Needles Highway, South Dakota
This mornings ride started in the little town of Custer which is just off of Highway 16. At 6:30 in the morning the clouds were very low and the roads were wet. Traffic was very light and I started out on my Trek Madone with the temperature in the low 60’s Heading out of town and east on Highway 16 there is a narrow shoulder that heads towards the park. The hills are rolling and there are some beautiful, quiet lakes along the way. Seven miles later I entered the park and crossed one of several sets of cattle guards. Because the road was wet and too were the metal guards I dismounted my bike and walked across the cattle guards.
The cool weather and low clouds really kept the traffic down and during the entire 23 mile ride up the Needles Highway I was passed by only seven cars. Although the clouds were low and there was a light mist in the air the visibility on the lower hills was very good. I felt as if I had the entire park to myself as I rode up through the hills and except for the many variety of birds along the road it was very quiet.
The ride started out at 5,400 feet above sea level and dropped under 5,000 before climbing up over 6,400 feet. Having climbed several mountain passes in Colorado I was really expecting this ride and the climbs to be easier since the elevation was much lower. However, I was surprised by the steepness of the road and the climb overall. Eight and nine percent grades put me in my lower gears and I did a lot of my seated climbing in a 43 x 22 and 24 tooth rear sprocket. Although breathing was much easier at this elevation I found myself running out of low gears and climbing out of the saddle. Switch backs along the way really pitched up and I was forced to stand going around these. The day before we drove down this highway and the traffic was almost continuous. I was thankful that the weather and early morning had pretty much eliminated all traffic.
The needles highway is given its name from the rock formations that resemble tall needles. Many of these formations are 50 to 100 feet above the highway and rounding each switchback is a new set of unique rocks to view. However, this morning was different. At the upper elevations the clouds were part of the scenery and visibility was less than 100 feet.
I had considered turning back and heading down the mountain but with only a few miles to the top and the traffic basically non-existent I continued on. Unfortunately the pictures I took were more of clouds then the beautiful rock formations around me.
There are several tunnels you must ride through and these too I took my time to check for traffic before entering. Once arriving at Sylvan lake atop the highway it too was hidden by the cloud coverage. I did take the time to walk up to the waters edge and could make out some deer not too far in the distance enjoying the cool water.
I prepared for my ride back by making sure my layers of clothing were properly tucked in and my jacket sleeves were pulled over the ends of my gloves to prevent any drafts getting up my sleeves.
The wet roads prevented me from really letting loose on the descents. There are really no long, straight stretches so descending speeds were in the upper twenties and lower thirties with a fair amount of braking in between. Most switchbacks were handled around twenty-two to twenty-four miles per hour. However, descending wasn’t a problem and I only met two cars coming up the road.
The hardest section of the ride was actually after descending needles highway. There is a six mile stretch that has 800 feet of climbing before you leave the park. The long descent allowed my body to tighten up and the grades in this area are also in the eight to ten percent putting me in my lowest gears and forcing me to stand to get over some of the terrain.
The remaining seven miles back into Custer was uneventful. The morning traffic had picked up and the road was never flat so my workout continued all the way up to my hotel door.
Summary: The needles highway is a challenging road for all levels of riders. I had raced in this area years before and didn’t recall the rolling hills being as steep as they actually were. I expected this to be a great training ride for my upcoming climbs that I would be doing in Colorado a few days later. As it turned out, this was the hardest of all the rides during this trip. The steep grades and hilly terrain that had to be traveled before and after climbing the highway was more difficult than what I had expected.
Custer park and all of the Black Hills for that matter is heavily populated with traffic. Cyclists are warned of the dangers of both motorists and the wild life. Custer Park is home of over 1000 bison and there is little protection from them when you are on your bicycle. I recommend riding early in the morning before the traffic levels pick up. Bright clothing is also important as there are many sharp switchbacks that can hide you from oncoming traffic. The steep descents do require good bike handling skills to both maintain a safe speed and choose correct lines through the turns. Although there are no sharp drop offs there are plenty of trees and rocks close to the road side. Finally, although I didn’t ride across any bison, remember to keep your distance from these large and very fast animals.