South Dakota: Norbeck Scenic Byway

The 68-mile Norbeck Scenic Byway honors a South Dakota conservationist, governor, and U.S. senator. Peter Norbeck first saw the Black Hills in 1905 after crossing the prairie on rugged, unimproved roads. His first visit began a lifelong love affair with the hills.

Norbeck Overlook, Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, and now this byway all bear his name and memorialize his conservation achievements. Read on to discover the many cultural, historical, natural, and recreational qualities of this South Dakota scenic drive.

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Cultural Qualities of Norbeck Scenic Byway

The earliest modern inhabitants of the Black Hills were the Crow Indians. Not much is known about these residents, except that they were forced to move west by the Cheyenne Indians. Ironically, the Cheyenne held the Black Hills for only a few decades. Westward-expanding Sioux Indians reached the hills around 1775 and quickly defeated the Cheyenne nation. The Sioux reigned over the High Plains for nearly a century.

In 1876, following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the Sioux War broke out. After several defeats by the U.S. Cavalry, the Sioux, with neighboring nations in Wyoming and Montana, united to battle General George Custer's troops. Custer and his troops were massacred in the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the Sioux emerged victorious.

However, as more U.S. troops arrived on the plains, most American Indians were disarmed and forced onto reservations. The government bought the Black Hills from the Sioux. Tension between the Sioux and the settlers remained high. The government built Fort Meade to permanently house soldiers who would protect the settlers.

Hundreds of Sioux people died at Wounded Knee Creek when a minor melee triggered nervous troops to open fire. The Wounded Knee incident of 1890 marked the end of bloodshed between Native Americans and settlers.

Historical Qualities of Norbeck Scenic Byway

In 1905, Peter Norbeck traveled to the Black Hills from his home on the eastern Dakota prairies. He soon became the unlikely steward of the Black Hills and a nationally prominent conservationist and legislator.

One of Norbeck's greatest concerns was creating a great state park befitting the extraordinary beauty and diversity of the Black Hills. He envisioned a preserve that would encompass features such as the Needles, Harney Peak, and the Sylvan Lake area. His tireless efforts led to the establishment of Custer State Park in 1919 and the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve in 1920. 

In 1919, work began on the Needles Highway, following a route through rugged terrain that was often impassable on horseback. Norbeck supplied 150,000 pounds of dynamite to one of the engineers who said he would need it to build the road. By 1921, the Needles Highway was completed.

Natural Qualities of Norbeck Scenic Byway

Norbeck Scenic Byway lies predominately within the crystalline (or granite) core of the central Black Hills. For the most part, sedimentary formations have eroded away from this range, often exposing massive granite mountainsides, outcrops, and spires. At lower elevations, meadows interrupt stands of ponderosa pine and aspen, while narrow streams lined with grasses or hardwoods, such as bur oak and willow, tumble through parklike settings.

Some of the prominent peaks near Norbeck Scenic Byway include Harney Peak (7,242 feet) and the Needles area of granite spire, Mount Coolidge (6,023 feet), Iron Mountain (5,445 feet), and Mount Rushmore (5,725 feet).

Follow this map of Norbeck Scenic Byway to explore beloved landmarks.
Follow this map of Norbeck Scenic Byway to explore beloved landmarks.

Recreational Qualities of Norbeck Scenic Byway

One of the best ways to see Norbeck Scenic Byway is to see it as Peter Norbeck did -- on foot. Trails wind throughout Custer State Park and the Black Hills National Forest. For cyclists and hikers, Centennial Trail runs into backcountry areas.

Many visitors travel Norbeck Scenic Byway for the sole purpose of seeing a national landmark. Roads with names like the Needles Highway are just waiting to be explored. The Needles Highway is a natural attraction for scenic drivers, and rock climbers find the granite spires of the area irresistible.

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Highlights of the Norbeck Scenic Byway

Byways.org Buffalo herds roam in the Lakota Tribal Park along Norbeck Scenic Byway.
Byways.org Buffalo herds roam in the Lakota Tribal Park along Norbeck Scenic Byway.

Norbeck Scenic Byway passes a handful of lakes that are perfect for shoreline picnics or a little fishing. Piles of giant granite boulders make Sylvan Lake unique, and its inviting shoreline makes it a perfect place to stop and rest on the hike to Harney Peak.

On calm days, the lake reflects the boulders above it. At the edge of Horsethief Lake, you will find towering ponderosa forests, perfect for an afternoon of hiking and exploring. Please be aware that portions of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway have steep grades, sharp curves, tunnels, and bridges. Here are some of the highlights of Norbeck Scenic Byway:

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General Custer Expedition Campsite: General Custer Expedition Campsite was the base camp for the 1874 Custer Expedition that explored and mapped the Black Hills and discovered gold here.

: The Gordon Stockade is a replica of the 1874 structure built by the first settlers in the hills. Also in the area is Stockade Lake, where you can camp or picnic.

Needles Highway: Continuing farther east along the byway, turn left onto Highway 87 heading north to the Needles Highway. Along this highway, you should notice the Cathedral Spires, a spectacular rock formation in the 1.7-billion-yearold Harney Peak granite. Also in the area is the Needle's Eye, a unique erosion feature reaching 30 to 40 feet in the air.

Sylvan Lake: Sylvan Lake is the oldest reservoir in the Black Hills, constructed in 1898. Take time to swim, fish, hike, camp, or rock climb in the area.

Forest Ecology Wayside: Next up is the Forest Ecology Wayside, which conveys the natural history of the Black Hills forests and fire.

Norbeck Wildlife Preserve: This preserve is home to deer, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and many bird species.

Horsethief Lake: Horsethief Lake is a favorite spot for camping and for hiking into the backcountry.

Mount Rushmore: Mount Rushmore was carved by Gutzon Borglum between 1927 and 1941 and stands as a memorial to significant figures of America's government.

Pigtail Bridges: These unique bridges, designed by Norbeck and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, span steep climbs in short distances. These bridges consist of a series of spiral curves, like the shape of a pig's tail.

Norbeck Overlook: Stop at the overlook to view the panoramic scenes of Harney Peak and the outcrops of ancient granite.

Galena Fire Wayside: The Galena Fire Wayside area focuses on the 1988 wildfire that burned more than 16,000 acres.

: Game Lodge was built as the gamekeeper's residence and later served as the 1927 Coolidge summer White House. Only a short distance from Game Lodge is the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center, offering information on Norbeck's life and area history.

Park Office: West of the lodge is the Park Office. You can continue west once again to where the tour began.

Come to see Mount Rushmore, leave with memories of more natural wonders than you could ever imagine!

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