Wind Cave National Park Is a Breath of Fresh Subterranean Air
The first protected cave in the world, next to the Badlands, was also a portal to the spirit world.
The Black Hills of Western South Dakota are well-known for shimmering lakes, bison-trod terrain, and colossal rock carvings. But there’s something lurking beneath the surface that many visitors to this Americana dreamscape don’t ever see—and no, we’re not talking about The Lost City of Gold, despite what Nicolas Cage would have you believe. Nestled underneath the iconic byways, state parks, and monuments, Wind Cave National Park is not only one of the most underrated destinations in the region, it’s also one of the more underrated national parks in the country.
Sure, much of its under-the-radar-ness can be attested to the fact that most of this park is out of sight, literally beneath the Earth’s surface. But especially compared to more widely visited cave parks, like Mammoth Cave National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Wind Cave is a hidden gem that deserves more of that subterranean A-list status. What it lacks in Batman references, it more than makes up for with rare cave formations, epic wildlife, and an origin story that’s both mythical and wild-western. Here’s what to know about visiting Wind Cave National Park.
See the portal to the spirit world
Between road trip locales like Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse Memorial, there’s lots of lore in western South Dakota. And Wind Cave boasts its own distinct history, legacy, and staggering statistics. One of two national parks in South Dakota (the other being the more visited Badlands National Park), the cave system is about 300 million years old, making it one of the oldest on the planet.
Like most caves, it was formed—at a thrillingly glacial pace—by the steady trickle of fresh water seeping into the Earth, converting gypsum to calcite, creating sulfuric acid, and dissolving limestone into present-day formations and passageways. Today, with more than 150 mapped passages, it’s the seventh largest cave system in the world and the third largest in the country. Wind Cave is filled with speleothems (a.k.a. cave formations) like cave popcorn, helictite bushes, flowstone, needle-like frostwork, and most famously, boxwork. The latter is a rare feature, a meticulous patchwork of calcite blades interwoven along the cave ceiling, found almost nowhere else on Earth.
The Indigenous people who first inhabited the region had great admiration and awe for the cave, which is woven into folkloric tales. Oral history from the Lakota tells of an “Emergence Story,” about how humans first emerged onto the surface of the Earth via Wind Cave, or as they described it, Oniya Oshoka, where the Earth “breathes inside.” Somewhere, in the annals of this gnarly labyrinth, was a portal to the spirit world.
Millennia later, new explorers came upon the cave with curiosity, but a lot less deference. Brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham stumbled upon it in 1881, after following what sounded like a loud windy whistle, leading them to the only natural opening into the cave. This was the tip of the iceberg for devil-may-care adventurers who followed that wind into a hidden world of craggy caverns and intricate formations. One such explorer was Alvin McDonald, a turn-of-the-century Nicolas Cage-type who began mapping the cave, drafting reports of its unique formations, naming some of the rooms, and charging fees to give curious visitors tours.
To prevent the rampant bastardization of this delicate wonder, though, the federal government stepped in. They designated it Wind Cave National Park in 1903, so named for the atmospheric pressure differences between the cave and the surface, thus creating gusts of wind at the entrance. Theodore Roosevelt established it as the sixth national park in the U.S.—and the first in the world created to protect a cave.
Best time to visit Wind Cave National Park
There’s never a bad time to visit Wind Cave National Park. That’s thanks to its constant, year-round cave temperature of 54°F, which can feel refreshing in the hot summer months and downright balmy in the frigid winter ones. June through September sees a bulk of the crowds, but compared to more visited nearby attractions like Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore, it never reaches the kind of mosh pit hordes seen at, say, Zion National Park.
Activities that require tickets, like cave tours, consistently have open reservation availability, even during peak season—a benefit of being the most underrated facet of a touristy area. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that western South Dakota can be quite arctic in the winter. While the cave itself might be comparatively comfortable, the overall region is prone to ample snow and frosty weather, which can impede driving and make hiking the surface trails an exercise in masochism. To avoid the crowds and the snow, a spring or fall visit can ensure plenty of wide-open space, cozy temps, and luminous flora on the surface.
Descend into the depths on a cave tour
As the first cave-centric national park in the world, you need to get underground at Wind Cave to really appreciate its majesty. Accessible only on ranger-led tours, which require tickets, some particularly popular routes are open for advanced reservations, while others are offered first come, first serve.
Naturally, when traipsing into a dark underground maze lined with jagged speleothems, there are some extra precautions to take with you into the cave. This includes being mindful of potential claustrophobia and selecting a tour that feels right for you (i.e. if you’re averse to tight spaces, a narrow four-hour crawl on the Wild Cave tour is best avoided). Also remember to not touch any of the delicate formations, wear comfortable shoes with non-slip soles, and dress with layers for 54°F.
There are a handful of cave tours offered throughout the year, as well as a couple summer exclusives for the tourism surge. A good entry-level offering is the Garden of Eden, an easy one-hour trek that gets guests up close and personal with iconic formations like boxwork and flowstone. The Natural Entrance tour is another comfortable option for cave newbies—a 0.6-mile jaunt that begins at the cave’s natural entrance and descends via stairs into boxwork-lined passageways (the natural entrance is only about 10 inches wide, so it’s only used to show visitors how and where the cave was discovered).
In the summer, the two-hour Candlelight tour is an old-fashioned romp that shows how the cave looked to its earliest explorers. The Wild Cave tour is the park’s toughest option—a strenuous four-hour squeeze through cramped passages that requires a fair amount of crawling and climbing. For those who laugh in the face of claustrophobia, helmets and kneepads are provided.
Hike wherever you want across the surface
Even for the claustrophobic, there’s plenty to see and do at Wind Cave that doesn’t involve any cave-related activity whatsoever. Sprawled across the prairies, canyons, ponderosa forests, and coulees that comprise the southern fringes of the Black Hills, the surface is just as stunning. And with more than 30 miles of hiking trails, there’s no shortage of vantage points.
Easier options include the Prairie Vista trail, a one-mile hike through mixed grasses for panoramic views and potential bison sightings (just be sure to stay at least 25 yards away, as these fluffy rhinos are notoriously unpredictable and can run a lot faster than you’d think). Rankin Ridge is another good option for all skill types. The one-mile trail leads to the tallest point in the park, with views as far as Badlands National Park some 54 miles away.
Cold Brook Canyon is billed as moderate, as it weaves 1.5 miles though ponderosa pines and adorable prairie dog towns. East Bison Flats offers a more strenuous option down into a canyon and up prairie hills. And at nearly nine miles, Highland Creek is the longest—and most geographically diverse—trail in the park, criss-crossing creeks and canyons as it meanders through fragrant forests and prairies.
If Wind Cave’s marked trails weren’t enough, the park has an open hike policy, which means visitors can hike off-trail anywhere they’d like. Just be sure to come prepared with plenty of water and navigation materials, lest you get lost in the WiFi-less wilderness.
Where to stay and eat near Wind Cave National Park
Perched within the rugged wilds of the least developed part of the Black Hills, the park is devoid of lodging or restaurants. The only way to stay directly inside Wind Cave National Park is at Elk Mountain Campground, which is open year-round on a first come, first served basis. Beyond the confines of the park, more camping and lodging abounds in nearby communities like Hot Springs and Custer.
In Hot Springs, a quick seven miles south of the park, Red Rock River Resort is the historic cornerstone. In a building that dates to 1891, rooms are comfy and ornate, especially in the spacious corner spa suites that come with 24-hour access to Sap Minnekahta. Custer has even more options. About 18 miles north of the park, the bustling tourist town is brimming with inns, hotels, and motels, from all the requisite budget chains to handsome indie properties like the cottage-filled Chalet Motel and the fairy tale-looking Bavarian Inn. To immerse yourself in nature, Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park nestles you near the shores of boulder-clad Sylvan Lake, at the base of the tallest mountain in South Dakota, Black Elk Peak.
For food, dig a little deeper than trail mix with all manner of destination-worthy restaurants in towns like Custer. Skogen Kitchen is a chef-driven gem, presided over by a couple of Californians who curate an ever-changing array of eclectic seasonal fare like kimchi Brussels sprouts, lobster steam buns, and swordfish with curried sweet potato and roasted baby squash. For something sweet, Purple Pie Place is a seasonal staple (open in summer and fall) in Custer, offering a cornucopia of sweet and savory comfort foods, especially pies. In Hot Springs, Buffalo Dreamer is the cream of the crop, a rigorously seasonal staple slinging everything from Turkish potato salad and lemon-ginger mung beans to lamb chops in honey-mint sauce.