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Wind Cave National Park – South Dakota
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Overview
Location

North of Hot Springs, South Dakota

Parking Lot Elevation

4102 ft

Time Required

1-2 hours

Pets

Not allowed in the cave

Fees

There are no entrance fees to come visit the park unless you do a cave tour.

Water Info

Water not allowed inside the cave

Best Season

All

Hours

Open year round

Restrooms

Yes. Flushing toilets in Visitor Center

Visitor Center

Yes.

Camping

Yes. By permit and in designated areas only.

Food

No food for sale on property. Bring in your own food to the park but you cannot bring it inside the cave.

Equipment

Bring a flashlight to more enjoy the cave tours!
Light jacket

GPS Coordinates:

Visitor Center: 43.55655, -103.4783

Trail Map


Driving Directions


The Trail:

Wind Cave is the 6th longest cave in the world with 140 miles of documented cave exploration.  One of the park rangers said that the Wind Cave system is so condensed that the 140 miles of tunnels all fits on a 1/2 square mile!  That’s really incredible to think about!  The temperature remains a constant 47 degrees Fahrenheit year round in the cave.

Wind Cave National Park

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Wind Cave National Park before I got here.  I purposely didn’t look too much into the park other than see which of the cave tours were available.

Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park

The outside of the Wind Cave is a beautiful grassland and forested areas.  Just driving through the park to where the Visitor Center is located I saw a bison and millions of prairie dogs, at least it seemed like millions because they were everywhere!

I arrived before the 12:00pm cave tour and had time to speak with a ranger about the park.  He told me that people come here mainly “just for the cave” and then they go visit Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park or even the Crazy Horse Monument.  I bought a ticket for the Natural Cave Entrance tour and waited for it to start.  The cave tours are first come, first served and all are ranger guided with lights inside the cave.   I brought my flashlight anyway and was very glad I did!

You may want to call ahead to see what times and tours are available because it changes depending on peak and low seasons.

There are several cave tours:

  • Natural Entrance Cave Tour
    • 2/3 mile in length
    • moderately strenuous
    • about 1 hour 15 minutes long
    • 300 stairs
    • exits by elevator
  • Garden of Eden Cave Tour
    • 1/3 mile in length
    • least strenuous cave tour
    • about 1 hour long
    • 150 stairs
    • starts and ends by elevator
  • Fairgrounds Cave Tour
    • 2/3 mile in length
    • most strenuous
    • about 1 hour and 1/2 long
    • 450 stairs
    • starts and ends by elevator

There are also the special Candlelight and Wild Cave tours for those interested.  Activities above the cave include horseback riding, 30 miles of hiking trails and camping.

The Visitor Center has an upstairs and downstairs.  The upstairs is where you purchase cave tour tickets, view a park video in the theater and there are flushing bathrooms and also a bookstore too.  The downstairs has a museum, displays and historical information.  I really enjoyed seeing a large map of the Wind Cave and how much exploring has been done in it.  Apparently, as you would imagine, there are still some areas that need to be explored in the cave – sign me up!!

Map of the cave

Map of the cave

Historical and other cave information

Historical and other cave information

Just before noon I heard a ranger get on the intercom system and announce that my tour was starting in 10 minutes outside under a gazebo.  I walked downstairs then outside to where the gazebo was located.  Right outside the Visitor Center, look for the apple tree which you walk under.  I noticed large apples still high on the tree.  There were lots of families around and I didn’t want to set a bad example by climbing the tree to get an apple so I was a good boy and played it cool instead.  🙂

There were already lots of people waiting for the tour so I hung around near the back of the line taking some pictures.  Since I was all by myself on this tour I glanced around to see if there were other people who were also by themselves.  I noticed what I thought where a few younger people in the same situation I was in so I thought I would go introduce myself.  Right when I walked towards them, I heard the booming voice of a park ranger welcome us to the 12:00 cave tour.  He quickly told us the rules of the cave (no touching the walls, no food or drink in the cave, please hold the railings, etc)  and we were off to see the natural entrance to the cave about a little ways down a paved trail.

Walking towards the natural entrance

Walking towards the natural entrance

The natural entrance to the cave is why they call it the Wind Cave.  There is a small hole that sometimes blows air out or sucks air in depending on the weather inside and outside the cave.  During my visit, there was a good amount of air being blown outside this hole.  The ranger held a ribbon next to the hole and it started moving all over the place with the pressure pushing out the air.  “It’s going at about 15 mph” the ranger said.  He let all of us check out the natural entrance before we went back a little ways to where the man-made entrance was located.

The natural cave entrance

The natural cave entrance

He opened the door and all 40 of us went inside this room to where there was another door into the cave.  After we were all inside, he opened the next door which instantly led down into the cave.  All of these steps down were really steep and some of the visitors you could tell weren’t too comfortable walking down at such a steep angle.  But all in all, you just have to hold on the hand rails and walk slowly until you reach the bottom.  I don’t remember exactly but I think we walked down about 100+ ft to this point.  And I didn’t get any pictures of us going down the stairs or this first part either! Dang it!

Wind Cave National Park

Once at the bottom the ranger gave us some more history and cave geology and pointed out the very interesting type of cave formation called boxwork.  It is fascinating to see in person because it really does look like little boxes were formed out of the rock.  Some of the most extensive boxwork can be found at Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park

The cement path led up and down and through all these tight areas, though none were too tight for anyone not to pass through.  We did however, have to duck a few times so we wouldn’t hit our heads.

Wind Cave National Park

We stopped several more times to discuss how the first explorers came through the cave with candles and they would use string and other means to mark their way out.  It was interesting to learn that the Lakota and Cheyenne American Indians viewed the cave as sacred and they didn’t even desire to explore the cave, as explained by our ranger guide, because it was viewed as the place where the bison came from.

The whole story is very interesting and I will only make this brief history of the cave when the first white visitors came here.  Alvin McDonald was the first person to really explore the cave back in 1890.  He explored some 8-10 miles of it while he lived near it.   He eventually made the cave more accessible by adding ladders and making stairs and offered tours of the cave too.  As a side note, Alvin is buried above ground at Wind Cave near the natural entrance.  I won’t post the GPS coordinates but try and find his grave marked by a plaque.

Years later around 1934 the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) dug a 208 ft elevator shaft and built the cement steps inside the cave. The CCC also built many of the park roads, reservoirs, buildings and even the fence around the entire Wind Cave park.

Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park

We stopped at one last big open area where early visitors would have dances and balls.  They brought in violins and other instruments for their parties at this spot.  It was really cool to imagine dozens of people dancing around here and enjoying the cave under the light of lanterns and candles.

Room where dances were held back in the day

Room where dances were held back in the day

Unfortunately the cave tour ended right here and we turned down a small corridor to where the elevator room was located (the same elevator shaft built by the CCC).  Since there were about 40 of us and the elevator only held 10 people at a time, all of the families with children went first.  Slowly I began to realize that there were about 8 of us single people who were on the same tour.  We all kinda looked at each other and laughed at the same time.  One girl asked where I was from, “the Salt Lake City area” I said.  I asked her the same question.  “Florida” she said.  Another guy said he was from California.  Two other girls said they were from Chicago.  Another from Australia.  It was funny how we were all doing the same thing – deciding to go some place we had never gone before and we all somehow met up here at Wind Cave at the exact same day.  Anyway, it was neat to have that little connection with these people.

It was now our turn to go up the elevator.  And come to find out, we ended the tour to the south of where we entered.  We spent just over an hour in the cave and after looking on the map we only covered (of course) a very, very small portion of it.  I would like to come back one day to when they clean the cave and they get to show some other sides of the cave that they don’t normally show.

Personal Thoughts:

I really enjoyed Wind Cave!  I almost enjoy the history behind the caves more than the actual caves themselves.  I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting Wind Cave and even doing the full Black Hills tour to see the other great places nearby.

One thing I didn’t like, and a few other people on the cave tour noticed too, was that the light the park installed isn’t used in the best way to take photos of the cave.  The light just kinda shines on the formations and doesn’t really show the glorious twists and turns that it should.  One guy on the tour spoke with the ranger for about 5 minutes about how bad the lighting was in the cave and they need to hire professional photographers to change how the lights are set up.  I agree with him.  Also, you aren’t allowed to bring your tripod into the cave which explains why many of my photos are a little blurry!

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Enjoyment is strictly how much fun we had doing the Trek. Regardless of how tired and exhausted we were, if we had a ton of fun doing the Trek then it will receive a higher rating.

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About The Author
Jeff Johnson
Questions or comments? I'd love to hear from you! JeffTJohnson@ymail.com

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