Wind Cave National Park
A visit to South Dakota’s Black Hills isn’t complete without visiting Wind Cave National Park, the 7th oldest National Park and the first National Park designated to protect a cave.
A Few Cave Facts
Wind Cave is the 5th longest cave in the world. Currently mapped to 138 miles of passages, air density analysis estimates that the total length of the cave’s passages is around 2,000 miles. That’s a lot of spelunking left to do!
One thing that we thought was particularly interesting is that all 138 miles of passage are beneath only 1 square mile of surface area. Wind Cave is actually the most complex cave system known because of the way the passages wind back and forth, forming layer upon layer, kind of like a house with multiple basements.
For the cavers that still explore this cave, it takes 96 hours just to reach the furthest point to continue exploring. And there are still 10,000 known holes that they have to go back and explore!
Our visits to other caves alerted us to the White Nose Syndrome epidemic that’s been killing bats. We noticed that there was no such warning at Wind Cave. The reason is that bats don’t really like the cave due to the temperatures. There are occasional bats, but the cave doesn’t really work for them to collect en masse.
Ancient History Of The Cave
Wind Cave is one of the oldest known caves at around 360 million years old. Beneath an ancient ocean, upper level cave passages were being formed and filled with sediments. Sediments were also deposited above the limestone. Then, 60 million years ago, the upheaval of the Rocky Mountains happened, and with it came the upheaval of The Black Hills.
As you’d expect, large cracks developed in the limestone, allowing water to mix with carbon dioxide, creating carbonic acid, which slowly dissolved the limestone. Eventually the cave drained, leaving behind the complex, three-dimensional network of passages.
A 6-year old described it as Mother Nature’s Cavity due to the carbonic acid melting the rocks. That’s an apt description given that carbonic acid is the same stuff that’s in soft drinks.
Modern History Of The Cave
The Lakota tribes of the area regarded Wind Cave as sacred ground. They knew of the cave and believed that buffalo, a major source of food and other resources for the tribes, sprang from within Wind Cave.
In the early 1880s, white settlers named Jesse and Tom Bingham found the cave. They were drawn by the whistling of the wind from the cave’s entrance. Later, Alvin McDonald, not yet 18, began to explore the cave’s passages and report on the crystals, face- and animal-shaped formations, and chambers like The Garden Of Eden and the Dungeon. Once reports of the cave’s magnificence got out, tourists began coming to see the cave, paying the McDonalds and others for guided tours.
Our tour guide, Ranger Sam, said that every few years, they have to revise their tale of Alvin McDonald. First, he’d explored 8 miles of the cave. Then it was 10. Now it’s 12 or more. Cavers are actually still discovering places that Alvin McDonald found back in the 1890s by candlelight! Sam told us of a time he and a few others got lost in an “unexplored” part of the cave, only to discover string left behind by Alvin McDonald (or some other early caver). This small room and the connecting passages that weren’t yet on modern maps had already been explored by people with far less technology.
So why is it called Wind Cave anyway? Wind Cave is what’s known as a “breathing cave.” It breathes in and out through the natural entrance depending on the barometric pressure of the incoming weather system. If a low-pressure system is inbound, the cave will exhale. If a high-pressure system is coming, the cave will inhale. And we’re not talking about a light breeze here; wind speeds can actually hit 70mph in the extreme.
The Natural Entrance Tour
We opted for the Natural Entrance Tour, which starts just north of the Visitor’s Center and meanders to the elevator building on the south side. Luckily, they don’t actually make you go into the cave via the natural entrance, because it is TINY! Seriously, it’s probably no more than 18″ in diameter, but people used to enter the cave that way. (That picture to the left is the natural entrance.)
Our tour guide was Ranger Sam, who has spent much of his life in the Black Hills. His dad is nearly 70 years old and has spent 45 of them as a ranger at Wind Cave National Park. Sam is a fantastic storyteller that made the tour one of the most enjoyable we’ve been on.
The Natural Entrance Tour lasts about 1.5 hours and takes you down about 300-450 steps. Having been to Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns, there was one thing in particular that struck us about Wind Cave. The passages are incredibly narrow in most spots and what Wind Cave calls “a big room” would fit inside most of the passages of Mammoth and Carlsbad.
Another great feature of the Natural Entrance Tour (and maybe the others) is the incredible box work that you get to see. Box work is a unique cave formation that is very fragile. While there are hundreds of caves with box work, about 95% of the world’s box work is within Wind Cave.
So what’s box work? It’s a honeycomb-shaped structure of calcite, the same mineral that cave popcorn, stalactites, and stalagmites are made from.
Sam used several analogies to describe it. The best one was what we’re calling the Bricks & Mortar Analogy. Imagine a brick wall. Now remove the bricks. The remaining mortar is the box work. Or there was the Window Pane analogy. If you stomp on a window pane, then take putty and fill in all of those cracks, then remove the glass, the putty is the box work.
Basically, as the limestone cracked, calcite filled the cracks, forming box work. Over the eons, the limestone has dissolved, leaving behind only the calcite in these fascinating and unique formations.
Other Tour Options
The Natural Entrance Tour isn’t your only option. It is the only one that takes you in near the natural entrance though. All others go down the elevator.
There’s the Fairgrounds Tour, another 1.5 hour long tour. There’s the short Garden Of Eden Tour, which lasts about an hour. And if you arrive between mid-June and mid-August, you can go on the Candlelight Tour, which gives you an idea of what it would have been like to explore Wind Cave by candlelight lantern.
Sam told us that if you’re lucky enough to be on his Candlelight Tour, he puts his acting skills to use (he studied acting in college), doing the entire tour in the character of an 1890s tour guide.
Finally, there’s the Caving Tour, which gives you the experience of exploring a wild 3,000 foot passage of Wind Cave. According to the literature, this 3-4 hour tour requires good physical fitness to handle the crawling that is necessary for the exploration.
The Scenic Loop
While most of the fun at Wind Cave happens underground, there is some above ground fun to be had in the form of a scenic drive. You’re virtually guaranteed to see a plethora of different animals on this drive. We saw buffalo, pronghorn, a coyote, plenty of prairie dogs, and even a group of elk that raced to beat us across the road like a driver trying to beat a freight train.
As soon as we entered the park from the north, we turned onto the first road just inside of the north entrance, an unpaved road that meanders about the prairies and rolling hills above Wind Cave. While the road is unpaved, it’s relatively smooth and shouldn’t be an issue for any vehicle with normal ground clearance. The total distance is maybe 15 miles, but plan to spend about 1-1.5 hours driving due to the unpaved roads and stops to take in the scenery.
Getting to Wind Cave is easy, once you’ve made it to the Black Hills. Head for Custer, SD, then take US-385 south until you run right into the Park.
There’s no entrance fee for the park, so you’re welcome to visit the Visitor’s Center and drive the scenic loop. The good stuff below ground though will cost you. The Garden of Eden tour runs $7 per person, while the Natural Entrance Tour, Fairgrounds Tour, and Candlelight Tour all run $9 per person. The Wild Caving Tour is $23 per person.
Pictures, Pictures, Pictures
It’s really hard to take pictures inside of a cave that actually show anything approaching what being inside of the cave shows, but we’ve done our best. And of course there are plenty of pictures of the wildlife from the scenic loop.