Location: South Dakota
Established: January 9, 1903
Size: 28,295 acres
Too many visitors leave Wind Cave National Park knowing only half of its charms. Ironically, the half they know is the half that's not visible from the surface.
Above the spectacular underground labyrinth for which the park is named lies an unusual ecosystem with elements from both the mixed-grass prairie of the western Great Plains and the ponderosa pine forests of the Black Hills. Thus, the park plays host to plant and animal species from several distinct geographical areas—prairie falcons and meadowlarks from the grasslands coexist here with nuthatches and wild turkeys from the forests.
Wildlife could be the major draw here. Because of the park's small size and relatively large bison population, the chances of seeing bison—the so-called American buffalo—are probably better at this park than at almost any other; indeed it's often difficult to avoid the great beasts. The park's bison are descendants of 14 bison reintroduced to the park in 1913 from the New York Zoological Society.
Pronghorn, mule deer, and prairie dogs are present in large numbers—and highly visible since more than 60 percent of the park is open grassland. Elk live in the forest fringes; you probably won't see many, but if you have the good luck to come in the autumn you'll hear their eerie bugling.
Belowground lies Wind Cave. The first recorded discovery of the cave occurred in 1881, when two brothers named Bingham heard a loud whistling noise coming from the cave's only natural entrance.
Today, more than 130 miles of explored passages make it one of the world's longest caves. Because the cave is relatively dry, it contains few of the stalactites and stalagmites you see in other caves. But it has many unusual mineral formations, including perhaps the world's best collection of boxwork, a calcite formation resembling irregular honeycombs. Perhaps it's most distinctive feature may be the strong winds that alternately rush in and out of its mouth, equalizing air pressure between the passages inside and the atmosphere outside, and causing the noise the Binghams heard.
How to Get There
For the scenic route from Rapid City (74 miles away), take US 16 to US 16A south, detouring for a glimpse of Mount Rushmore, to S. Dak. 87 south. This route—not open to RVs and trailers—takes you along the Needles Highway and through Custer State Park to Wind Cave's north entrance.
The faster route is to follow S. Dak. 79 south from Rapid City to Hot Springs and then turn north onto US 385 to the south entrance. From the west, take US 16 east to Custer and US 385 south from there. Airport: Rapid City.
When to Go
All-year park. Although the cave and visitor center are open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's Day, the park offers far fewer cave tours off-season (late September to May). Late spring to midsummer is best for wildflowers. Saturdays and Sundays in summer are the days least likely to be crowded. The campground is rarely, if ever, full.
How to Visit
A good plan of action for a single-day visit would be to spend the morning in Wind Cave on one of the shorter introductory tours and the afternoon exploring the park's prairies and forests on the Scenic Drive. A second day would be the time for one of the longer Candlelight or Cave Tours.
People with physical limitations will want to stick to the shorter, less strenuous tours, although even the shortest involves climbing up and down about 150 steps. (If claustrophobia is a problem for you, you might think twice about entering the cave at all.)
Wear good walking shoes, and, since the cave temperature is a constant 53°F, take a jacket even on hot summer days. Reservations for Candlelight and Wild Cave Tours are recommended. You must be 8 years old for the Candlelight Tour and 16 years old for the Wild Cave Tour.