The Needles Eye area is located along the Needles Highway next to its namesake spire and the long one lane tunnel. Besides the Needles Eye itself, many other classic spires like the Bell Tower, Hitching Post, and Bloody Spire as well as great boulders like the Thimble are in the area. Many of these routes are dangerous, but there are some classic moderates and even the odd sport route.

Getting There

From Sylvan Lake, head up the Needles Highway. The Needles Eye is the obvious spire before the tunnel, which is usually easily identifiable by hordes of tourists milling around. Spires are scattered in the woods both up and downhill from the parking lot, and as with everywhere else in the Needles orientation is difficult on your first few visits.

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Classic Climbing Routes at Needles Eye Area

Mountain Project's determination of the classic, most popular, highest rated climbing routes in this area.
5.3 3+ 10 III 9 VD 3a
Hitching Post
5.4 4a 12 IV 10 VD 3c R
Moonlight Rib
5.6 4c 14 V 12 S 4b R
The Thimble (Backside)
5.6 4c 14 V 12 S 4b PG13
Conn Route on Bell Tower
Trad 2 pitches
5.7+ 5a 15 V+ 13 MVS 4b
Standard Route
Trad 3 pitches
5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c
Doody Direct
5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c X
Needle's Eye
Trad 2 pitches
5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c
5.8+ 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c
Threading the Needle
5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a
Has Anyone Seen Elmer?
5.10- 6a 18 VI+ 18 E1 5a
Unnamed Fenton Route
Trad, Sport
5.10b/c 6b 20 VII 20 E2 5b
Mark and Tim's Excellent Adventure
Trad 3 pitches
5.10+ 6b+ 21 VII+ 20 E3 5b
Buck Shot Eyes and a Purple Heart
5.11c/d 7a 24 VIII 25 E4 6a
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades
5.12+ 7c 28 IX 27 E6 6b
99 Problems
Route Name Location Star Rating Difficulty Date
Hitching Post Hitching Post
5.3 3+ 10 III 9 VD 3a Trad
Moonlight Rib Fan
5.4 4a 12 IV 10 VD 3c R Trad
The Thimble (Backside) Thimble
5.6 4c 14 V 12 S 4b R Trad
Conn Route on Bell Tower Bell Tower
5.6 4c 14 V 12 S 4b PG13 Trad 2 pitches
Standard Route Bloody Spire
5.7+ 5a 15 V+ 13 MVS 4b Trad 3 pitches
Doody Direct Gnomon
5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c Trad
Needle's Eye Needle's Eye
5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c X Trad 2 pitches
Goldline Goldline
5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c Sport
Threading the Needle Needle's Eye
5.8+ 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c Trad
Has Anyone Seen Elmer? Goldline
5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a Sport
Unnamed Fenton Route Needle's Eye
5.10- 6a 18 VI+ 18 E1 5a Trad, Sport
Mark and Tim's Excellent Ad… Loeber's Leap > Loebers Leap
5.10b/c 6b 20 VII 20 E2 5b Trad 3 pitches
Buck Shot Eyes and a Purple… Bell Tower
5.10+ 6b+ 21 VII+ 20 E3 5b Sport
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Gnomon
5.11c/d 7a 24 VIII 25 E4 6a Trad
99 Problems Fan
5.12+ 7c 28 IX 27 E6 6b Sport
More Classic Climbs in Needles Eye Area »

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THE AGREEMENT The Needle's climbers have always had a strong sense of approaching the rock on its terms and to also have respect for the rock and Custer State Park. About 1988, before any Black Hills Climbers Coalition, before any climber's versus land managers' issues the local climbing community had a significant watershed event meeting. Sport climbing had made a very large impact along with the power drill at Mount Rushmore. To preserve the tradition of the Needles, but not to impede on the development of Rushmore and it's new history. A survey was sent to all known climbers at the time in the area and a meeting was scheduled. This was the result of that survey and meeting.

First of all it was recognized that the Mount Rushmore area and the Needles, Custer State Park would be considered two different areas, with their own histories and ethics. The boundary between these two places was considered to be the Harney Peak - Elkhorn Ridge line. On the Mount Rushmore side it rules would apply and on the Needles side the Needles rules would apply. But none of the climber's rules or ethics could supersede the governing agency's rules and regulations. Such as Custer Sate Park and the State of South Dakota for the Needles and Mount Rushmore National Memorial by the National Park Service.

Vern Phinney and Mike Engle were the two most instrumental climbers in the starting development for Mount Rushmore. They wanted to explore styles and techniques that were not condoned in the Needles. One of the most controversial techniques that they started locally was RAP-BOLTING. Their goal was to create classic hard routes with better protection that what was customary in the Needles. _Mr. Critical was their first project. Then the Rushmore area exploded with routes from the likes of Rusty and Mike Lewis, Ron Yahne, Paul Piana, Todd Skinner, besides Mike Engle and Verne Phinney. It was during this meeting that the original Rushmore contingent expressed that the most important thing they wanted were protected routes at Rushmore. If local feelings were that a route needed more bolts they could be added by two ways. One, the first ascent party could be contacted and get permission to add bolts to a route, or two, the local area activist could agree that new bolts need to be added to a route. The bottom line is that routes need to be safe. It was asked that some discretion be used on Rushmore traditional routes versus the rap-bolted routes.

The Needles in Custer State Park was the subject of a larger discussion. It was overwhelmingly agreed that new routes needed to stay traditional. This meant that all first ascents needed to be done from the ground up, no rap-bolting. Paul Muehl would say _anybody could beat the rock into submission for a new route, but we need to be able to meet the rock on it's terms not ours_ No one disagreed with the ground-up ethics and drilling bolts on lead. The use of hooks for bolting was never really discussed but some felt for the harder numbers hooking would become an acceptable level of change.

It was also agreed that no new bolts would be added to existing route ever, with one exception. That exception being if someone from the first ascent gave the OK or permission to add bolt to his or her route. If you were not able to contact these people for whatever reason such as no forwarding address, they no longer climb, or they have died, their routes were not to be changed with the addition of bolts. Raise yourself to the level of the climb; don't lower the climb to your level.

Another topic of discussion was the climbs along the Needles Highway, or road climbs. The park had expressed some concern about the Needles Eye parking lot. Their concern was the congestion of traffic especially when you get the combination of tour buses and climbers on the rock together. An agreement was made that we should not climb any routes that start from the Needles Eye parking lot after the hours of 10 o'clock am and before the hour of 5 o'clock pm between the dates of Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. So this would affect the Needles Eye, The Thimble, Bloody Spire, and Hitching Post. The Park expressed interest at one time to making this area off limits to climbing entirely. But they agreed to this plan to keep it opened for climbing.

It was also discussed not to add any more routes directly next to the road in the Needles Eye area or in the Ten Pins, especially the Ten Pins. This was out of respect for the rock itself. So as not to clutter the rocks the tourist can see from the road with a lot of climber paraphernalia. There were a lot of route that we could have climbed back in those days but we gave them up to save the rock and climbing in the Needles. Such a route was the _Homeward Spire Buttress_ the beautiful line that goes up the Homeward Spire next to the Needles Eye tunnel. In fact a route had been started on this rock but the climber who started it elected to remove the work he had done to preserve the rock and the agreement. Routes had been looked at on the Needles Eye, Tricouni Nail and others rock in the area too. In fact, a route was put on the north rib of Tricouni nail. This route had three bolts placed on it. Paul Muehl along with others removed the bolts from the route, to fit into the agreement of the locals.

What was the definition of a local? A local climber was a climber who made his residence in the area. They would be here year round to experience the Needles summer, fall, winter, and spring. If you did not live here you were not a local. Many climbers would come into the area for the entire or most of the climbing season. Some of these climber were Jim Black, Howard Doyle, Todd Skinner, John Matson, Brian Sarni just to name a few. These climbers would always call themselves guests in the area. They never claimed to be locals even though they climbed more than many locals did. These climbers had a lot of respect for the rock and local climbers, besides being respected themselves.

Who were the climbers that attended this meeting and came to such an agreement prior to any Black Hills Climbers Coalition? You would have to just look in Paul Piana's _Touch the Sky, The Needles in The Black Hills of South Dakota_ guidebook or Vern Phinney's guide book _Mount Rushmore National Memorial Climbers Guide. They are in there. Climbers like Paul Muehl, Mike Engle, Ron Yahne, Mike and Rusty Lewis, Vern Phinney, Mark Jacobs John Page, Lane Smith, and myself Bob Archbold. This is not a complete list for there were a lot more people involved than I can remember.

In realization most of the climbers then have moved on, the responsibilities cause of career commitments or sad to say but some have even past away. There is a new or changing group of climbers today in the Needles. The context of the agreement really has almost gotten lost except for a few of us that were around for the meeting. Particularly John Page, Ron Yahne and myself are the ones still around. Most of us had looked at the route potential on such rocks as Tricouni Nail, Homeward Spire and the Needles Eye and others. We had even top roped all these routes. Amongst that generation of climbers we could of and would have done some of these routes if it weren't for the agreement that had been made. I would hope in the future, as I fade away and John Page fades away and Yahne who knows what will happen to him, that the next generation of climbers and the one after that will concur with The Agreement of 1988 for the preservation of the Needles rock and Needles climbing.

Bob Archbold Aug 13, 2002
Andrew Gram
Salt Lake City, UT
Andrew Gram   Salt Lake City, UT  
Thanks for posting this Bob. I've been climbing in the Needles for about 8 years(I used to live in Rapid City), and while I had heard about this often I had never seen any specifics. Lets hope this being published will help reinstate the old values of the Needles which have been slipping since I moved away. Aug 14, 2002
I recently stumbled onto a bolted line, probably about 5.7 on the downhill side of Bell Ringer. Does anyone know what this route is called? Oct 16, 2002
I was on my way to climb "Goldline" the other day and I noticed a bolted line on the downhill side of bell ringer. We climbed it and it was about 5.7, it was a lot of fun!Does anyone know what this route is called? Oct 22, 2002
Just wanted to drop a line and say Merry Christmas to all of the fellow climbers out there, may Santa bring you all lots of great new gear, climb on! Dec 24, 2002
Hey Monger,

I think that route you asked about is called Sommer Lovin' or something like that. Wonder who put it up? It is a nice route. Oct 4, 2004
Check to purchase a copy of "Poor Persons Guide to the Black Hills". This is the most modern no B.S. guide available for the southern hills granite. The best choice a visiting climbers. Unfortunately not available in any local shops. Jun 12, 2005
Tang   SD
Much of what you outlined above is correct, but I'm getting old and can't remember all the details. Even with the agreements we know that sometimes the lines have been blurred, and in a few cases, just outright crossed, with the former getting to be more of the norm anymore. Bolting up face routes has never been a complaint from anyone I know. When hairs started getting split, hollow promises were thrown out that quieted some growls at the time, but looking back, they should of been written down. But that was then, gone, passed, move on.
Now (almost 20 years later) these agreements have been passed down by word of mouth, each time with personal interpretation. Blur and haze are at an alarming rate anymore, with less and less vigilance and commitment to ethics and respect. Speaking for myself, I've practically thrown in the proverbial towel. The last 5 years, I just go further and further back into the woods and do my own thing. The thing is, you go back far enough, you come out the other side.
Maybe it's just time to lay down and rest, remember the hills for what I got out of them, and never worry about where they're going in the future. Feb 27, 2006

Thanks for showing me around there back in the '90s. Your post reinforces why it's good to hook up with a local (FAer) who can educate newcomers to the regional ethics and politics. It's all about respect and carrying on the traditions.

Meeting you and John was a delight. Since then Amy and I have been back about 6 times. We're planning more trips and hopefully do some new routes.

Steve Weliver
(Iowa) May 28, 2006
vernon phinney
pocatello, idaho
vernon phinney   pocatello, idaho
My compliments to Bob Archbold. Indeed the meeting that took place in 1988 was very significant and I will state that Bob's description of it is accurate with one exception. The exception was the use of hooks for aiding while placing bolts on new routes. I brought this topic up at the meeting and accused certain first-ascent people of using aid while establishing new routes in the Needles. The tone changed drastically and I have been told by members in attendance that they were concerned for my health as a specific member in attendance took exception to my comments and specifically stated that he had never used aid in establishing new routes. I do remember the anger expressed by this individual towards my comments and perhaps I did not understand the danger to my health by continuing to express my observations. It was stated by this individual that hooking was not to be tolerated in establishing new routes - aid in any form was beating the rock into submission and not meeting the rock on it's own terms! Time presses on and memories become less distinct; and perhaps individuals in the past should not determine the ethics for the future - but there was a lot of input at the 1988 meeting from many original first ascent climbers in the HILLs. Perhaps some respect should be kept for those who have attempted to maintain a legacy for those yet to come. I have always felt that it was important to know the history of the routes/climbing areas and that is why I spent an extensive amount of time accumulating the route histories (old & new) for the Mount Rushmore area. Vernon Phinney

To summarize: Any form of using aid to establish a route was taboo/wrong!! Hooking is aiding - no matter how you look at it!! The current acceptance of hooking is extremely disrespectful to those climbers that established climbs previously in the Custer State Park!!
If hooking is acceptable; then bolting on rappel is also acceptable - using aid in any fashion is still using aid!!! Jul 3, 2008
Tater Tot
Custer, SD
Tater Tot   Custer, SD
I want to tell you a classic Needles story of FIRSTS:

It was...
THE FIRST day the Needles highway was open after our month of blizzards this year...

We were...
THE FIRST climbers (of the spring season) to drive the highway (we drove up to the gate as it was being opened.)...

It was...
MY FIRST time ever leading anything along the actual Needles highway...

We saw...
THE FIRST car to drive through as we were summiting Moonlight Rib and got asked...


I couldn't have been any more satisfied and annoyed at the same time. Apr 22, 2009