The Needle’s Eye Tunnel is located in the Black Hills area of South Dakota within Custer State Park. It was concepted by Peter Norbeck, a senator and governor of South Dakota in the 1930s. He designed the highway (and thus the tunnel) when many thought it was impossible. Now, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is widely considered one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the country.
The Needles Eye Tunnel is a narrow passage carved through a granite spire along this byway. This particular stretch, called Needles Highway, was once used by early settlers as a way through the mountains. It is a favorite spot to visit for those that also happen to be in the area also visiting the Badlands, Wind Caves, and Devil’s Tower. It is about 1.5 hours west (78 miles) of Badlands National Park, and 30 minutes north of Wind Cave National Park. Half an hour north of the tunnel is Mount Rushmore.
The Area’s History
The Black Hills are steeped in history. Add to that the construction of a road that many deemed impossible, there is a lot to unpack here.
The Native Tribes
The history of the Black Hills is rich and diverse, and the park serves as a testament to the cultural significance of the region to the indigenous peoples of the area, including the Lakota, Dakota, and Cheyenne nations. It was also fascinating to learn about the conflict and upheaval that occurred between settlers and native tribes in the late 19th century, after the discovery of gold brought a wave of settlers to the area. You can see the history of the local tribes throughout the park and surrounding area.
The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway Creation
The path that eventually became the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway was originally used by the native people and new settlers going through the mountains. The byway, constructed in the 1920s and in roughly the shape of a figure-8, travels through portions of Custer State Park, the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, just by Mount Rushmore, and the Black Elk National Wilderness Area.
While driving this byway, you realize how difficult it must have been to build a road in this environment. The terrain is full of these crazy granite pinnacles and other rock formations that would have seemed impossible to weave through.
The Needles Eye Tunnel
The Needles Highway, which contains the famous Needles Eye Tunnel, is just a small portion of that scenic byway. The drive through the rocky landscape and the towering cliffs and pinnacles will make you think you’re in a different world. The pinnacles are needle like granite formations, from millions of years ago. I can see now why it is called one of the best scenic drives in the country!
The narrow tunnel was chiseled through the base of a huge granite boulder. It is only one-lane wide, and is a part of the highway. There are no side routes you need to take to go through it – it’s directly on Highway 87!
The tunnel’s dimensions are barely enough for a car to get through:
|11 ft 3 in (135 inches, or 343 cm)
|8 ft 4 in (100 inches, or 254 cm)
The name “Needles Eye” surprisingly does not come from how small the tunnel is. It’s from the rock pinnacle right next to the tunnel that actually does look like an eye of a needle.
Getting to Needles Eye Tunnel
Needles Highway (Route 87) is a 14-mile stretch of the larger Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway that runs through Custer State Park. It runs from the Highway 16A junction in the east to US 385 in the west.
The Needles Highway contains the famous Needle’s Eye Tunnel, which is 7.3 miles east from the start of Highway 87 in the west. It is about 2 miles east of the Sylvan Lake Lodge. It is a small tunnel that you can drive through, and I’ve even seen where huge charter buses remarkably squeeze their way through.
ALERT: Highway 87 is only open in the spring, summer, and fall. Once the snow starts falling in October or November, the road shuts down until spring. It is usually closed from October until April, when the snow is finally cleared.
Nearby Attractions to Needles Eye Tunnel
Aside from the Needles Eye Tunnel, there are many other trails and points of interest in the area that are worth exploring. Little Devil’s Tower Trailhead is less than a mile away from Needles Eye Tunnel. Long considered one of the best hikes in Custer State Park, Little Devil’s Tower Trail, it is just shy of a 4-mile out-and-back path that is a little more difficult than most due to the elevation climb.
Also, nearby is the Cathedral Spires Trail, which is 1.6 mile trail that gives you great views of the spires up close. The Needles Highway Overlook, Needles Scenic View, and Cathedral Spires Pullout are also easy stops for anyone driving along Highway 87.
There is also another tunnel along Highway 87. Five miles east of the Needles Eye Tunnel is the Iron Creek Tunnel. It is 9 feet wide and 11′ 4″ wide… which also makes it a one lane section of the road. However, while both tunnels are only one lane, they are not one way. Traffic stops on either side of the tunnels, allowing one direction to pass at a time.
Custer State Park Weather
As mentioned above, Needles Highway (where the Needles Eye Tunnel is located) is closed in the winter, which usually runs from sometime in October until April(ish).
In Custer State Park, the summers are warm and mostly clear, while the winters are long, freezing, snowy, and partly cloudy. July is the warmest month, with highs near 80°F. Spring and fall high temps usually hover in the 50s and 60s, with winter seeing heavy snowfall (and thus the reason for the road closure).