A Bi-polar Park...
If you had to describe Wind Cave National Park in one sentence...well...you really couldn't. Wind Cave, like most of its brethren parks based around cave systems, is actually two parks in one. The much larger portion of the park, the 28,291 acre one that faces the outside world, is one of pine-clad hills bordered by the largest natural mixed-grass prairie in the country. Beneath this, underneath barely one square mile of surface ground, is where the real
wonder is located. The 130+ mile labyrinth of caverns (I include the '+' because around 4 new miles of cave are explored every year) contain some of the most unique and beautiful underground scenery anywhere...
Located in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota, Wind Cave derives its name from the air which rushes inwards and outwards from its 15-inch natural opening at speeds which can exceed 60 miles-per-hour! This unique phenomenon is the result of both air pressure equalization and the tiny opening that the air has to pass through. Due to its unique characteristics both within and without, Wind Cave was established as a National Park on January 9, 1903 thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt. It was the nation's seventh National Park and the first
to preserve a cave.
Geology - What Lies Beneath...
It takes a long time to build a cave, and Wind Cave was no exception. In fact Wind Cave has been under construction for a good deal longer than many other famous cave systems…some 350 million
years. In comparison the Carlsbad Caverns are only around 4 million years old! Wind Cave formed out of various layers of limestone which were lain down by ancient seas that once covered the center of the continent. When the seas retreated fresh water found its way into the cracks in the limestone and started excavating. The seas rose and the seas fell over the following 300 or so million years, until a rather dramatic event occurred that really sped things up…the formation of the Black Hills. As the Hills were pushed up, the cracks that had already been cut filled with freshwater runoff which was then trapped and held in the caves. The acidic nature of this water really started expanding the caves until, around 40 million years ago, the cave finally drained…almost. Today, the water table in the cave rests about 500 feet beneath the surface. All this time has carved out quite an impressive maze of caverns. To date around 130 miles have been explored but according to scientists, who use techniques involving cave barometrics that I honestly don’t understand, that’s likely only around 5% of the total down there!
So the story of caves is really the story of water and what water, given enough time, can accomplish. Aside from being a great excavator, water is also responsible for some really amazing artwork within caves. The fancy, all-encompassing term for these cave formations is speleothems…the most famous speleothems in Wind Cave have such colorful names as boxwork, popcorn, frostwork, helictite bushes, dogtooth spars, gypsum beards, soda straws, starbursts, and calcite rafts. All are a result of acidic water which has dissolved rock and then precipitates in the form of calcite crystals when exposed to air. The various tours, explained below, expose visitors to each of these delicate wonders.
Cave of the Wind 130+ Miles!!
Life On the Surface...
As stated above the surface above the caves constitutes a vastly larger area that its below ground counterpart. The surface of the park is located in the southern reaches of the Black Hills where the high peaks to the north gradually blend into the rolling plains beyond. The primary ecosystems here include large swaths of rolling mixed grass prairie surrounded by hills covered by blankets of stately Ponderosa Pine.
Mixed Grass Prairie
Intertwined into these ecosystems is a dizzying array of wildlife and of these creatures none is more a symbol of this region than the bison, otherwise known to the scientists among you as Bison bison
. Everyone knows the heartbreaking story of this grand creature, it’s decimation in the late 19th Century from numbers upwards of 60 million to a shadowy remnant of less than 1,000. Early in the 20th Century conservation minded people decided to act and attempt to return the buffalo to the Great Plains by creating preserves where they could once again flourish. One of the very first places chosen for the rebirth of the buffalo was Wind Cave National Park. In 1913, the New York Zoological Society donated a small herd followed by others in the following years from Yellowstone and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks. Today, thanks to these heroic efforts there are nearly 400 bison once again roaming the grasslands within the boundaries of the park. Spotting one of these creatures is more the rule than the exception for visitors to the park so when driving through keep a watchful eye!
In addition to the bison, Rocky Mountain Elk and pronghorn antelope have also been successfully reintroduced to the park and can be seen with great regularity.
Here’s a list of some of the more common creatures that call the park home (a much greater variety is possible
to bee seen, these are strictly the ones listed as common
|Big Brown Bat, Eptesicus fuscus|
Little Brown Myotis, Myotis lucifugus
Silver-haired Bat, Lasionycteris noctivarans
Townsend's Big-eared Bat, Corynorhinus townsendi
American Badger, Taxidae taxus
Bobcat, Felis rufus
Raccoon, Procyon lotor
Coyote, Canis latrans
Ermine, Mustela erminea
Mountain Lion, Felis concolor
Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis
Bison, Bison bison
Elk, Cervus elephus
Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus
Pronghorn, Antilocapra americana
|Whitetail Deer, Odocoileus virginianus|
Desert Cottontail, Sylvilagus auduboni
Eastern Cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus
Hayden's Shrew, Sorex haydeni
Blacktail Prairie Dog, Cynomys ludovicianus
Bushytail Woodrat, Neotoma cinerea
Deer Mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus
Least Chipmunk, Tamias minimus
Meadow Vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus
Northern Pocket Gopher, Thomomys talpoides
Porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum
Prairie Vole, Microtus ochrogaster
Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus
Southern Red-Backed Vole, Clethrionomys gapperi
|Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus|
Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
American Robin, Turdus migratorius
Mountain Bluebird, Sialia currucoides
Townsend's Solitaire, Myadestes townsendi
Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus
Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis
White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinesis
Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis
Red Crossbill, Loxia curvirostra
Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus
Western Wood Pewee, Contopus sordidulus
Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors
Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor
American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos
Black-billed Magpie, Pica pica
Clark's Nutcracker, Nucifraga columbiana
Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica
Cliff Swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
|Violet-green Swallow, Tachycineta thalassina|
Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus
Upland Sandpiper, Bartramia longicauda
Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina
Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis
Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum
Vesper Sparrow, Pooecetes gramineus
Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus
Western Tanager, Piranga ludoviciana
Plumbeous Vireo, Vireo plumbeus
American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysoparia
Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas
Yellow-breasted Chat, Icteria virens
House Wren, Troglodytes aedon
Yellow-rumped Warbler, Dendroica dominica
Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens
Hairy Woodpecker, Picoides villosus
Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus
Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia
Common Reptiles & Amphibians:
|Blotched Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum|
Bullsnake, Pituophis melanoleucus
Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer, Coluber constrictor
Prairie Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis
Red-Sided Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis
Wandering Garter Snake, Thamnophis elegans
|Great Plains Toad, Bufo cognatus|
Plains Spadefoot Toad, Scaphiopus bombifrons
Upland Chorus Frog, Psuedacris triseriata
Woodhouse's Toad, Bufo woodhousei
Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina
Western Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta
Common Trees, & Shrubs:
|American Elm, Ulmus americana|
Boxelder, Acer negundo
Bur Oak, Quercus macrocarpa
Green ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica
Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis
Lanceleaf cottonwood, Populus x acuminata
Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera
Plains Cottonwood, Populus deltoides
Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa
Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides
Rocky Mountain Juniper, Juniperus scopulorum
Skunkbrush, Rhus aromatica
Smooth sumac, Rhus glabra
Rubber rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnus nauseosu
Mountain birch, Betula occidentalis
|White coralberry, Symphoricorpos albus(L.)|
Western snowberry, Symphoricarpos occidentalis
Red-osier dogwood, Cornus stolonifera
Common juniper, Juniperus communis
Creeping juniper, Juniperus horizontalis
Leadplant, Amorpha canescens
False indigo, Amorpha fruiticosa
Golden currant, Ribes odoratum
Saskatoon serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia
Northern hawthorn, Crateagus rotundifolia
Choke cherry, Prunus virginiana
Wild plum, Prunus americana
True mountain mahogany, Cercocarpus montanus
Nannyberry, Viburnum lentago
Silver buffaloberry, Shepherdia argentea
Willow, Salix spp.
Natural Entrance 1893 Guest BookNo one really knows who the first person was to discover Wind Cave. Evidence found within the cave tells us that local Indian tribes had known about it for quite a while before the first white men ‘discovered’ it. The two white men credited with this discovery were Jesse and Tom Bingham who no doubt were quite startled by the strong breeze rushing from a small 14” opening in the earth. Word spread of this mysterious cave, and the land was soon claimed by a local mining company who quickly realized they could make much more money offering tours of the cave than what they could from the mineral rights. The cave underwent improvements to access such as stairways and a small hotel opened on the premesis. The only trouble with all this was that the original claim the mining company had purchased specifically stated that the property would be used for mining. When the Department of Interior got wind (ha,ha) of this in 1899, the claim was quickly revoked. It didn’t take long for this newly available land to catch the eye of the one and only Teddy Roosevelt. On January 3, 1903 the President signed the bill creating the nation’s eighth National Park, the first one devoted to a cave system, Wind Cave.
Cave Tours, Hiking, & Camping...
here are 5 different ranger-led tours of Wind Cave. Each travel through their own unique portions of the cave and offer the visitor a variety of experiences through a range of difficulties.
With the exception of the Candlelight and Wild Cave Tours, the rest are provided on a first-come-first-served basis. Prices vary from $4.50 to $23 per person (in 2011) and it is recommended to plan ahead by contacting the visitor center at 605-745-4600.
Wind Cave Visitor Center
During my brief visit to the park I only had the opportunity to do the ‘Natural Entrance Tour’ so the descriptions below are according to descriptions provided by the park…
Guided Cave Tours
- Natural Entrance Cave Tour (1.25 hours) - This tour includes a visit to the natural entrance of Wind Cave where visitors can see where the cave was discovered and learn how it got its name. Participants enter the cave through a man-made entrance and journey through the middle level of the cave. Wind Cave's famous boxwork is abundant throughout this trip. Most of the 300 stairs along this route are down. This moderately strenuous one-half mile tour lasts 1¼ hours and exits the cave by elevator. This tour is scheduled early May through early October.
- Fairgrounds Cave Tour (1.5 hour) This 1.5 hour tour explores both the upper and middle levels of Wind Cave. Boxwork is abundant along the trail in the middle level of the cave. In the upper level, the trail winds through the larger rooms where popcorn and frostwork can be seen. This is our most strenuous walking tour. The tour enters and exits the cave by elevator and there are 450 stairs along the one-half mile route with one flight of 89 steps going up. This tour is only offered during the summer months.
- Garden of Eden Cave Tour (1 hour) - This 1-hour tour is our least strenuous tour. It is a wonderful sample of Wind Cave. Small amounts of all of the beautiful cave formations - boxwork, cave popcorn, and flowstone - are seen along this ¼-mile trail. The tour is designed for people with limited time or abilities. It enters and leaves the cave by elevator with 150 steps along the tour route.
- Candlelight Cave Tour (2 hours) - Experience the cave by candlelight. This tour takes place in a less developed, unlighted part of the cave. Each participant will carry a candle bucket. Shoes with non-slip soles are required. No sandals! This tour is limited to 10 people and the minimum age is 8. This strenuous tour covers one mile of rugged trail and lasts 2 hours. Reservations are strongly recommended.
- Wild Cave Tour (4 hours) - Explore the cave away from the developed trails. Tour is only available during the summer months.
Into the Cave...
Over 30 miles of trail provide access to the prairies, forests, and hills of the park. There are 10 named trails within the park. The following is a brief description of each, as explained on the National Park Website…
- Cold Brook Canyon Trail (1.4 miles) - The trail begins on the west side of Hwy 385 two miles south of the visitor center. This mildly strenuous trail traverses across a former prairie dog town, along the edge of a prescribed fire and through Cold Brook Canyon to the park boundary fence.
- Wind Cave Canyon Trail (1.8 miles) The trail begins on the east side of Hwy 385 one mile north of the southern access road to the visitor center. This easily walked trail follows Wind Cave Canyon to the park boundary fence. Wind Cave Canyon is one of the best places in the park for bird watching. Limestone cliffs provide good nesting areas for cliff swallows and great horned owls. Standing dead trees serve as homes for red-headed and Lewis woodpeckers.
- East Bison Flats Trail (3.7 miles) - The trail begins along the Wind Cave Canyon Trail. Hike ½ mile down the Wind Cave Canyon Trail to pick up the East Bison Flats Trail. This mildly strenuous trail leads hikers across the rolling hills of the prairie. From this trail you may see panoramic views of Wind Cave National Park, Buffalo Gap and the Black Hills.
- Lookout Point Trail (1.9 miles) - The trail begins at the Centennial Trailhead on the east side of Hwy 87. The trailhead is 0.7 miles north of its junction with Hwy 385. This mildly strenuous trail follows the rolling hills of the prairie, traverses Lookout Point and ends at Beaver Creek. Take a side trip up Lookout Point to see views of the 1986 prescribed fire. This trail can also be combined with part of Trail 7, Highland Creek Trail, and Trail 6, Centennial Trail, to create a 4.5 mile loop that begins and ends at the Centennial Trailhead.
- Sanctuary Trail (3.6 miles) - The trail begins on the east side of Hwy 87 about one mile north of the Rankin Ridge fire tower road. This mildly strenuous trail follows the rolling hills of the prairie, crosses a large prairie dog town and ends at the Highland Creek Trail. View the Rankin Ridge fire tower at the intersection of the Centennial Trail. This trail provided a fire break for the 1988 controlled fire of 2400 acres. The trail is faint in places, but can still be easily followed.
- Centennial Trail (6.0 miles) - The southern access to the trail is on the east side of S.D. 87. The trailhead is 0.7 miles north of the junction of U.S. 385 and S.D. 87. The northern access is on NPS 5, 1.4 miles east of its junction with S.D. 87. This moderately strenuous trail is part of a 111-mile trail through the Black Hills. The trail leads hikers across prairies, through forested areas, and along Beaver Creek. The trail is marked with posts and trees bearing the Centennial Trail logo.
- Highland Creek Trail (8.6 miles) - The southern trail begins along the Wind Cave Canyon Trail one mile east of Hwy 385. The northern trail begins on NPS 5, 2.8 miles east of Hwy 87. This strenuous trail is the longest and the most diverse in the park. The trail traverses mixed-grass prairies, ponderosa pine forests and riparian habitats of Highland Creek, Beaver Creek and Wind Cave Canyon.
- Boland Ridge Trail (2.7 miles) The trail begins one mile north of the NPS 5 and NPS 6 junction. This strenuous trail climbs the ridge to panoramic views of Wind Cave National Park, the Black Hills, Red Valley and Battle Mountain.
- Rankin Ridge Nature Trail (1.0 miles) - Trail is a loop beginning and ending at the parking lot at Rankin Ridge. There are 14 interpretive stops placed at irregular intervals along the path. The fire tower itself is closed to public access, but the trail provides great panoramic views of the Black Hills.
- Prairie Vista Trail (1.0 miles) - Trail begins at the picnic area near the visitor center. Interpretive wayside exhibits provide information for this trail.
Camping in the Park
Beaver Creek Canyon
I know this may disappoint some of you, but all camping in the park is above
There is one modern campground
in the park, though ‘modern’ maybe a misnomer to some. The Elk Mountain Campground, located just north of the visitor center, is a small loop of campsites whose sole amenity is a campfire ring…no electricity, no showers, and no reservations. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then I’d suggest looking a bit farther north to Custer State Park…
For more info visit the Elk Mountain Campground
is allowed within the park but is limited to the northwest portion of the park. Permits are required but there is no fee involved and they can be picked up at the visitor center as well as at the Centennial Trailheads
. More information can be gained by visiting the Backcountry Camping page
on the NPS site including exactly where one can camp as well as rules and regulations.
Getting There and Red Tape...
There are no entrance fees for the National Park. The only money you’ll have to pay is for camping, gifts, or for a trip underground. The park is open year-round, though not all of the guided tours are offered in the off-season (Oct-Apr). Check out the Program and Tour Schedule
for more info…
The first place anyone visiting the park should stop is the visitor center, located along US Highway 385 about 11 miles north of Hot Springs, SD. Traveling through Hot Springs is probably the fastest way to go even if arriving from Rapid City to the north. You can reach the park through Custer State Park, which borders Wind Cave to the north but, be advised, take this route for the scenery not to save time!
Some distances from major nearby cities are...
Wind Cave National Park
Mount Rushmore NM
Rapid City, SD
Devil's Tower NM
Theodore Roosevelt NP
Rocky Mountain NP
Sioux Falls, SD
Helpful Links...Wind Cave National Park
- Official Website
Wind Cave National Park
- Unofficial Website that's a bit easier to search through.
Black Hills & Badlands
- Tourism website for the region surrounding the park.
Southeast Black Hills Trails Illustrated Map
- Shameless self promotion...come visit my website for more pics of Wind Cave NP and other places that I have wandered off to in recent years...
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