Two Worlds, One Park

Traveling South Dakota’s Wind Cave
September 1, 2017Travel Ideas
— National Park Service

When you travel in South Dakota, you never know just what you'll find. Discovering Wind Cave was no doubt a surprise to Jesse and Tom Bingham in 1881. Legend has it the wind blew forth from the cave with enough force to knock the hat off Tom's head – and it's been captivating visitors ever since. 

Two Parks in One

Sanson Ranch at Wind Cave National Park

National Park Service

A sacred place to Native American peoples for centuries, the cave’s winds gave it an air of mystery when it started earning public attention in the late 19th century. Today, we know the shifting "winds" alternately expelled from and sucked into the cave are caused by a difference in barometric pressure between the cave and the surface above it, but knowing the cause of the phenomenon does nothing to diminish its wonder. 

Wind Cave National Park was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, becoming America's seventh national park and the first cave to be designated a national park anywhere in the world. More than a hundred years later, the cave's mesmerizing depths, along with the majestic landscape above its surface, are every bit as spectacular as the day the park was designated.

An Underground Wonder

Candlelight tour at Wind Cave National Park

National Park Service

Wind Cave is currently recognized as the sixth-longest cave in the world, with 140 miles of explored passageways. Many parts of this dense maze of winding passages and spectacular boxwork formations are open to the public. Visiting the park, you can choose among several ranger-guided cave tours:

  • Natural Entrance Cave Tour: Explore the middle level of the cave, starting at its natural entrance to learn how it got its name, then head inside to see an abundance of rare boxwork formations.
  • Fairgrounds Cave Tour: This tour includes a fairly strenuous trek through some of the cave's larger rooms, which feature a wide range of cave formations.
  • Garden of Eden Cave Tour: On the least strenuous cave tour available, you can see cave popcorn, flowstone, and boxwork in the cave's upper level.
  • Candlelight Cave Tour: Experience the undeveloped, unlighted portions of the cave, illuminated only by candlelight.

All cave tours leave from the visitor center. Tickets to most tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so consider visiting on weekends or during the early hours of the day, which tend to be less busy. 

Exploring on the Surface

A herd of bison on the snowy yellow grassy plains of Wind Cave National Park
National Park Service

While the underground portion of Wind Cave National Park may be this park's claim to fame, the landscape above is just as compelling. Prairies stretch as far as the eye can see, broken up only by the occasional stream and stands of lofty pines. When you visit Wind Cave National Park, be sure to take advantage of these activities on the surface: 

  • Hiking: The mixed-grass prairies and ponderosa pine forests above Wind Cave are traversed by more than 30 miles of hiking trails. Options range from a short, easy loop on the Elk Mountain Trail to the challenging 8.6-mile Highland Creek Trail. 
  • Wildlife-watching: You'll find an incredible range of wildlife at Wind Cave National Park, from bison and pronghorn antelope to a diverse assortment of bird species. Be sure to have your camera ready!
  • Camping: To stay the night at Wind Cave National Park, you can choose between developed tent and RV sites at the Elk Mountain Campground or dispersed backcountry camping. Free backcountry camping permits are issued at the visitor center.

Wind Cave is one of the most remarkable natural wonders you’ll witness while traveling through South Dakota. It’s also within a day's drive of several other national parks, including Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Be sure to plan a stop here on your next #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque road trip, and see both sides of this incredible park.


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