After climbing to the highest point in South Dakota – Black Elk Peak – Diana and I continued further into Custer State Park. We moved out of hiker mode and into tourist mode, ready for an afternoon of scenic drives, overlooks, wildlife spotting, and Visitor Centers.
Our journey started at the Sylvan Lake Trailhead, where we’d parked to climb Black Elk Peak. From there, we began a 75-mile loop combining three scenic drives – Needles Highway, Wildlife Loop Road, and Iron Mountain Road. First up, Needles Highway, which begins just past Sylvan Lake. The Needles Highway winds through towering granite spires and pine-spruce forest on a downward journey toward the park’s lower elevations. There are numerous rock tunnels and scenic overlooks scattered along the way.
At just 8′ 9″ wide and 9′ 8″ tall, the Needles Eye Tunnel is the tightest squeeze of the park’s many tunnels. Traffic does go both directions here, so visitors had to work together to help vehicles pass through one at a time. This was a fun experience, but we were glad the other tunnels would be a bit bigger.
After the Needles Highway, we followed signs for Wildlife Loop Road. This scenic drive circles around the park’s grassy lowlands. As the name suggests, the chance for spotting wildlife on Wildlife Loop Road is pretty high, and while there are numerous wildlife species living in the park, the park’s herd of ~1500 American bison is the star attraction.
But before we got to that, we took a detour to the Mount Coolidge lookout tower. Unlike the lookout on Black Elk Peak, this lookout has a road all the way to the top. In fact, it’s still active and is currently used as a fire lookout and dispatch center. We were unable to go inside but we did walk around the observation deck.
Interestingly, while we were on Mount Coolidge, we were in between cloud layers. As the clouds moved, some of the distant hills showed their tops.
Continuing on our journey along the Wildlife Loop Road, we kept our eyes peeled for any signs of wildlife. There was always a possibility we wouldn’t see anything at all, but we had high hopes we’d get to see the bison. As it turned out, we saw hundreds of bison and their brand new babies, plus a few of the local burros.
A tip from the volunteers at the Wildlife Station Visitor Center led us on a short loop down some gravel roads through the bison area. This Visitor Center is a good place to stop if you want to see the bison. They keep records of where the various herds have been spotted so you can go see them for yourself. We took our time driving around and admiring the babies’ sweet faces. The bison aren’t afraid of vehicles so we were often very close to them. (Just don’t get out of the car!)
We finished up the Wildlife Loop Road at the main Visitor Center. This Visitor Center is brand new and huge. They have a wonderful video about Custer State Park, the bison herd, and the annual bison round-up. From there, we continued to the last of the three scenic drives, Iron Mountain Road. Iron Mountain Road leads back up into the forested hills and ends at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. There are some good opportunities to see Mount Rushmore along this drive.
We decided not to stop at Mount Rushmore since we’d both already been there (and we saw it pretty well along the drive), so we continued along the last leg of the loop back to the hotel. This wrapped up our Dakotas trip, all that was left to do was drive the six or so hours home the following day. The trip may have been short, but we did and saw a lot, and had many new stories to tell!
I would like to acknowledge that Custer State Park is on the ancestral land of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Great Sioux Nation) and Cheyenne.