Wind Cave National Park

Location: South Dakota

Park Tally: 30/59

Orientation: Wind Cave National Park is located 18-miles south of Custer in South Dakota. It is an extremely unique place, as it encompasses one of the last remaining mixed-grass prairies in the United States, and one of the most intricate maze caves in the world. Wind Cave has plenty of sights to see above and below ground, with many other natural and historic landmarks also within a short drive of the park.

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Most iconic view:  The majority of Wind Cave’s visitors come to see explore the park’s cave system. You can only access the wonders of the cave via a ranger-guided tour. Tickets are available at the Visitor Center on a first-come, first-serve basis on the day of the tour. Be sure to arrive early in the day (the Visitor Center opens at 8am) if you want to secure a spot on some of the more popular tours! Ticket prices range from $10-$30 for adults, and $6 or under for children and seniors.

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Wind Cave is most famous for its boxwork cave formations, which was one of the main reasons it became a National Park back in 1903. The world’s boxwork collection is concentrated to 95% within Wind Cave, making the park extremely special.

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Accessible activity: The least strenuous and shortest cave tour is the Garden of Eden Tour. The ranger-led walk covers a distance of 1/3 mile, lasts for 1 hour, involves 150 steps, and enters/exits the cave via elevator. On this tour you will discover boxwork, popcorn, and flowstone cave formations. The cave is partially accessible to people with limited mobility and tour options can be discussed with park rangers over the phone or at the Visitor Center.

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A wonderful and easy trail above ground is the Wind Cave Canyon Trail (1.8-miles roundtrip), which provides views of limestone cliffs, forested hillsides and an array of wildlife. We opted to hike the easy but slightly longer Lookout Point Trail (2.2-mile roundtrip) and were treated to a beautiful scene over the rolling hills of the prairie across Lookout Point to Beaver Creek.

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For the adventurous:  The park provides a number of choices for exploring the cave system in a more “off the beaten path” manner. The Candlelight Tour is always a favorite, though be prepared to carry a candle bucket and traverse a rugged trail with minimal lighting. The Wild Cave Tour is an option for those wanting to experience the basics of safe caving, including crawling and getting dirty! The tour lasts 4 hours and is limited to 10 participants. Both the Candlelight and Wild Cave tours can be reserved ahead of time by phoning the Visitor Center.

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For an above ground adventure, the Boland Ridge hike (2.6-miles roundtrip) is considered strenuous due to a series of climbs, though the panoramic views make it worth the trek. A longer hiking option is the Highland Creek trail (8.6-miles roundtrip), which rangers will tell you is the longest and most diverse hike in the park.

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Best photo opportunities: It is very challenging to capture images within the cave itself, due to the inability to use tripods and flash photography. We found the top photography opportunities to be above ground out on the trails, particularly of the wildlife roaming throughout the park. 

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Quick facts

  • Wind Cave was designated a National Park in 1903, making it the 8th in the United States.
  • Bison were introduced to the park in 1913, with the current herd reaching upwards of 500 bison. Some other animals in the park include elk, pronghorn, prairie dog, coyote, owl, black-footed ferret, and mule deer.
  • Boxwork is not a true speleothem, but a speleogen, having formed before the cave itself!
  • Even on the hottest and coldest days the cave is still 54 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Barometric wind studies estimate that only 5% of the total cave has been discovered.
  • In 2016, Wind Cave had approximately 618,000 visitors.
  • A number of historic and natural landmarks can be found within a short drive of Wind Cave, including Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Jewel Cave National Monument, Badlands National Park, and Devils Tour National Monument.

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