An expansive underground cave network and spectacular grassland vistas
Regarded as sacred by American Indians, exploration of the area known as Wind Cave did not begin until 1881, when the entrance was noticed by two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham. They heard a loud whistling noise, which led them to a small hole in the ground, the cave’s only natural opening.
Wind Cave National Park was established in 1903, becoming the country’s eighth National Park. Located in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, it is known for it’s vast, underground Wind Cave, with chambers like the Post Office and the Elks Room. Many of the cave’s walls are rich in honeycomb-shaped calcite formations known as boxwork. There are regular Ranger-led tours, with different options available for people of different abilities. Only a relatively small part of the cave system are explored on the Ranger walks. For the more experienced cavers, there is much, much more that can be accessed.
Beyond the cave system are expansive prairie lands and pine forests that are home to bison, elk and pronghorn antelopes. To explore this wonderful parkland there are a plethora of trails that include Rankin Ridge, with spectacular views of the Black Hills.
If you are travelling in South Dakota in the region of the Black Hills you need to set some time aside to explore this amazing National Park.
Things to do
1. Wind Cave
Over many years of exploration and mapping, Wind Cave has grown to be one of the world’s largest known caves. Currently, over 150 miles of passages have been mapped making it the third-longest cave in the U.S. and the sixth-longest cave in the world. Wind Cave has few stalactites and stalagmites, but many unusual formations and a variety of minerals are found in the cave. The cave is well known for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs.
There are regular tours of Wind Cave run by the National Park Service. NOTE AT THE TIME OF WRITING THE CAVE IS CLOSED DUE TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
2. Explore the park’s prairie lands and abundant wildlife
Most visits to Wind Cave National Park take you on US Highway 385 or South Dakota Highway 87, the two main paved roads in the park. Both offer scenic views as well as many pullouts with wayside exhibits and parking for enjoying the scenery or watching wildlife.
Along the way you will see several very large ‘prairie dog towns’ – these are always a big draw for visitors. You could spend hours just watching these busy little creatures going about their day.
There are quite a few trails that run throughout the Park. If you don’t have much time then I suggest looking at the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail which is 1-mile moderate loop trail that takes you up to the highest point in Wind Cave National Park, with some spectacular views along the trail their are several markers of special interest.
- Custer State Park – 10 miles
- Mount Rushmore National Monument – 30 miles
- Crazy Horse Memorial – 22 miles
- Hot Springs Mammoth Site – 7 miles
- Devils Tower National Monument, WY – 125 miles
- Rapid City – 43 miles
Planning your visit
From Rapid City direct:
Follow Route 79 south approximately 50 miles to U.S. Route 385. Turn right onto U.S. Route 385 North, then continue through Hot Springs. Follow U.S. Hwy 385 another 6 miles north and into Wind Cave National Park.
From Rapid City via the Black Hills:
Follow U.S. Hwy. 16 south and west to U.S. Hwy. 385. Turn left on US Hwy. 385 south to Hill City and continue south through Custer City. The park is about 20 miles south of Custer, SD off U.S. Hwy 385.
From western Nebraska:
Follow U.S. Hwy 385 north through Hot Springs, SD to the park.
From Custer State Park:
Follow State Road 87 south into Wind Cave National Park.
|Location:||26611 US Highway 385, Hot Springs, SD 57747|
The park is open all day, every day.
The Visitor Center’s hours of operation are 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM with extended hours in the spring, summer, and fall
|Admission:||There is no fee to enter the park but it costs $10 to $12 for an adult to visit the caves|
The best time to visit Wind Caves
The biggest crowds come to Wind Cave from June to September, but the park and surrounding Black Hills are large enough to diffuse the masses. Neither the cave nor grounds above are ever too packed, although on busy summer days tours sometimes sell out over an hour ahead of time, so come early in the day and reserve your spot. Park officials contend it’s actually less busy during the first full week in August, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally brings roughly a half-million bikers to the region, clogging highways for miles around. Most hotels within a 100-mile radius are booked up to a year in advance.
The colder months are the least crowded, though you can still explore underground, thanks to the cave’s constant 53°F temperature. The shoulder seasons are also unpopular, though autumn is a perfect time to visit. The days are warm, the nights are cool, and in late September/early October the park’s canyons and coulees display incredible colours.
Other places close by worth visiting
1. CUSTER STATE PARK (11 miles)
Custer State Park is famous for its bison herds, other wildlife, scenic drives, historic sites, visitor centres, fishing lakes, resorts, campgrounds and interpretive programs. In fact, it was named as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations for the array of wildlife within the park’s borders and for the unbelievable access visitors have to them.
2. MOUNT RUSHMORE (20 miles)
Mount Rushmore is a relatively recent creation and started as a concept by state historian Doane Robinson in 1923. The choice of artist was Gutzon Borglum, a radical sculptor with a sense of scale and outlandish ambition.
3. THE MAMMOTH SITE (37 miles)
The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD is a truly incredible place to visit. We call in every time we are in the area as it is always changing.
Accidently, discovered during a construction project, The dig site is uncommon as the mammoth bones that the excavation has exposed have been left in situ and can be viewed by visitors from raised walkways. It is a most unusual exhibit.
4. CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL (21 miles)
Brule Lakota Henry Standing Bear was born near Pierre, South Dakota, along the Missouri River around 1874. In 1933 he heard that there were plans to build a monument to his cousin Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson where he had met his end. Standing Bear and the Lakota Sioux were determined that any such monument should be built in the Black Hill mountains of South Dakota which had a spiritual significance to his Nation.
The monument is being carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, on land considered sacred by some Oglala Lakota, roughly 17 miles (27 km) from Mount Rushmore. When, and if, it gets finished it will dwarf Mount Rushmore.
5. SOUTH DAKOTA AIR & SPACE MUSEUM (38 miles)
I still get excited when I get the chance to visit a new museum dedicated to air and space, so when I discovered on our journey through South Dakota the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth Airforce Base I jumped at the chance to visit. Like many such aerospace museums, there was plenty of interesting aircraft on display. There are over 30 vintage military aircraft ranging from World War II bombers to the modern-day B-1.
6. MINUTEMAN MISSILE HISTORIC SITE (102 miles)
If you are looking for another opportunity to catch up on cold-war history and nuclear proliferation then check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The Minuteman Missile field covered the far western portion of South Dakota from 1963 through the early 1990s. There were 15 Launch Control Facilities that commanded and controlled 150 Launch Facilities (Missile Silos) holding Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The missile field was operational, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for thirty years.
You can visit the new visitor centre and take tours of the sites themselves.
7. WALL DRUG STORE (81 miles)
As you travel around America, especially the mid-west you’ll come across billboards advertising the Wall Drug Store. These billboards are located, in some cases, hundreds of miles from the store itself mostly along a 650 mile stretch of I-90. Apparently, there are more than 300 paid for billboards, some located internationally, and a whole load more unofficial billboards.
The store itself has become a popular stop-off point for people travelling through South Dakota or visiting the local attractions such as Badlands National Park or en route to Mount Rushmore.
8. BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK (88 miles)
The Lakota gave this land its name, “Mako Sica,” meaning “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. In the early 1900s, French-Canadian fur trappers called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.”
Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the United States.
Where to stay?
1. SUMMER CREEK INN & SPA
Located in Rapid City in the Black Hills region, 18 mi from Mount Rushmore National Monument, Summer Creek Inn & Spa features a spa centre and hot tub. The bed and breakfast has a sun terrace and views of a waterfall and a garden, and guests can enjoy a drink at the bar. Free private parking is available on site.
Certain rooms feature a seating area where you can relax. A terrace or balcony are featured in certain rooms. Superior rooms include a spa bath or a hot tub.
2. SWEETGRASS INN BED & BREAKFAST
Located in Rapid City, Sweetgrass Inn Bed & Breakfast offers accommodations with a restaurant, free private parking, a bar and a garden. This 3-star inn offers a shared kitchen, room service and free WiFi. The accommodations provides evening entertainment and an ATM.
Journey Museum is 8.1 mi from Sweetgrass Inn Bed & Breakfast, while Rushmore Mall is 9.9 mi from the property. The nearest airport is Rapid City Regional Airport, 11 mi from the inn.
3. UNDER CANVAS MOUNT RUSHMORE
If you are looking for something more adventurous than the typical hotel experience then you might want to consider Under Canvas Mount Rushmore.
Fancy a glamping experience in safari-style tents then this may be the place for you. Canvas Mount Rushmore is tucked within Ponderosa Pines and Common Juniper, located on an original gold mining settlement less than 4 miles from Mount Rushmore National Monument. Offering upscale accommodations and majestic views of Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Black Hills
4. ELK CAMPGROUND
This 62-site campground is open all year with sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. 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 amphitheatre during the summer. Two group campsites are able to be reserved.