts with increasingly amazing views and one of the things this road is known for: single lane tunnels carved into the granite. 

Our Denver Camper Van rental driving through the tunnels on the Needles Highway near Custer, SD.
The tunnels on the Needles Highway were a little tight for the camper van but not too bad.

The Iron Creek Tunnel is the first of these tunnels and let it serve as a warning to anyone driving a larger vehicle on this route: the next tunnel is 8 inches more narrow and the last tunnel is a foot and a half shorter. We don’t recommend taking a large RV on this road or the Iron Mountain Road. 

We were able to get both our truck with tow mirrors (barely) and the rented camper van (easily) through the tunnels on this road. Still, I would not want to take anything larger through these tunnels. 

Cathedral Spires

As you continue, you will be presented with amazing views of the Cathedral Spires, the predominate formation of the Needles. These are granite spires that seem to just erupt from the  forest. It is truly a unique sight.

Bonnie admiring the Cathedral Spires.
Bonnie admiring the Cathedral Spires.

As you pass through the Needles Eye Tunnel, which is the narrowest of the tunnels, there is a parking area on the other side that allows you to explore the Needles in a more up close and personal manner. 

As you continue driving, you will get to Sylvan Lake. Be sure to stop here to admire what is one of the prettiest places we have ever been to.

Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills in the afternoon.
Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills in the afternoon.

After visiting Sylvan Lake, you have a choice: you can turn south on SD 89 or continue following SD 87, which has one more tunnel and some pretty views but ends near Hill City. If you take SD 89, you can easily circle back to either Custer or to drive the Iron Mountain Road or Wildlife Loop if you want. 

Iron Mountain Road

17 Miles | Hermosa, SD

Both this road and the Needles Highway and the Wildlife Loop comprise the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway which can be done as a long loop but we don’t recommend it. We feel driving south to north on the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road is the optimal way to see the amazing scenery present on both roads.

So, start your drive at the East Entrance of Custer State Park and pick up US 16A heading north. You will pass through the northern end of Custer State Park.

Iron Creek Trail
Iron Creek Trail

As you ascend through the Ponderosa pine forests, you will come across the Iron Mountain Road Visitor Center and Store, which has gas, food and souvenirs. Past that, There is a great turnout with a view of Mount Rushmore way in the distance. Don’t get too excited, though. There are much better views to come. 

 If you are so inclined, there is a pull out for the Iron Creek Trail on the left just before you get to Lakota Lake. It’s a nice, relatively flat out and back trail with some great scenery. 

Seeing Mount Rushmore

Soon, you will be presented with more single lane tunnels carved directly from the granite. Only these tunnels, especially the first and last, are strategically placed to frame Mount Rushmore perfectly. Indeed, we highly recommend taking the Iron Mountain Road on your way to Mount Rushmore.

The scenery coming out of the tunnel on the Iron Mountain Road can be a bit distracting.
The scenery coming out of the tunnel on the Iron Mountain Road can be a bit distracting.

Like the Needles Highway, these tunnels are tight. The middle tunnel is 13” wide and 11” tall. That’s a really tight fit for any kind of RV other than a camper van. 

Read more about visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial here.

The other really unique feature of the Iron Mountain Road are the Pigtail Bridges. These bridges basically perform a tight turn and then route under themselves, making them look like a “curly Q.” 

One of the distinctive pigtail bridges on the Iron Mountain Road.
One of the distinctive pigtail bridges on the Iron Mountain Road.

On my first trip to the Black Hills back in college, I took the Iron Mountain Road as a short cut to get from the Custer Wildlife Loop back to Keystone where I was camping… at night. It was terrifying. Don’t drive this road at night. 

As you go along, you will find a US Forest Service turnout on the right that has the best views of Mount Rushmore outside of the park. Be sure to stop here. 

The road ends just outside Mount Rushmore, making a visit to the memorial easy. 

Driving Iron Mountain Road is a great way to get to Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore from the Iron Mountain Road.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

20 miles | Spearfish, SD

You can do this drive from either direction. We have always done it from the south but the scenery is great in both directions. If you want to take it from the south, head to Lead and take US 14A south until it turns back north. From there, you will be immersed in the canyon. 

Spearfish Canyon, one of the scenic drives in the Black Hills.
Spearfish Canyon, one of the scenic drives in the Black Hills.

Just take it easy and admire the views until you get to the small community of Savoy. If you turn left on Roughlock Falls Road, you will find parking at the trailhead for the Roughlock Falls Trail. This easy out and back trail take you to the falls, which are gorgeous. Alternately, you can drive a bit further to a viewing area where you can see the top of the falls.

You can also see Spearfish Falls from this same parking area. The trail is located on the north side of the Latchstring Inn and leads you down to the bottom of the canyon for an up-close view of the falls. 

Spearfish Falls
Spearfish Falls

Heading further north, there are several pullouts along the way, some with interpretive signs but all with amazing views. If you look on the right, you will see Bridal Veil Falls. This 60 foot waterfall cascades down the canyon wall and there is an observation platform right there.

Continuing the drive north will take you to Spearfish, which is the perfect stop for a tasty beer at either Spearfish Brewing or Crow Peak Brewing.

Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon.
Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon.

Black Hills Scenic Byway

78 Miles | Newcastle, WY

This road forms a V with Newcastle as the junction of the two legs of the road. We took the right leg of the road on our way to Devils Tower National Monument from Custer, SD. Indeed, if you add on the drive from Custer, SD, it adds 37 miles of really pretty country, including driving through Hells Canyon. 

One of the scenic overlooks along Wyoming's Black Hills Scenic Byway.
One of the scenic overlooks along Wyoming’s Black Hills Scenic Byway.

There aren’t many stops along this road. Still, the scenery is gorgeous and well worth the detour on your way to Devils Tower. 

Click here for more on visiting Devils Tower.

Additionally, driving north from Devils Tower through the towns of Hulett and Aladdin on the way to Bell Fourche makes for a long but enjoyable loop that avoids getting on the interstate.  Be sure to stop at the Geographic Center of the United States and the museum in Belle Fourche. Both are really cool!

Devils Tower
Devils Tower

Badlands Scenic Loop

35 miles | Wall, SD

If you have not visited Badlands National Park, located to the east of the Black Hills, at the very least take a day to drive the scenic loop through the park. 

Start in Wall, SD and head south. After you enter the park, turn right onto the Sage Creek Rim Road, a dirt road, and take that west to Roberts Prairie Dog Town and the Sage Creek Basin Overlook. Then head back east, following the road through countless gorgeous overlooks. 

Storm Clouds at Pinnacles Overlook
Storm Clouds at Pinnacles Overlook

In particular, stop at the Pinnacles and Panorama Point overlooks, which offer stunning views, as well as the Visitor Center. We also recommend stopping to hike the Window, Notch and Door trails on the east side of the park. 

For more on Badlands National Park, click here.

As you head north from the park, stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center to learn about the nuclear missile sites that make their home on the Plains. If you plan in advance, you can get a tour of one of the launch facilities. It was so cool to actually see one of the launch control rooms.

The missle control console at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The missle control console at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

On your way back, be sure to stop at Wall Drug to experience this ultimate roadside attraction. It’s cheesy and a tourist trap but it is cool nonetheless. 

To read more on Wall Drug, click here.

Final Thoughts on Scenic Drives in the Black Hills

It is so easy two or three days driving all of the amazing scenic drives in the Black Hills. This area is scenic and easily lends itself to just getting in the car and seeing what you can find. 

These are the top five scenic drives in the Black Hills (plus the Badlands) but they just scratch the surface. Indeed, some of the best scenic vistas we have seen have been traveling on Forest Service roads and trails in an ATV.

Read more about renting an ATV in the Black Hills.

The road up to Mount Coolidge in Custer State Park
The road up to Mount Coolidge in Custer State Park

We hope the routings for these scenic drives in the Black Hills provides you the optimal way to see the sights. See you out on the road!

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