Wind Cave National Park and Black Hills
Wind Cave National Park, established in 1903, was the first national park to protect a cave. It is the eighth national park overall and was established to protect the boxwork formation and American Indian spiritual site. While there are many caves in the national parks system, only three official national parks have a cave as its main attraction.
Each of the three caves has its claim to fame. Mammoth Cave is the largest, Carlsbad Caverns is the prettiest, but Wind Cave is the first. Over 90% of the world’s boxwork formation is in Wind Cave. While the boxwork formation is interesting, it is not as stunning as some of the other caves.
The day was cloudy, dreary and misty, just perfect for some indoor activity like the natural entrance cave tour with Ranger Nate. The “wind” in the Wind Cave came from wind that blew in or out at the natural opening, depending on outside atmosphere pressure. To preserve the natural pressure differential, we first went into an air chamber before we could enter the cave. I felt like we were going into space!
Down 300 steps we go
Ranger Nate told us about the history and the geology that formed the various formations in the cave, especially the boxwork, named because it looked like post office boxes, but it looked more like honeycomb to me. The steps were sturdy and well made, with solid handrails for a sense of safety. The 75 minute tour reached 275 feet underground, about the mid-level of the explored cave.
During every cave tour, the ranger did the requisite total darkness show, when all lights were turned off and you can’t see anything but pitch black. Each time, I thought of the risk the cave explorers took of losing their light source, especially in the early days, while deep in the cave. The first explorers didn’t have flash lights! How did they light a lantern when it was pitch black?
Regardless of the cave we were at, someone’s phone glowed during the darkness show, even after the ranger told everyone to turn their phone off! Some people just don’t know how to follow directions.
Could Be So Much More
Wind Cave, by itself, was interesting but not enough to be a national park. There were interesting hiking trails above ground, but not spectacular. We hiked the Wind Cave Canyon trail that was a flat walk through grasslands after an initial descent. The trail ended at a fence that separated Wind Cave National Park from Custer State Park, what a let down. Normally, the end of a trail had interesting views, not this one.
However, the Black Hills area, which Wind Cave is part of, offered so much more. Custer State Park next door has abundant wildlife with its famed Wildlife Loop Road. Mount Rushmore is a national monument that is an American icon. Devils Tower, also a national monument, is unique and strange. Jewel Cave national monument is even more interesting than Wind Cave. People speculated if the two caves connects. There are numerous scenic drives and places of interest in the area, with many quaint, historical towns that have a western motif.
Why not combine all of this into one large national park and manage it as one? The answer, as always, is complicated. The reasons are historical and land use. National parks have stricter use restrictions, which many locals do not want to apply to non-national park areas. Historically speaking, the governor of South Dakota, Peter Norbeck championed the cause of Custer State Park and established it in 1919, when the national park service concentrated on the cave part of the national park.
Wind Cave by itself had 709,001 visitors in 2021. The combined visitor count for Wind Cave, Jewel Cave (108K), Devils Tower (550K), Mount Rushmore (2.5 million), and Custer State Park (2.4 million), would probably be more than 4 million. (You can’t just add up the numbers because like us, many visited multiple sites on a single trip.) That would make a “Black Hills National Park” one of the top 10 most visited national parks.
Some say we shouldn’t combine national monuments with national parks, or we can’t have towns in the middle of national parks, or we can’t combine national and state parks. Each situation already has a precedence. For example, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has towns in and around park lands, as does Redwood National and State Parks. As the name implies, Redwood figured out how to combine the administration of national and state parks. It is possible but is there the will?
- Bison, the largest land animal in the US that is six feet tall at the shoulder, were everywhere, including two that trotted across the parking area of an overlook and a herd of several dozen that grazed in the grassland.
- Donkeys staked out strategic places on the road and begged for food from passing cars.
- Pronghorns looked up curiously at us in between bites of grass.
- A goat with a tracking collar grazed a few feet from the side of the road and looked up occasionally to make sure we were not going to run him over.
- A Coyote tried to blend into the tall grass but we spotted him as he trotted off looking for prey.
- We saw too many deer on the side of the road to count, as I worried about them jumping in front of the car.
- Wild turkeys were plentiful as I thought about snatching one for Thanksgiving.
- Sheep grazed in grass near the road.
The variety of wildlife was stunning and we didn’t even count the birds!
There is an annual bison roundup at Custer State Park where some 20,000 people watch the cowboys and cowgirls round up thousands of bison as they enter the corral in a thundering stamped. We missed it by a day due to our travel plans but it must be a sight to see!
A Drive Through the Needles
Needles Highway in Custer State Park was by far the most scenic road in the Black Hills. The road threaded through tall rock formations that spire up and looked like needles. With each hairpin turn, we saw a new perspective of the formations. The highlight was a single lane tunnel that threaded between two large spires, a really pretty sight.
Iron Mountain Road was also an excellent scenic drive through hairpin turns and short tunnels, some tunnels framed the distant Mount Rushmore!
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
As we drove toward Devils Tower, it came into view and was instantly recognizable. Nothing was subtle about it. It looked like someone put a large can of soup on the very flat prairie. The area around it was flat and all of the sudden, this fluted cylinder that seemed out of place appeared. This was a great setting for the 1970s sci-fi movie that gave this national monument notoriety.
Unless you are a rock climber, there wasn’t much to do there except to gawk at it. We circled it on a nice, short trail that had distinctly different vegetation on the north side compared to the south side. There was a rock climber about 1/3 of the way up who didn’t really move during the two hours we were there. I wondered if he was resting or stuck.
The “Other” Cave in the Area
Like Wind Cave, Jewel Cave was also only accessible with a tour. An elevator took us down and back up, but there were 723 steps, up and down, during the 90 minute scenic tour. This park had more interesting and prettier formations than Wind Cave, a historic CCC (Civilian Conservation Core) cabin, and a beautiful trail that connected the main cave with the CCC cabin. From a pure cave perspective, this is the better cave to visit, but for us on the quest to see all of the official national parks, Wind Cave was a must.
One especially interesting formation at Jewel Cave was the “soda straw”, which was hard to appreciate in photos, but very interesting. Just think about how this was created over thousands of years of precise, slow drip, and how fragile it is.
Presidents and a Chief
Mount Rushmore, an American icon that is instantly recognizable by most Americans, receives nearly 2.5 million visitors a year. This national monument is well done, with an excellent museum on the history of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T. Roosevelt, as well as how the monument came about. The methods used to carve the life-like faces of the great presidents was fascinating.
The first time we went, we had a great view of…. fog. This is what we saw:
We went back three days later and had a much better view. I was very happy we could make a second visit but felt bad for all those in a tour group that had to follow a schedule and missed the view. The ranger told us it was fogged in for the full day before our first visit and the morning of our first visit. We spent a couple of hours on that first day to tour the museum and hiked the President’s Loop trail hoping for the fog to lift. It did, a little, but not enough for a clear view.
The sculptures were not huge, only about 65 feet tall, but the faces expressed great emotion, especially the eyes. The walking loop around the sculpture had a few hills but it was relatively short and gave us many vantage points of the sculpture. Mount Rushmore is one of those famous landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty, that is part of American history and is a must on any bucket list.
The Crazy Horse monument nearby is, and will be for many years, under construction. It is huge compared to Mount Rushmore and as of 2017, only the face was done. There is an excellent Indian museum with lots of interesting crafts, history, and a buffalo exhibit. When it’s done, it will be the largest mountain sculpture in the world but progress is slow due to funding.
It’s ironic the general Crazy Horse defeated, General Custer, has a town named after him, right next to the Crazy Horse monument.
Thought for Wind Cave National Park:
Explore the seemingly trivial, and you many find great treasures, just like the early explorers investigated wind coming out of a hole in the rock found a beautiful cave.
Impressions of Wind Cave National Park:
Wind Cave National Park by itself is interesting, but not remarkable, unlike most other national parks. However, the surrounding Black Hills area, combined with Wind Cave, makes this an excellent destination for sight seeing, camping, wildlife viewing, and water sports at the numerous lakes. There are many other minor attractions such as the historical steam engine railroad and a zoo for the family. Towns with the wild west motif, like Deadwood and Keystone, can entertain people of all ages.
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Wind Cave National Park (Only) Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Wind Cave National Park and Black Hills
Top Attractions at Wind Cave National Park and Black Hills
- Wind Cave Natural Entrance Tour
- Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road (at dusk or dawn)
- Needles Highway
- Jewel Cave
- Mount Rushmore
- Devils Tower
- Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
One Day Visit Plan
One day is more than enough for just Wind Cave. Get to the visitor center early and buy tickets for the tour of your choice, most likely the Natural Entrance tour. After the tour, hike a trail of your choice and ability.
To enjoy the whole area, including Badlands National Park, you need a week because there are so many attractions to see. A suggested itinerary for each day:
- Norther Loop through Spearfish, Deadwood and the Spearfish Scenic Byway
- Mid-Loop with Mount Rushmore, Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, Crazy Horse and the town of Keystone
- Southern Loop with Wind Cave and the Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road
- West Loop with Jewel Cave and Devils Tower
- East Loop with Badlands National Park
- East Loop with rest of Badlands National Park, Minute Man missile silo and the town of Wall
Practical Info for Visiting Wind Cave National Park and Black Hills
- Summer is the right season to go to visit the whole area, even with the crowd. Businesses start to shut down by mid-October. Dakota winter can be harsh. If you are interested in the cave only, go at any time but the tours are limited outside of the summer season
- Get to the caves early to ensure short wait and availability of tour tickets. Most tours are on the first come, first serve basis for the day of the tour.
- Quaint towns such as Deadwood, Custer, and Keystone are interesting places to have lunch, dinner or just linger to enjoy. Plenty of services are available near the attractions.
- Take the Wildlife Loop Road at dusk or dawn, when you will see the most wildlife.
- The new Custer State Park visitor center is excellent and worth the visit.
- Interesting dishes to have: Indian Taco, Buffalo burger or pot pie, and a pie at The Purple Pie Place in the town of Custer.
Wind Cave National Park Facts:
- Size: 28,295 acres, ranked 54th
- Visitors: 709,001 in 2021, ranked 32nd. Record was 874,167 visitors in 2003
- Peak Month in 2021: 154,509 visitors in July
- Low Month in 2021: 10,836 visitors in February
- Entrance Fee: None. Cave tours are $16 each person for the Natural Entrance Tour
Date Visited: Sept 23, 2017