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Exploring Wind Cave National Park

by Grant
Wind Cave National Park

We list Wind Cave National Park as one of our five hidden gems of the National Park Service for a reason. Despite being a national park, most folks have never heard of Wind Cave NP. Those that have think it is just a cave to visit.

The cave is amazing. It is the densest cave formation in the world and is home to 95% of the world’s boxwork formations. 

Bison and calf in Wind Cave National Park
Bison and calf in Wind Cave National Park

But Wind Cave National Park is so much more than just a cave. It is nearly 34,000 acres at the southern end of the Black Hills where it meets the prairie. Wind Cave NP is also home to one of the few genetically pure bison herds in the world. 

The rugged landscape above ground is every bit as amazing as the cave below. 

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Cave Tours in Wind Cave National Park

Unlike some caves, you cannot tour Wind Cave on your own. The Park Service offers six different tours of the cave ranging in length from an hour to four hours. 

When we first visited in 2012, we did the Candlelight Tour. It’s a two-hour tour that is a bit strenuous and requires long pants, a jacket and hiking boots. 

It was awesome! It remains one of the best cave tours we have ever done. One of our favorite moments was blowing out the candles and just sitting in the darkness. It was so weird to not be able to see anything at all. 

I wish I could show you some pictures from this tour but the park service does not allow cameras. I will just say that seeing the cave this way was so pretty. We returned to Wind Cave in 2020 but a broken elevator plus the COVID-19 outbreak prevented any cave tours.

Cave Tour Requirements

One thing to note if you are planning on also visiting Jewel Cave is that the clothes you wear in Jewel Cave (or any other cave) cannot be worn here to help contain the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a disease that affects bats. That said, Jewel Cave does not have these restrictions, meaning you can wear the clothes you wear in Wind Cave in Jewel Cave.

Read more about visiting Jewel Cave National Monument.

The Park Service requires reservations for the Candlelight Tour and the Wild Cave Tour (a four-hour long strenuous tour). You can make those reservations up to a month in advance. The Park Service offers other tours on a first come, first serve basis. The park recommends getting there early in the day during the summer to avoid sold out tickets.

The Natural Entrance

While you are at the Visitor Center, be sure to walk the brief trail to the Natural Entrance to the park. Here, you will discover why they call this place Wind Cave. This cave breathes. Depending on the atmospheric pressure, it either sucks in or pushes air out of this tiny entrance where the first cave explorers entered the cave.

Bonnie at the Natural Entrance to Wind Cave letting the "wind" blow her hair.
The Natural Entrance to Wind Cave actually breathes! Depending on the air pressure, air will either rush out or in.

The Natural Entrance is also a holy site in the Lakota culture and is regarded as where the Lakota emerged from the spirit world to the earth. 

You can read more about the Lakota emergence story here.

Exploring the Rest of Wind Cave National Park

While the cave is what everyone is drawn to, be sure to get out to explore the rest of the park, too! If you get your tickets for later in the day (when its hot outside), that gives you plenty of time to explore the park both in your car and on foot. 

Driving Wind Cave National Park

There are two major roads that go through Wind Cave National Park, US 385 and SD 87. Most folks will enter the park on US 385 and we recommend stopping at the various turnouts along the road. You will see some nice prairie views and have the opportunity for a relatively easy hike at the Cold Brook Canyon Trail (more on that below). 

Grant checking out one of the interpretive signs in Wind Cave National Park.
Grant checking out one of the interpretive signs in Wind Cave National Park.

But if you really want to see the park, take SD 87 north and be sure to hit every turnout. The terrain is rugged and beautiful, even in the winter. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. You will often find bison at the southern end of SD87 or on US 385.

Read more about visiting the Black Hills in the winter.

As you head north, be sure to stop at Rankin Ridge to hike the Rankin Ridge Trail. It is a relatively short hike but it has some of the best views in the park. 

The fire tower atop Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National Park.
The fire tower atop Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National Park.

We recommend taking the trail clockwise, which takes you up a wooded ascent to the top with gorgeous views. 

While you are driving and hiking, keep an eye out for wildlife, including bison, elk and pronghorns. 

Wind Cave Dirt Roads

Continuing north on SD 87, just before you get to Custer State Park, which borders Wind Cave National Park on the north end, you will see a dirt road heading east. Take this dirt road to take you into the backcountry of Wind Cave National Park. 

One of the dirt roads in Wind Cave National Park.
One of the dirt roads in Wind Cave National Park.

The road will take you past a few prairie dog towns and keeps on going until it gets to the Red Valley. If you take Park Road 6, it will take you north into Custer State Park, intersecting with the Wildlife Loop. You can turn this into a loop by heading west until you get back to SD 87. 

Check out our article on all the great things to do at Custer State Park.

Exploring the backcountry is a lot of fun and you will likely find bison along the way. 

Bison herd in Wind Cave National Park.
Bison herd in Wind Cave National Park.

Hiking Wind Cave National Park

Aside from Rankin Ridge Trail, we have hiked a couple of nice trails in Wind Cave National Park. But before we talk about the trails, let’s talk about safety. 

You will likely not have any cell phone service while you hike, so be prepared to handle any emergencies on your own when you go hiking. We recommend carrying the Ten Essentials on all but the shortest hikes.

Check out our recommendations for the 10 essentials here.

Bonnie hiking the Cold Brook Canyon Trail in Wind Cave National Park.
Bonnie hiking the Cold Brook Canyon Trail in Wind Cave National Park.

You can fully expect that you may run into bison or other wild animals on the trail. The bison, in particular, can be quite erratic. We recently had a run in with a herd of bison on the trail in North Dakota that reminded us bison can and will do whatever they want. 

You won’t find a ton of shade on many of the trails and it gets hot here in the summer, so be prepared. Hike earlier in the day to avoid the worst of the heat.

Cold Brook Canyon Trail

2.8 miles | 200 foot elevation gain

This trail starts just off US 385 on the south side of the park. It meanders down through the trees onto the prairie. Following the trail, you will go through a small canyon with a small creek flowing through it. 

The Cold Brook Canyon Trail leads right through a prairie dog town.
The Cold Brook Canyon Trail leads right through a prairie dog town.

The trail is mostly flat and runs right through a prairie dog town. It’s fun to see the differences between the prairie dogs here and other places where they are more accustomed to humans. These guys were definitely not happy we were walking through. 

On the way back, you have to climb back up to the road. It is not bad but we were definitely feeling the uphill by the time we made it to the truck. In all, this is a relatively short hike that gives you a taste of what life is like here. 

Grant stopping on the Cold Brook Canyon Trail in Wind Cave National Park to admire the canyon walls.
Grant stopping on the Cold Brook Canyon Trail in Wind Cave National Park to admire the canyon walls.

Lookout Point and Centennial Trail Loop

5.2 miles | 515 foot elevation gain

This hike is probably one of our absolute favorite hikes… Not because of the hike itself but because of the experiences we had on this trail back in 2012. We got watch as a coyote chased down and killed a fawn, all while the mother bleated helplessly. It was like being in an episode of Wild America right in front of us. Later in the hike, we ran across a bison carcass, yet another reminder of the circle of life.

Read more about our 2012 hike here.

A bison carcass along the Lookout Point Trail.
A bison carcass along the Lookout Point Trail.

In terms of the hike itself, this combines the Lookout Point Trail and a section of the Centennial Trail into a really nice loop through the prairie atop Wind Cave. If you take the trail counter clockwise, you will avoid the worst of the incline. 

What I love about this trail, aside from the experience, is rugged beauty, half in the Black Hills, half in the plains. This trail truly gets to the heart of Wind Cave National Park above the ground.

You can turn the Lookout Point Trail into a loop by coming back on the Centennial Trail.
You can turn the Lookout Point Trail into a loop by coming back on the Centennial Trail.

Final Thoughts on Wind Cave National Park

This park is often overlooked by visitors to the Black Hills as only a cave. And while the cave is quite special, the above ground part of the park is pretty spectacular, too. 

We highly recommend earmarking a full day to visit this park. We suggest getting a cave tour set for the middle of the afternoon if possible. After that, get out on the trail or the road and explore the park while it’s cooler, then cool off in the cave afterwards. 

View of the Black Hills from  Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National Park.
View of the Black Hills from Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National Park.

Don’t neglect the dirt roads either. They are an easy but beautiful drive. 

The other great feature of Wind Cave National Park is its proximity to the other amazing places, like Custer State Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the other sites and towns of the Black Hills.

Check out our full guide to visiting the Black Hills.

In all, Wind Cave National Park is one of our hidden gems for good reason: there’s a lot of beauty in a park you can explore in one day. We have been here four times now and are looking forward to coming back to do some more trails!

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2 comments

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Roxann Simms August 23, 2020 - 7:31 pm

We did all these wonderful sites in 2007 while attending the Sturgis Rally. It is some truly awesome country! Loved revisiting it with you.

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Grant
Grant August 24, 2020 - 1:38 pm

So glad you got to experience this wonderful place, too!

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