Wind Cave National Park is a United States National Park near the town of Hot Springs in western South Dakota. The park takes its name from the unique phenomenon of air being either sucked into or blown out of a natural hole in the ground, depending on atmospheric conditions.
Wind Cave National Park gets its name from how air is exchanged between the cave system and the atmosphere. When the outside air pressure is higher than the cavern's air pressure, air is sucked into a natural fissure in the ground in attempt to equalize the pressure. When the atmospheric pressure is lower than the air within the cave, air is blown out this same fissure. The resulting wind can be strong enough to visibly stir nearby plants. Most caves engage in atmospheric equilibrium with the outside world; Wind Cave is unique in that there are very few openings, and the ones that exist are quite small - the largest is about the size of a basketball. The wind more noticeably rushes out/in.
Since low atmospheric pressure is associated with precipitation, the Wind Cave can be used to predict the weather. The reverse is also true--when air is going into the cave, that suggests high atmospheric pressure and fair weather. Weather in the Black Hills region can change on a dime, so visitors will often be able to experience both types of "cave breathing" in a day.
Unlike some other cave-related National Parks, the interior of Wind Cave can only be accessed on a guided tour that starts at the Visitor Center (or the nearby Elevator Building). Cave tours can often sell out, so for best results, book tickets ahead of time. The "natural entrance" can be visited easily from either the Visitor Center or a nearby campground/picnic site free of charge. However, it is both illegal and highly impossible to enter the cave through this (unless you have the body build of a car dealership inflatable and don't mind bats).
The area around Wind Cave has been inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans. At the time Europeans "discovered" the cave, the Lakota and the Cheyenne lived in the area, using the area above the cave as a "supermarket" for food and other means of sustenance. The cave holds a special significance for the Lakota, being the site of Humanity's emergence in their creation story; that, combined with the small size of the entrance, meant that there were no (known) instances of Native Americans entering the cave. The first recorded instance of entrance into the cave was in 1881 by American settlers; after a mining company found no extractable resources, the cave was eventually developed for tourism. In 1903, under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, Wind Cave became the sixth National Park in the U.S..
The park designation applies both to the prairies above and the caverns below ground. This cave system is also noted for its abundance of boxwork, a rare mineral formation which is somewhat reminiscent of a honeycomb. The boxwork in Wind Cave formed when the sediment that makes up the cave interior was first deposited: larger calcite blocks didn't fit flush with each other so smaller, different calcium-based minerals fell in between and solidified, much like mortar and bricks. Later, weathering dissolved the softer calcite blocks while leaving the harder "mortar", creating the boxwork seen today. Given the difficulties in forming boxwork, it is extremely rare. Wind Cave contains approximately 95% of the world's known boxwork (the vast majority of the remainder can be found at nearby Jewel Cave). It is predicted that Wind Cave could be connected through its boxwork to many other caves in the Black Hills, SD area. If this is proven to be true, these caves interlinked would create the longest underground cave network in the world.
Unlike pretty much every other cave the average person would know, Wind Cave was not formed through water activity, and thus lacks stalagmites and stalactites. The boxwork and another calcite formation, cave popcorn, are what make Wind Cave special.
Bison, prairie dogs and other wildlife can be found above the surface. The prairie found above Wind Cave has not been disturbed by Euro-American human activity (except for minor improvements like park roads and the park buildings), and provides a glimpse into what the Great Plains would have looked like before they were converted into farmland.
Flora and fauna
Wind Cave is home to one of the four remaining free-roaming and genetically pure bison herds in North America. They act like they own the place (and they do), often meandering across roads or trails. Normal precautions for this animal should be taken. They will not hurt you if you do not irk them.
There are also a number of prairie dog towns within the park's borders.
Wind Cave National Park, just like the nearby Badlands National Park, is home to one of the few remaining populations of the black-footed ferret in the wild. This critter is critically endangered, so if you are able to see one while at the park, all the better!
Within the cave itself, there is very little visible life. Only near the "natural entrance" can be found bats, and usually in the winter when they are hibernating. Deep, deep, deep in the cave are some natural pools of water with bacteria that only live in those pools, but these are inaccessible to the average visitor so you're not going to encounter them.
|Wind Cave National Park
|Climate chart (explanation)
The cave maintains a temperature of roughly 53°F (12°C) throughout the year. In the above-ground portion of the park, temperatures and precipitation are similar to that of the semi-arid surrounding region, with cold temperatures (and occasional waves of warm weather) during the winter and warm, occasionally very hot conditions during the summer.
Visitor information center
- 1 Wind Cave Visitor Center, 26611 US-385 (The Visitor Center is located 11 miles north of Hot Springs or 22 miles south of Custer off US Highway 385, about 1/2 mile west of the highway.). Open every day except Federal holidays 8AM-5PM. The visitor center is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Days. All cave tours are ranger-led and leave from the visitor center. The last cave tours of the day leave between 14:30 and 15:30, depending on the type of tour.
The nearest commercial airport is in Rapid City.
You'll need a car to get here.
Wind Cave National Park is 6 miles north of Hot Springs. The Visitor Center is 11 miles north of Hot Springs on U.S. Route 385.
For visitors travelling on I-90: At Rapid City, exit onto U.S. Route 79 south. Follow Route 79 south approximately 50 miles to U.S. Route 385. Turn right onto U.S. Route 385 North, which will take you through Hot Springs and into Wind Cave National Park. Follow signs to the visitor center for cave tours and general park information.
You can also reach the park by following Route 16 west out of Rapid City onto U.S. Route 385 south. The Park is about 20 miles south of Custer.
Visitors traveling from Nebraska can follow U.S. Route 385 north to the park.
Visitors may also travel through Custer State Park on State Road 36 and 87. These winding roads are slower than other routes, but provide visitors with scenic views of the Black Hills, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park.
Fees and permits
There are no fees to drive through or hike in the park. There are fees associated with visiting the cave or camping in the park's campground.
There aren't many roads in the park - two paved roads meet near the park headquarters but neither provide truly scenic drives (they just follow natural valleys between some of the park's hills).
There are a handful of hiking trails throughout the park. Most of them start at or near the park headquarters. Biking and dogs are restricted to specific trails; no motorized vehicles (ATVs, dirt bikes, etc.) are allowed on any trails.
Remember: with all roads and trails, bison have right-of-way; even if you wanted to challenge their right, a bison will win against any form of human transportation.
There is no way to access the interior of the cave without being on a guided tour. All tours use an elevator that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to enter and exit the cave, but once inside all tours navigate stairs.
Above ground, the park offers some of the best preserved original prairies that once spread across the Great Plains. Aside from the grasses themselves and the gently rolling hills, the park offers beautiful scenery and spectacular wildlife.
Below ground, the cave offers all the general attractions of a cave except for stalactites and stalagmites. The boxwork that makes the cave unique is of particular interest, as well as the cave popcorn and the few instances of "flowstone" - rock formations formed by hydrology. The Garden of Eden tour ends at the site of a "paleofill", a prehistoric landslide, that is rare among the world's known cave systems.
A number of cave tours are available, varying in length and difficulty. The tours are listed below in order of increasing difficulty. In addition to these tours, cave tour arrangements can be made for visitors with special needs. $5.00, half-price for under 17 or Golden Age/Golden Access cardholders, free for 5 and under. Call the park at +1 605 745-4600 to arrange a tour.
Several hiking trails exist aboveground.
- Garden of Eden Cave Tour. This one hour tour presents some representative features of the Wind Cave. Visitors enter and leave the cave by elevator. 150 stairsteps. $7 fee, half price for under 17 or Golden Age cardholders, free for 5 and under. $10 (2020 price).
- Natural Entrance Cave Tour. This moderately strenuous, 1¼ hour tour, goes through areas of the cave where boxwork is abundant. This tour, including 300 stairsteps (mostly down), begins at the walk-in entrance and exits by elevator. $9 fee, half-price for under 17 or Golden Age cardholders, free for 5 and under. $12 (2020 price).
- Fairgrounds Cave Tour. This moderately strenuous tour, including 450 stairsteps and lasting 1½ hours, goes through the upper and middle levels of the Wind Cave. Boxwork, popcorn and other rock formations will be seen. Visitors enter and exit the cave by elevator. $9 fee, half-price for under 17 or Golden Age cardholders, free for 5 and under.
- Candlelight Cave Tour, ☏ . This 2 hour strenuous tour covers about a mile of rugged trail in a less developed, unlighted part of the cave. Each participant will carry a candle bucket. Due to the rough conditions, shoes (no sandals) with non-slip soles are required. This tour is limited to 10 people and the minimum age is 8. Reservations are strongly recommended. Reservations may only be made in person or by telephone at +1 605 745-4600. $9 fee, half-price for age 8-16 or Golden Age cardholders.
- Wild Cave Tour. This 4 hour tour introduces to basic, safe caving techniques. Wear old clothes and gloves, as much of the trip will be crawling. Long pants, long sleeved shirts and sturdy, lace up boots or shoes with non-slip soles are required. The park provides hard hats, lights and kneepads. Please do not bring jewelry, watches and other valuables on the tour. This tour is limited to 10 people and the minimum age is 16. A signed consent form is required for those 17 and under. Reservations are required. Reservations may only be made in person or by telephone at +1 605 745-4600. $23 fee, half-price for Golden Age cardholders. $30 (2020 price).
The park does not charge any entrance fees for either vehicles or passengers (neighboring Badlands does).
The only real shop in the park is the gift shop on the entrance floor (the second floor of the building but the one level with the parking lot) of the Visitor Center, which sells both National Park- and Wind Cave-related memorabilia.
- 1 Elk Mountain Campground (the campground entrance is approximately 0.25 mile north of the visitor center.). 61 sites, 2 group sites. All sites are first-come, first-served. This 61-site campground is open all year. Two sites are handicap-accessible. Flush toilets and drinking water are available late spring through early fall. Fees are half-price when water is not available. Ranger programs are offered nightly in the amphitheater during the summer. Two group campsites are reservable. $9 Campsite Fee - Off-season, $18 Campsite Fee (2020 rates).
The cave system is large and complex. Four of the five offered tours (Natural Entrance, Garden of Eden, Fairgrounds, and Candlelight) are conducted on paved cement walkways. The fifth (Wild Cave) provides a more "natural" exploration of the cave that involves crawling and shimmying through tight spaces with spelunking equipment. The Candlelight tour gets its name from the fact that groups don't use modern lights; rather, they use wax candles as their light source so the path is dimmer. All tours involve negotiating considerable amounts of steps (remember: With caves, what goes down must also come up). Occasionally, trails fork. Make sure you are with your group and your guide so you know which path to take (the biggest danger the average tourist will face occurs when someone holds up half the group taking photos and then leads the group down the wrong path at a fork).
The other main "danger" of the cave is low-hanging ceilings, especially at the top of stairwells. Remember, it is illegal to touch the cave walls, which include the ceilings, so don't use your hand or arm as a buffer between your head and the stone.
Wind Cave, like most other cave systems, can be highly claustrophobic. Most of the tours do not require people to crawl through tight spaces; a few do.
Above ground, the two main dangers are bison and weather. Bison are lumbering tanks of animals that can do serious damage to both you and your vehicle if provoked. They also act as though they have (and indeed they do) the right-of-way on roads.
The weather in the Black Hills region, while not unpredictable, can rapidly change with very little forewarning. South Dakota is also prone to the occasional tornado. The geography of the Black Hills provides some protection but don't assume tornadoes cannot occur in or around the park
Hot Springs - this charming little town due south of the park preserves Old West charm and some old, eponymous hot springs. Visitors driving to/from Cheyenne or Denver will go through this town.
Badlands National Park - the jewel in South Dakota's crown, this national park preserves a majority of the sandstone/sedimentary escarpment that makes up the "badlands" of the state.