Even for a climber who is all too aware of the new trend for “family album” type submissions versus “climbing beta” on SummitPost.Com, I was still shocked that South Dakota got little mention on the website outside of a few trails and its highpoint (a hike itself). The quality of climbing in the Black Hills National Forest (1.2 million acres!) and particularly Custer State Park, is nothing short of exceptional. By way of research prior to my own visit, I ran into several on-line blogs reflecting that sentiment from climbers as far away as Boulder and Denver, CO, who were more than willing to make the long drive across Colorado and Wyoming to take advantage of the great climbing terrain and sparse amount of people to compete with for sport (Rushmore) and/or trad routes (Needles).
The Needles of South Dakota, one of the last strongholds of traditional face climbing in the U.S., are located in Custer State Park south of the Mount Rushmore National Monument (southern portion of the Black Hills National Forest). Custer State Park is considered one of the largest state parks (71,000 acres plus) in the country. There are still many undeveloped limestone canyons with steep rock and numerous granite formations with no developed routes throughout the southern Black Hills. However, since the Needles straddle Highway 87 (Needles Highway), most of the aesthetic routes along the road have in fact been established. I had the pleasure of climbing with one of the climbing pioneers of the area during the 1970’s, Bob Archbold (who’s comments regarding the area were featured recently in Alpinist Magazine). Herb and Jan Conn, the ultimate climbing pioneers of the Needles, summarized the area well in their published guide book: “Being a climber in the Needles is like being a cat in a fish store”.
The rock is a coarse igneous granite called pegmatite, that is characterized by well-formed crystals. These crystals make for an amazing number of holds, albeit, not all strong ones. The cracks, when found, are well-suited to nuts and cams. The frequent blank areas are sparingly protected, if at all, throughout the Needles area. In the Needles, there is a historical emphasis on free climbing with limited fixed protection. The locals still abide by this ethic. Black Hills Climbing Coalition.
Below is just a sampling of some classic Needles routes, there are many to be had:
o Conn Diagonal, 5.7, 2 ½ pitches, Outer Outlet (Herb and Jan Conn, 1953)
o Classic Crack, 5.8, 1 long pitch, Inner Outlet (Bob Kamps and Mark and Beverly Powell, 1965)
o Conn Route on Aquariam Rock, 5.4, 2 pitches (Herb and Jan Conn, 1949)
o Needles Eye, 5.9, 1 long pitch (Rich Goldstone, 1964)
o Tee-the-Ball, 5.9 Ten Pins, 1 long pitch (Renn Fenton)
o Tricouni Nail, 5.9, Ten Pins, half-rope pitch (Royal Robbins, 1964)
o God’s Own Drunk, 5.8, Khayyam Spire, 2 pitches (Jim Kanzler, 1971)
o International Chimney, 5.7, Cathedral Spires, 2 pitches (Bill Briggs,1954, Bob Archbold, 1980)
o South Tower, 5.7+, 2 ½ pitches, Cathedral Spires (Herb and Jan Conn, 1953)
o East Gruesome, 5.8, Cathedral Spires 3 pitches (Herb and Jan Conn, 1959)
o Spire Four, 5.4, 3 Pitches, Cathedral Spires (Herb and Jan Conn, 1948)
o Spire Five, 5.3, 2 ½ pitches, Cathedral Spires (Herb and Jan Conn, 1949)
Proceed past the Mount Rushmore National Monument south of Rapid City, SD on Highway 16 and turn left on Highway 87. Highway 87 (Needles Highway) is a 14-mile long road through tunnels and granite outcroppings referred to as the Needles area, between Highway 16 and Alt 16. It has several 180 degree switchbacks and is closed in the winter.
Red TapeThere are no permit requirements to climb in Custer State Park. However, permits are required to enter and/or park. From May 1 through October 31 the fees are $5 per person or $12 per vehicle. Off season they are reduced to half that amount. These permits are valid up to 7 days. An annual park entrance pass is $23. These are 2006 rates.
Fires are only allowed at designated sites, picnic areas, and established campgrounds in approved fire pits. Firewood must be cut-to-size to fit within the confines of the pits (chainsaws are not allowed). Open fires are strictly prohibited in the French Creek Natural Area or outside the confines of established campground and picnic areas in the park. You will see evidence of serious out of control fires in the past therefore various other restrictions might be in place when you visit.
When to Climb
We climbed the Needles and Rushmore areas in April. The Needles Highway is not open year around and was not fully open in April. I consider this area more of a late spring, late fall or summer destination.
CampingCamping permits are required year-round. Some camping fees are reduced (Basic Camping Fee $6.00) when water systems and outhouses are winterized. Self-registration may be required. At Custer State Park firewood is available at Custer Resort Company stores (closed in the off-season).
You can find resorts at Sylvan Lake, Legion Lake, Blue Bell and the State Game Lodge, all located within Custer State Park. Each resort has its own thing going, ranging from the stately Game Lodge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to the mini dude ranch at Blue Bell.
Custer State Park campgrounds offer a variety of sites. Camping fees range from $13-18 per unit. None have hookups. Call 1-800-710-CAMP (2267) or go online to www.campSD.com.
Black Hills Climbing Coalition
Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake, Middle Earth, the Outlets, Needles Eye Area, Ten Pins, and the Cathedral Spires have traditional ethics. If a new route is to be bolted, this must be done from the ground up on lead with no direct aid.