Custer Wildlife Loop, the Needles and Iron Mountain roads, South Dakota

October 15, 2015

This trip starts from the south entrance of Custer Wildlife Loop.

The area that encompasses Custer State Park was originally established as a Game Preserve back in 1913.

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Bisons

Then-Governor Peter Norbeck's dream was to establish a large acreage within the Black Hills that would sustain the re-introduction of many of the wildlife species that had been eliminated by early gold seekers.

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Today the park is home to over 1,300 free roaming bison (or buffalo), elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats, pronghorn antelope along with white-tail and mule deer.

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Pronghorn

The park offers a network of roads, both paved and gravel that provide visitors with access to much of the park and offers great opportunities to see wildlife in the natural setting. The best time to see most wildlife is early in the morning and late afternoon.

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Visitors often see bison, pronghorn, white-tailed and mule deer, prairie dogs, eagles, hawks and a variety of other birds.

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Begging Burros

Begging Burros is a name used to refer to the donkeys in Custer State Park. For many years, these donkeys have earned this nickname as they approach various passing cars through the park begging for food.

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Are you Juan Valdez?

After earning this reputation, the burros have become famous now garnering the attention of most travelers through the park inside and outside of cars.

The Begging Burros inhabit one area of the park upon a hill where approximately 50 of them try to obtain any food they can

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Driving north you will see the signs for Iron Mountain Road (US 16A).

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Mount Rushmore from Iron Mountain Road

US 16A is famous for its scenic, one-lane tunnels aligned to frame the faces on Mount Rushmore, its "pigtail bridges", and its sections of divided highway but with single (and narrow) lanes on each roadway.

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It is the only route which can be used to drive through Custer State Park without having to pay an entrance fee for the park, provided the traveler does not stop in the Park.

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The Iron Mountain portion of the road is not maintained in the winter.

The highway was constructed in the 1930s under the direction of Governor Peter Norbeck, who is also known as the "Father of Custer State Park."

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Mount Rushmore while crossing one of the tunnels

Norbeck said of the Iron Mountain Road, "this is not meant to be a super highway, to do the scenery justice you should drive no more than 20 mph and to do it full justice you should simply get out and walk."

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Following the road you drive a short distance south on US 16 before you follow the signs for Highway 87, also know as the Needles Highway.

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Sylvan Lake

Finished in 1922, the highway is named after the high granite "needles" it winds among.

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Needles Eye Tunnel

Access to the Needles Highway requires a Custer State Park entrance license, making that portion of SD 87 a toll road.

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Needles Eye Tunnel

This area is home to some of the oldest rocks in North America, dating over two billion years in age.

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Formed underground and now exposed at the surface, the Black Hills region features a dome-like mass of resistant rocks.

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These rocks are made from granite.

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Granite is an igneous rock, forming underground from magma (liquid rock).

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The Needles Eye

The Needle’s Eye is one of the most memorable granite needles along the drive, with its signature ‘eye’ formed by countless years of rain, ice and wind.

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As it pushed upward millions of years ago, the molten rock cooled very slowly.

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At times, this cooling process yields large crystals which tend to be minerals within one of these three families: feldspar, mica, and quartz.

Map

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Driving distance from Vancouver:
2,071 km (1,286 mi)
Driving time from Vancouver: Approx. 20 hours