In-Spiring Rocks Stand Tall; Narrow Tunnels Squeeze…The Needles Highway of Custer SP

It’s impossible not to feel awe when traveling through the towering Cathedral Spires of South Dakota’s Custer State Park. They so impressed Peter Norbeck, the governor of the state from 1917-21, that he personally scoped out a route on foot and horseback that would feature the best views. Known as the Needles Highway, it’s also famous for its narrow tunnels hewn out from the granite rock. We visited Custer State Park on our RV trip around North America last fall. All photos in the blog are taken by either Peggy or me unless otherwise noted.

They tower above Custer State Park, silent sentinels made of granite. Once they were chosen as the site for the presidential carvings that dominate the nearby Mt. Rushmore, but the granite lacked the solid mass that was needed. It may have been a gift, given their outstanding beauty. While I like Mt. Rushmore, I prefer these rocks au naturel.
Photo along the Needles Highway of Custer State Park by photographer Peggy Mekemson.
Visitors to the Cathedral Spires of Custer State Park wind their way through the granite pillars on a narrow, curvy road that barely accommodates two larger vehicles on sections.
The road provides up close and personal views of the granite monuments.
Every spire has its own personality.
Towering spires like this gave the Needles Highway its name.
Rock garden with breaching whale?
Rock climbers look for challenging rock faces to scramble up in the Cathedral Spires. Peggy and I just looked for faces.
Our active imaginations have no problem finding them… The nose, small mouth below it, eyes above, and baseball cap gave away this fellow. (There’s a chance he had a duck billed platypus on his head instead of a cap.)
This photo illustrates just how narrow tunnels are along the Needles Highway of South Dakota's Custer State Park.
Part of the fun of the Needles Highway is maneuvering along the narrow, curvy road. The tunnels bordered on scary. This sign announced that one tunnel was 8 feet, zero inches across. Our truck is 8 feet, zero inches across! Fortunately, our mirrors folded in by 7 inches on each side. I had 14 inches to squeeze our large F-150 through. Woohoo! I almost peed my pants. My normally talkative driving advisor was strangely silent. She may have been praying.
Beware, all ye who enter here! Once you start, there is no backing out.
The ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ The road snaked off to the left.
Even this larger square tunnel seemed skinny.
I thought this photo was interesting. I didn’t spot the colorful abstract until I was processing our photos. It’s a reflection off the hood of our truck showing the exit and road of the square tunnel. At least that’s what I assumed it was. Maybe it was a gateway to another world with a monster bird hoping to dine on Curt and Peggy a la carte.
I’ll conclude today with two more photos. This one with its gnarly old dead tree…
And a closer view of the ‘Cathedral Spires.’

Next Monday, May 15, Peggy and I will be back in Egypt with a trip out to the ancient city of Memphis, near Cairo, where we will visit the colossal statue of Ramses II lying down, and then return to Cairo for a tour of the Museum of Egypt, which was out the back door from our hotel. There will be more of the history of Ancient Egypt, some treasures from the tomb of King Tutankhamen, a cow goddess, and much more. (So much that I may turn it into two posts.)

The Monday after that, May 22, we will take you on a tour of even more colossal monuments than Egypt has, the presidents on Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. It’s located 10-15 miles north of today’s post on the Needles Highway.

35 thoughts on “In-Spiring Rocks Stand Tall; Narrow Tunnels Squeeze…The Needles Highway of Custer SP

  1. Great pictures. The third one looks like the rocking’ giants are leaning forward and asking “Where have you been…we’ve been standing around waiting for you to arrive.” So much fun. The third from the last tunnel was quite a catch. Looks like a sci-fi movie shot.
    Don’t you hope the little kids are directed away from screens and look at the clouds and things around them – encouraging their imagination? Wouldn’t want them to miss all the excitement (and possible monster birds lurking HAHA)
    Enjoyed the ride. Thanks

    • Glad you enjoyed our rocky post on the Needles Highway, Karen. The giants were out. No doubt about it.
      As for little kids away from their screens. Yes! I’d add adults away from their cellphones. Everyone can use a break on occasion from the constant noise and addiction of social media.

  2. I love that area of the Black Hills. Our last visit was four years ago. During each visit, we find new discoveries. I don’t think I’d ever bore with that landscape.

    • It’s a drive we wouldn’t have made without the foldable mirrors. Curt and Peggy would have been turning around and hightailing it back the other way. Bonnet, eh? πŸ™‚ Thanks, Peggy

  3. Wow these pictures are so amazing Curt. I’d be afraid on might fall on me.
    You are so funny…”Maybe it was a gateway to another world with a monster bird hoping to dine on Curt and Peggy a la carte.”
    See you at the next stop. Love it all! πŸ’ž

  4. You must have inched through that narrow tunnel, Curt. What a fun place for a drive and beautiful spires. I saw faces even before you mentioned them. And I much prefer the natural appearance of rock (of land in general). Excellent photos. See you in Egypt next!

  5. Are those loop roads? I assume so, but maybe not. What a trip that would be, meeting another 8’0″ vehicle coming the other way. I presume any literature about the place has obvious and well placed cautionary notices! You mentioned climbers; are they free to roam at will, or are there certain places set aside for rock climbing, and permits required. Maybe signing a liability form would be good, too.

    The abstract reflection is beautiful, and quite unusual. I’m rather fond of the gnarly tree, too. It’s interesting that I’ve been to Mt. Rushmore, but never had heard of this place.

    Speaking of natural forces shaping the landscape, I thought you’d be interested in this article. I suspect much of it — and many of the places — are familiar to you.

    • Actually Linda. you can start in Custer State Park and make your way north to Mt. Rushmore following the Needles Highway. In another way, however, it might be considered a loop road when the road makes a loop, climbs, and loops back above itself over a bridge! I’m not sure what climbing restrictions exist, but I assume people at least have to have a permit to climb since the Needles are part of Custer State Park.

      People wait their turn on going through the tunnels. Grin. Fortunately, you can see to the other side. My guess is that there are more formal controls when summer traffic starts.

      Quite the article. Yes, Peggy and I have travelled through all of that territory and Port Angeles is where we start our journey across to Vancouver Island. The Cascadia Earthquake is a concern of ours every time we drive up and down the coast. We always note the exit routes to higher ground that are always well marked. Tony was very interested in a Coast Guard Station farther to the south in Astoria that accommodated the larger helicopters he flew. He has now been hired by Frontier Airlines and will be fling large passenger jets by next fall. Quite a change!

  6. Truly amazing, Curt! Now I know the tunnel you told me about, interesting, to put it mildly. I think I might’ve been a little scared too. And seeing ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ has a whole new meaning. πŸ™‚ See you in Egypt! Happy travels!

  7. This place is simply marvelous! I have added it to my Bucket List. I saw the faces just as quickly as the photos scrolled into view. I think you two have corrupted me (or, is it improved me?). I am impressed with the framing and perspective of your shots, and also with the bravery of plunging into the tight tunnel. I’ll bet there was some discussion of whether or not to even go in, wasn’t there? Well bravo, you two. What a team!!

    • Laughing. Seeing creatures in rocks fits nicely into your dragon fantasies, Crystal. It’s a good form of corruption. Thanks on the framing/perspective comment. We always think of it. Then there is cropping. πŸ™‚
      I was just glad that the tunnels were short enough that we could see the light at the end! Otherwise, it would have set off my claustrophobia over being in tight spaces. We’d watched a couple of pick-ups go through. Usually my teammate would have had an ongoing commentary, but I think she was having an ‘Oh Shit!’ moment. πŸ™‚

  8. I tend to think of spire and needle formations as being in the southwest. Cool that you found some nice ones in South Dakota.
    One of the reasons I never went the camper route was nervousness about driving that much rig in tight places. Hats off to you for threading the needle…

    • The whole area is worth a trip, Dave.

      As for tight spaces, I wouldn’t want anything tighter! They don’t allow RVs on that road. Serafina, the trailer had to stay in camp.

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