Today’s post is 1200 words, 14 photos, a 6 minute read. Enjoy!
Welcome back to Traveling with Tom. This week I’ll take you to Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Last week, we made a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If you missed that post, click here.
As a brief recap, we were in the Black Hills the last week of December 2022 after spending Christmas with our families in North Dakota. There it was cold, windy, and snowy. A few hundred miles to the south, the weather was mild (40-50 degrees F during the day). To say the least, it was a pleasant weather for exploring the Hills in the winter.
There were only a few cars in the parking lot when we drove up to the Wind Cave National Park Visitors Center. We arrived early to purchase tickets for the 10 AM cave tour. Tickets are available on-line or first-come first-served basis. We went in the off-season, if you want to do a tour during the busier times of the year, I highly recommend making reservations on-line at recreation.gov.Tickets for the Garden of Eden tour (about an hour) are $14 for adults and $7 for kids 6-15 and seniors over age 62. Kids under 5 are free. Charges for other tours vary. There are no fees to enter the park.
The Wind Cave Experience
Wind Cave National Park is located in the southern part of the Black Hills between Custer and Hot Springs. The park shares its norther border with Custer State Park. Wind Cave was established as the sixth U.S. national park in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It was the very first cave in the world to be protected as a national park.
Wind Cave covers nearly 34,000 acres of territory so it’s more than a cave, it has a campground, hiking trails, and wildlife. With all these amenities, this park draws about 500,000 visitors per year.
Since we had plenty of time before our tour began, we perused the exhibits. We learned there were 163 miles of explored passageways in Wind Cave. This makes Wind Cave the seventh longest cave in the world and the third longest in the U.S. It’s a dry cave meaning that the cave is higher than the surrounding water table. Dry caves are formed through the dissolution of limestone as rainwater percolates through the soil picking up CO2 and creating a weak acid. As this acid slowly dissolves the limestone, cracks and fissures appear with some enlarged enough to form a cave.
Wind Cave contains about 95% of the worlds known boxwork formations. These thin blades of calcite form on the cave walls and ceiling and resemble a honeycomb.
The Cave Tour
At precisely 10:00 AM we met Ranger Peelee Clark by the large map of Wind Cave. He told us that he’s been at Wind Cave for seven months and loves giving cave tours. He asked us to stay on the path and not touch the walls or ceiling as it leaves oils behind that can slow or stop the growth of cave parts. Ranger Peelee was happy to see so many people on the tour, the most since late November.
After the introduction to the cave, Ranger Peelee led us on a walk from the Visitor Center to the elevators that took us down to the cave entrance. After a short ride, we were ready to enter the cave.
At the entrance, Ranger Peelee opened the steel entrance door. He told us to note the sound of the wind as the door was opened. We heard a soft gush as the cave equalized the atmospheric pressure between the cave and the outside air. The Lakota Sioux knew of the cave and noted the hole that “blew air” or “where the earth breaths,” referring to the original cave entrance. Hence, the name Wind Cave.
Wind Cave is considered a sacred place by the Lakota. According to their creation story, the Lakota people emerged from the underworld by way of the hole that blew air. The Creator told them to follow the bison, they would provide everything they needed to survive on earth – food, tools, clothes, and shelter. The Creator also instructed them never to forget where they came from. Even today, the original entrance to the cave is surrounded by spirit flags as an offering to the Creator.
After stepping into the cave, Ranger Peelee regaled us in some of the history of the development of the cave. It was in 1881 when a homesteader peered into a hole in the ground. It was said that a gust of air from the cave blew his hat off. Word got around and people started entering the cave. South Dakota Mining Company staked a mining claim on the property, thinking there might contain valuable minerals. Very little was found and they gave up the claim a few years later.
In the meantime, they hired Jesse McDonald to keep an eye on the claim. He began to develop the cave with help of his son Alvin. Young Alvin loved the cave, exploring and documenting the first 8-10 miles of the long cave. The McDonalds soon opened the cave to visitors, charging a $1.00 entrance fee. Tours were held by candlelight.
We were told a story where Alvin led a group into the cave then went off on his own exploring further passages of the cave. He forgot about the visitors until the next morning. Their candles had burned out and they were left in the pitch dark overnight. Realizing his mistake, he entered the cave the next morning, found the tourists and charged them twenty-five cents for a fresh candle! Then led them out of the cave. Alvin died of typhoid 1893 after visiting the Chicago World’s Fair and displaying samples from the cave. He’s buried near the natural entrance to the cave.
Then next two photos are examples of the boxwork referred to earlier in the post. Again, we were reminded not to touch the formations, they are very delicate.
We did have to traverse about 150 stairs in the cave. We also walked through a few damp places. While Wind Cave is considered a dry cave, there is still places where moisture accumulates.
The one-hour tour went quick. Soon it was time to find our way back to the entrance with Ranger Peelee in the lead. We rode the the elevator back to ground level and exited the elevator room through a disinfectant foot bath to reduce the spread of white-nose syndrome in bats.
Back at the Visitor Center, we stamped our National Park Passports and took a few more minutes to check out one of the exhibits. Could we navigate into the depths of the cave if we had to squeeze through a tight space? Of the four of us, only one would have made the cut! Whew, caves are not my favorite natural occurring phenomena.
We also checked out the gift shop. I purchased an Adopt-A-Bison ball cap with the proceeds going to maintain this park’s bison herd. It’s one of only a few bison herds in the world that is genetically pure. Conservation of this herd is a high priority for the National Park Service.
In addition to the cave, this National Park has over thirty miles of hiking trails, a buffalo herd, and some back roads to explore. When in the Black Hills, Wind Cave is an excellent place to learn more about the natural history of our beautiful country. To learn more about Wind Cave National Park, click here.
Until next week, happy travels!