The Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota covers 28,000 acres of prairies and forests, and includes the Southeast edge of Black Hills. However, the park is even more magnificent underground, concealing one of the longest caves in the world, stretching over 150 miles, with geologists believing that there is much more to be discovered. The Wind Cave National Park gets its name from the breeze coming out from a natural opening in the cave due to different pressure inside and outside. Apart from tours of the caves, the park offers multiple scenic trails in the surrounding landscape. The park is also renowned for wildlife spotting including bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, mule, and prairie dogs.
Wind Cave Tours
The park offers different tours of the Wind Cave, such as the 4 hour Wild Cave Tour. The $30 guided tour involves crawling through a tight, small 10 inches tall by 3 feet wide opening, and walking through damp and slippery terrain to see the caves wonders (not ideal for anyone claustrophobic). The Candlelight Tour offers a journey back in history to when candlelight was the only light source. The 2/3 mile tour lasts 2 hours and costs $12 per adult – all visitors are given their own candle in a bucket to illuminate the way, just as the original explorers did. For visitors with limited mobility shorter guided tours are available at $5, offering a hint of the caves beauty.
Most of the tours of the start and end with an elevator ride, and involve walking up and down dim lit staircases leading to different rooms. Researchers believe that the domed-ceiling and scalloped walled cave was formed through a reaction in the limestone between water and acid. This reaction can also be noticed in the rock formations inside the cave, some of which having bizzare shapes like the boxwork and popcorn. The Garden of Eden Tour takes 45 minutes, leading to the Garden of Eden Room, where a variety of Crystals were discovered in 1891 by the McDonald family. The name came about from the idea that just as one would find flowers in the garden, crystals were found in this cave. A corkscrew staircase leads to a graffiti with the names of explorers who entered the cave in 1892.
The Natural Entrance Tour takes visitors to the location where the Bingham brothers, discovered cold air blowing from a deep crevice in the limestone of the canyon. A discovery which gave the park its name. Visitors can also feel the same phenomenon, before making their way to the Post Office Room with its boxwork ceiling, and the larger Model Room, of which a plaster model was made in 1930s. The final stop is the Assembly Room, before taking the elevator out of the cave.
The Fairgrounds Tour starts at the Assembly Room and proceeds to a large room with high ceilings with red and white hues, referred to as the Temple. At the upper lever of the cave, visitors can find the Fairgrounds room, which was interestingly named before it was even found, and thus the name has no relation to the room itself. The Natural Entrance Tour and Fair Grounds tour are at $12 per adult, while the Garden of Eden Tour is $10.
Rankin Ridge Nature Trail
At 5,013 feet of elevation, the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail is the highest area of the park. A 1 mile trail leads to the lookout tower above the ridge top, with incredible views of the Black Hills. Starting at the parking lot close to the visitor center, the trail follows a narrow path passing through a ponderosa pine forest. Following an opening with views of the valley and the ridges, the landscape changes to a rocky one leading to a steep stone staircase. The physical effort is immediately rewarded by the views of the eastern and southern ridges, and the surrounding prairies, including a glimpse of the one at Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Close to the trail lies the Rankin Ridge Fire Steel Tower, which is closed to visitors and operates only in case of heavy fire. From here a dirt road leads visitors back to the free car-park.
Prairie Vista Trail
Starting north of the Visitor Center, close to the picnic area, the Prairie Vista trail is a 1 mile easy loop trail around the meadows and the hills. The trail offers spectacular nature views, particularly of native plants and flowers. Close to the trail, visitors can find the only campground in the park, Elk Mountain Campground. However, they do only accept guest on a first come, first serve basis, so you’re not able to plan ahead. The campground charges $18 per night during peak season and $9 off season.
Whether visiting the intricate cave structure underground or following one of the multiple trails around the prairies and forest, the Wind Caves National Park is definitely worth visiting. You can’t help wonder what other treasures still lie buried deep underground waiting to be discovered.