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.



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).

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

Find more useful information related to South Dakota's Norbeck Scenic Byway:

  • South Dakota Scenic Drives: Norbeck Scenic Byway is just one of the scenic byways in South Dakota. Check out the others.
  • Custer, Keystone: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Norbeck Scenic Byway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond South Dakota? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.