Your best visit in Wind Cave National Park doesn’t have to happen below ground. But that’s sure a huge part of the experience, so don’t miss it! South Dakota is full of amazing sites, especially on it’s western side and Wind Cave is certainly up there with the best of them.
Driving from Custer through the State Park
We started our tour of this National Park by driving east from Custer across Highway 16. Now a more picturesque way to make this drive is to start in Hill City driving southeast on Hwy 87, which is also known as Needles Highway. However, because of Cupcake’s height, this route wasn’t an option for us. We’re simply too tall to fit through some of the tunnels. But the drive across 16 and then down through Custer State Park on the lower portion of Highway 87 worked just fine for us. We still passed Mt.Coolidge Lookout and Blue Bell Lodge, both places worth a stop. Of course, our visit in late October found the lodge already closed up tight, but a summer stop is worth it. Stretch your legs, take a look around, relax a bit.
We continued straight down 87 towards Wind Cave, but Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road is said to be one of the best places to view wildlife. That is, if the newest proposed campground gets thwarted, as I’m hoping it will. The State seems to want more of the tourist industry, rather than wanting to preserve nature. I wrote to their congress as did many other travelers and natives alike, so hopefully the public outcry will keep the lands safe for the elk and bison who live here.
Since I’m on this little side tangent, Steve and I have noticed that the majority of our vast country is empty land, devoid of humanity barring the stip of asphalt we’re passing through on. I’m not sure of numbers and I know the eastern portion of the country is more densely populated than out here in the West. But it does my heart good to see so much unencumbered land. We’ve driven for miles and miles at a stretch without seeing more than a handful of cows. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Wind Cave Prairie Dog Towns
Anyway, all this to say our best visit in Wind Cave didn’t actually come from going into the caves. Coming through Custer, we began to see more and more prairie dog towns. They’re everywhere and they hold an important place in the landscape’s ecology. Shortly after passing the boundary between Custer and the National Park, we veered down a dirt road.
A couple miles of prairie dog towns led us to bison and then to a trailhead for the Highland Creek Trail. It looked like as a good a place as any so we decided to hunker down for the night. Basically, hunkering down means we pull over, hop into the back, open the slide and we’re home. Simple as that. We were smack dab in the middle of prairie dogs. I mean literally right in the middle. They whistled, they ran around, they popped up their heads, then scampered back down into their holes.
Bison came along to eat the grass in the town. They apparently have one of those symbiotic relationships where the prairie dogs chew down the tough g Irass, which brings forth fresh stalks. The bison like the fresh grass, so you often find them together. After dinner, we walked the Highland Creek Trail for a mile or so, enjoying the breezy Fall air.
Backcountry camping is permitted in the northwestern part of the park, which is where we were. But apparently we were supposed to get a free permit at the Visitor Center first. We didn’t realize that and the rangers who drove by simply waved. Maybe since we were off-season, they just let us be. Or maybe we were far enough from Visitor Centers and Cave entrances, that they just didn’t care. I’m not sure. If you’re visiting during the summer season, stop by to get your permit first. Just to be sure.
Elk Mountain Campground is also available and open year-round. Choose one of 62 campsites on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s $18 in the summer and $9 in shoulder seasons. There are no showers, electrical hookups or dump stations, but there is drinking water and flush toilets in the summer. This campground is a good option and it looked really nice. But for us, parking with prarie dogs worked out perfectly.
Our stay was just about perfect, save for the spotters who drove down the road starting about 11:00pm and returning on the hour throughout the night. Two people in a big forest service truck drove slowly with huge spotlights pointed out into the prairie dogs. They waved the lights back and forth and I could only think that they were counting the population or something. I woke to the sound of their truck and the lights shining through our windows several times. Each time right at the top of the hour. My curiosity almost caused me to hop out of the truck to flag them down, but I knew if they were taking a census then my presence outside the truck would disturb the prairie dogs..or the bison..or the elk..or the coyotes which sang as the sun went down. So I stayed put.
Best visit in Wind Cave means hiking!
If your best visit in Wind Cave includes hiking to see the rolling hills of the prairie, then you’ll be pleased to find eight trails to choose from. We really loved the Highland Creek trail, but other trails wind through Cold Brook Canyon, along Highland & Beaver Creeks and also offer great views of the Black Hill and the Red Valley. It’s truly a stunning section of the country. We loved the grassy plains across the hills, which made for a mostly-lazy meander for us. A little accelerated heart rate climbing the hills, but a lot of gorgeous views to stop and contemplate.
Touring the Caves
Touring the Caves below the Park’s surface is the main reason we drove here, so the next morning we headed to the Visitor Center. The full schedule of Cave Tours is online and I highly recommend checking it out. For us, there were only two choices, the morning Garden of Eden Tour or the afternoon Fairground Tour. These options differed from those listed online, so checking with the ranger at the Visitor Center is your best option.
We chose the Garden of Eden Tour, which is the easiest and shortest of all of them. With a few days time, I think it’d be great to take all the tours, even the Candlelight and Wild Cave tours. Steve isn’t the biggest fan of cave exploration as he’s tall and the chance of hitting his head is high. That never occurs to me at 5’4″. Anyway, the ranger took us around to see the boxwork, popcorn and flowstone formations.
Wind Cave’s boxwork
Wind Cave’s boxwork offers some of the finest examples in the world. Water drips along rock to create thin blades of calcite, forming a honeycomb pattern. The fins intersect at varying angles, forming boxes. Of course there’s a bunch of science involved, and it’s not quite so simple as dripping water creating patterns. But it’s pretty cool to see, even though my pictures don’t quite do it justice.
Our cave tour was fun and informative. There were probably about forty of us and the guide did a good job of giving us enough time to look around and explore, but he still kept us on schedule. I really would enjoy one of the longer cave tours to be able to spend more time down there. Ever since reading the Clan of the Cavebear book series, cave dwelling sings to me. Our visit to Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park did nothing to quell that curiosity. Instead it just sparked my desire to spend more time in caves. Alas, I don’t think it’s meant to be with Steve’s dislike of the cold, dark (and short) spaces.
Treading the Bat Mat
Upon leaving the cave, we walked across a bat mat. We’d expected to do this coming and going, but the ranger only had us walk over it on our departure. Seemed a little backwards to me, but what do I know. Anyway, the mat is saturated in a hydrogen peroxide and water solution to clean your shoes of potential fungus spores. White-nose Syndrome afflicts bats, killing more than 6 million bats since 2006. It’s linked to a fungus that forms a white growth on bats’ muzzles while they hibernate. Affected bats wake up early and use their energy reserves before Spring arrives. So the bats then death from starvation or freezing. That’s why it seems more important that we would have walked on the mat on the way, rather than on the way out. But again, what do I know about bats?
Wind Cave’s Visitor Center
The Wind Cave Visitor Center film wasn’t playing during our visit, but the exhibits were still nice. We wandered for a half hour or so, learning about prairie dog habitats and their part of the entire ecosystem. A huge bison pelt hangs from the wall with a sign encouraging visitors to feel it. The difference in the feel of the fur from the back to the underbelly really surprised me. Overall, I’d say the Center earned a solid C, not the best or the worst one we’ve been in.
Of course, the gift shop is open. Earning money is always Covid-free for National Parks, apparently. Not that I’m bitter, haha!
So, for me, the best visit in Wind Cave National Park means doing so hiking above ground, in addition to taking the cave tours below ground.