Photo: NPS

Overlooked Escape: Wind Cave National Park

Go subterranean to explore the geologic wonders of one of the world’s largest caves.

Nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park has been welcoming visitors since President Teddy Roosevelt first established the preserve in 1903, making it the first cave to become a U.S. National Park

Beneath the ground, Wind Cave contains more than 150 miles of surveyed cave; it’s the third-longest cave in the United States and the seventh-longest in the world. Inside the cave system, you’ll also find the world’s largest concentration of boxwork—a thin, honeycomb-like calcite structure that covers the cave’s walls. And you don’t have to be an experienced spelunker to see it: Park rangers guide tours into the cave almost every day.  

The cave has one small natural entrance. As temperatures within and outside the cave change, winds blow in or out to even the atmospheric pressure. These breezes, and the faint whistling noise they create, are the reason Wind Cave has its name. But the cave isn’t the only attraction in the park, either. Above ground, you’ll find 33,970 acres of Black Hills prairie and forest that are perfect for wildlife viewing and recreating.

History 

To the Lakota and other Native American tribes, Wind Cave is a sacred place—the very location of human creation. In this oral tradition, the cave entrance is where people first emerged from Mother Earth to walk on the surface of the planet. The American Bison that can be seen around the area occupy a similarly revered place in the worldview of many tribes. 

European Americans first found Wind Cave in 1881, when two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, heard a whistling from the cave’s small opening. When they got closer to inspect the hole, the story goes, the wind was powerful enough to blow Jesse’s hat off. Soon after, the cave’s first reported explorer, Charlie Crary, dropped into the opening, leaving twine behind him so he could find his way out. 

Mining operations began in the area, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. Tourism followed, and groups of visitors were led into the cave through new man-made entrances. By 1891, the cave had wooden staircases, walkways, and even a hotel near its entrance. After squabbles among the associated business owners led to a lawsuit over the cave’s ownership, the U.S. government took back the cave and the surrounding land in 1901. The argument: It had been acquired for homesteading, and no homesteading was occurring. 

Just a few years later, President Roosevelt designated the land a national park, which it has remained to this day.

Nature

Beneath the ground, Wind Cave National Park is home to illustrious and expansive cave formations and geology beloved by both professional geologists and enthusiasts alike. Parts of the cave are over 300 million years old. And having grown and changed significantly over millennia, those geological processes continue to this day. Still, Wind Cave is perhaps most famous for its boxwork, as it contains more of these formations than all the other (known) caves on earth combined. Other notable features include underground lakes and beautiful crystals and rock formations like frostwork, cave popcorn, calcite rafts, and dogtooth spar. The park is also home to areas of paleontological significance where scientists have found bones and fossils of prehistoric animals like dire wolves, peccaries, and pine martens. 

As for living species, the prairie above the cave is home to bison, elk, antelope, deer, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets, as well as birds like the northern saw-whet owl and northern flicker woodpecker. In particular, Wind Cave National Park has been an important location for the preservation of bison. In 1913 the American Bison Society sent 14 bison from the New York Zoological Gardens, and later six more from Yellowstone, to reestablish the Wind Cave herd that still roams the protected prairie today. 

Photo: Mahmoud Ghazal/Shutterstock

Activities 

Whether you want to stay above ground or venture below, there’s plenty to do at Wind Cave.

Take a Cave Tour

Don’t expect to hop down into the cave on your own; access is ranger-guided only. Because of this, you’ll want to get to the park early to buy your tickets. They are only sold day-of, and tours often sell out only a few hours after the park opens. Keep in mind that cave tours involve walking in low, cramped spaces and up and down stairs. Visitors with lung or heart conditions or knee or back problems—not to mention claustrophobia—might want to find another activity.

Where To Go

The Natural Entrance Tour takes you to the very spot where the Bingham brothers first found the cave—providing the opportunity to hear the wind blowing from the ground and understand exactly how the park got its name. After that, you’ll descend through a man-made entrance into the middle of the cave, the site of cave popcorn and the famous boxwork formations. 

The tour lasts about an hour and 15 minutes, covers two-thirds of a mile, and includes 300 mostly downhill stairs (you’ll exit the cave via an elevator). General admission is $12 with reduced pricing for kids, seniors, and America the Beautiful passholders.

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping is allowed in Wind Cave National Park, but you’ll need to get a free permit from the Visitor Center in order to do it. Campers must securely store food to keep it from animals, carry in or treat their own drinking water, and practice Leave No Trace principles. 

Where To Go

Camping is restricted to the northwest portion of the park (the area north of Beaver Creek, east of state Highway 87, south of NPS 5, and west of Highland Creek Trail). Start at the Centennial Trailhead about a mile and half north of the visitor center. Hike northeast along the Centennial Trail. As you hike, look to the west for a forested area and walk off the trail, only a few hundred meters, until you find a secluded area for a dispersed camping site.

Hiking

Wind Cave National Park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails through prairie, pine forests, and river systems. Pets are not allowed on hiking trails (except for Prairie Vista and Elk Mountain Campground trails), and potable water sources are scarce, so leave the dog at home and pack plenty of water. As you hike, be aware of your surroundings and give all animals, like bison, at least 25 yards of distance. 

Although there are plenty of trails to wander, Wind Cave National Park is an open-hike park, so you can explore the terrain on and off designated trails. As it requires advanced navigation skills, off-trail hiking is best for experienced hikers only. 

Where To Go

Start at the Lookout Point trailhead off Highway 87 north of the visitor center. Follow the trail until you arrive at Beaver Creek. For a view, follow the signs south off the trail for a quick diversion to Lookout Point to see the rolling hills. Return the way you came for a 2.2-mile round-trip. 

For a longer excursion, continue from the Lookout Point trail junction past Beaver Creek until you arrive at Highland Creek Trail. Turn northeast to follow Highland Creek Trail and then turn west to join Centennial Trail. Continue on Centennial Trail until it returns to Lookout Point Trailhead for a 4.5-mile loop. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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