Custer, The Town, Wildlife Loop and Needles Highway

Friday, September 4, 2020

The town of Custer (2067 souls) is generally considered to be the oldest town established by European Americans in the Black Hills. Gold was discovered there in 1874 by the Black Hills Expedition conducted by the 7th Calvary led by Lt. Colonel George Custer which initiated the Black Hills Gold Rush.

It was because of the discovery of gold that the Oglala Sioux were forced to cede this historical and sacred portion of their reservation- the land was then opened up for individual purchase and settlement. In 1978 the settlement was named Stonewall (for Stonewall Jackson) but renamed for Custer. The town was almost abandoned in 1876 after much larger gold strikes were reported in Deadwood Gulch. Today mineral extraction is still an important part of its economy as is tourism.

We spent some time in Custer sight seeing. We met Tim and Renee and ate breakfast at Baker’s Cafe. Boy, is the food good and plentiful at this small bakery/cafe! Down the street is a nice, fenced grassy dog park. We heard from a local that the high school kids here are required to plan, produce and complete a project that will enhance life in Custer, so a young lady decided a dog park was in order. She helped plan the park, picked a suitable location, held fund raisers and got’er done! Job well done, youngster! Ollie and Mollie thoroughly enjoyed Custer’s Bark Park!

Custer State Park is named for George Armstrong Custer, who led an expedition that discovered gold along French Creek in 1874. The park was designated a game preserve in 1913 and a state park in 1919 primarily through the work of Governor Peter Norbeck.

I wouldn’t recommend approaching bison this closely! (Photo borrowed from Visit South Dakota)

The wildlife loop in Custer State Park is world renoun for great viewing of grazing animals- free-ranging bison, elk, deer, even burros. Yep, burros. They were first used as pack animals nearly a century ago when they were used to transport visitors from Sylvan Lake Lodge up the steep path to the summit of Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rockies. When the tourist trips ended, the burros were released into the wild. They share the park to this day with their more wild brethren, mooching handouts from visitors even though they know the park rangers frown on mooching.

We meet up with Tim and Renee and caravan to the Wildlife Loop Road. The loop is 20 miles long and takes about an hour to complete the circuit. The best times to view wildlife is just after sunrise and dusk. We choose dusk- wrong choice! The first bison we see is not on the loop, rather the main road through the park. That’s encouraging actually! We drive the entire 20 mile loop with the only animal spotted being a lone coyote, it disappeared quickly. We are done with the loop, exit on highway 87, and finally see two more adult bison and a calf. Sheesh! We did spot eight deer, however but no thundering herd of bison. They must of known we were coming- shhhhh, quiet, here they come- hide!

The next day I wanted to complete the Needles Highway. Jil-“How long is it?” About 14 miles. Jil- “I’ll go with you if it only takes an hour.” Heck, how do I know how long it’s going to take? I’ve never been on this section. It’s 14 miles from Highway 16A to Sylvan Lake and that’s where we can head back to the barn. Jil-“Oh, OK……. I’ll go”.

She reminded me of Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame. She seems to be going begrudgingly, not sure why and not very enthusiastic about joining me. We drove several miles starting on Highway 16 then the Needles Highway……… no needles but plenty of beautiful forest. We drove some more….. hmm, a few big rock outcroppings poking their noses above the trees. Aha- a tunnel! The Iron Creek Tunnel is a skinny 9 feet wide and low at 12 feet 3″. OK for cars and pickups but nothing larger.

Now we are driving on the shoulder of mountains leaving the meadows behind when we come the first “needles” that jut straight up into the blue sky. Wow, Jil exclaims! I’m glad I came along for the ride! Me too, my Sweetie! We travel a little farther and the road is swallowed by spires, needles and rock outcroppings. I exclaim that this place looks like something Disney would have produced, but God beat him to it!

There are quite a few people and cars from the Needles area to Sylvan Lake. A major bottleneck is the Needles Eye Tunnel. Just like the others it is narrow at 8’4″ wide and 12′ high. The width just barely allows pickups through without scraping fenders or side view mirrors against granite wall. I know, I was following one through the tunnel and it was close! The approach to the tunnel isn’t straight so the guy in front of us would pull forward and take a peak- then back up to allow oncoming traffic to pass. He did that several times until finally advancing…… we and the cars behind us followed that pickup through.

On the other side we pass hordes of humans and their vehicles spread all over the landscape, admiring the view towards the town of Custer. Most on foot are oblivious to traffic making this narrow road even more hazardous. And then there’s the dually pickup coming the other way- that truck may not clear the tunnel and if it does it will be by 4 very slim inches! We didn’t stick around to watch that action but I wanted to….

Needle’s Eye Tunnel looking east

We turned towards US 16A at Sylvan Lake with both of us amazed at the sights on that section of the Needles Highway. If you are ever in the area and want to view the Needles take the cut off road from Highway 16A in Custer to Sylvan Lake and turn right at the Needles Highway. That’s the shortcut to the Needles and you’ll also get an eyeful of Sylvan Lake to boot.

Tomorrow we have to move and can’t go to where we want to go this Labor Day Weekend due to lack of camp site availability in Pierre, SD. We booked the weekend in Rapid City. There’s lots to see and do there so we should have a good time. See you there!

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