Hike Near Needles Highway Takes You to Another World

As a kid, when my parents first took me on a drive along Needles Highway, I fully expected to see giant sewing needles stuck in the ground, their large eyes looming several feet above me. So, when I discovered that the attraction was actually rock formations that were supposed to sorta look like needles, well, I was pretty disappointed.

Now, as a slightly less literal-minded adult, I can more fully appreciate these eroded granite pillars and spirals. In fact, my favorite hike in the Black Hills is right along the portion of Needles Highway that cuts through a large chunk of Custer State Park.

Needles along Cathedral Spires

The "needles" along the Cathedral Spires trail rise up like other-worldly formations. (Photo by Hillary Dobbs-Davis)

Cathedral Spires is a popular hiking spot for thousands of visitors and locals alike. But even though many people travel this particular trail, it never feels crowded or overused. In fact, the trail meets all my criteria for a perfect hike.

First of all, it has a great name. Cathedral Spires. I don’t who was doing PR for this trail back in the day, but you’d be hard pressed to find a name that’s as picturesque as it is poetic.

Second, it’s fairly challenging without making me feel like I’m going to die. The first half of the hike that takes you to the end of the trail will most likely get your heart rate up, but you’re likely to be so caught up in the scenery, you might not notice. Also, it’s not a particularly long hike; round trip, the whole thing takes just a little over an hour.

Which brings me to the third – and most important – factor: it is beautiful. The Black Hills are themselves quite amazing, but Cathedral Spires takes beauty to a whole different, other-worldly level. You’re surrounded on all sides by these incredibly high rock walls. And as you move deeper into the woods, the needles start to appear in a way that makes you swear you’re not on planet Earth anymore. On the return trip, you’ll come to a spot where everything opens up, and you can see the surrounding Hills and trees for miles.

A note about some of those trees. It’s likely on the drive along Needles Highway that you’ll notice some dead trees. A lot of dead trees. We have the mountain pine beetle to thank for that. The state and federal government have pledged to spend about $4 million to fight this invasive pest. Whether or not it’s enough or in time remains to be seen.

Regardless, take a trip through Needles Highway and walk along the Cathedral Spires trail sometime this fall. In the contrast of the beauty of the spires and the destruction of the beetles is a lesson, not just about the importance of good forest management but also about how nature has a its own way of working things out.

If you go

The Cathedral Spires are in Custer State Park along the Needles Highway, 2.5 miles east of Sylvan Lake.

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Great Faces. Great Places.

South Dakota is an incredibly unique state in that each region offers a completely different experience then the others. Check out each of the regions to see what each has to offer!

Badlands

Western South Dakota

Featuring the Black Hills, Badlands, the Sturgis Rally. This region tends to be the most popular.

CENTRAL REGION

This region of South Dakota offers some of the best hunting and fishing in the entire central US. 

Eastern Region

The eastern region is home to the largest city in the state and provides visitors with a true "prairie" experience.