Wind Cave has been sacred to Native Americans for many generations. It is the central location of their creation myth, their portal of arrival on the earth. As for the white man, the cave was “discovered” in 1881 when brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham followed a loud whistling noise to a small, limestone cave under a bush. As they looked down on it, surely trying to figure it out what it was, a blast of cold wind from the 10″x16″ hole hit them in the face. And that is how Wind Cave earned its name.
It is said the cave “breathes”. Changing weather patterns bring changes in the outside atmospheric pressure. When the outside pressure increases, air flows into the cave. When outside air pressure drops, air flows out of the cave. The cave “breathes” until inside and outside air pressures are equal.
Wind Cave National Park is recognized as the densest cave system in the world. It is also one of the longest, containing over 150 miles of explored passageways, with many more miles yet to be discovered. Inside the cave, boxwork, popcorn, snowball, and frostwork formations are a few of the speleothems that decorate the surfaces.
Before we get too far into the modern history of the cave and the many amazing things to see and do in the National Park, first we will tell the creation myth of the Lakota Native Peoples. If you’re just looking for info on what to do at the park, scroll down to the next section.
The Lakota believed that there was a time when plants and animals were on the earth, but not yet bison or humans. Humans resided in the spirit lodge, Tunkan Tipi, and awaited the earth’s preparation for them. Deep in the Wind Cave, known as Oniya Oshoka, was a portal that led to the spirit lodge.
Two spirits lived on the earth, the trickster, Iktomi, who was a spider, and a two-faced woman named Anog-Ite. One side of Anog-Ite’s face was as beautiful as any who ever lived; the other was horrifying. Both Iktomi and Anog-Ite had been deceived by another spirit, Gnaskinyan, and banished to the surface of the earth. After Iktomi grew weary of tricking Anog-Ite, he decided to torment the humans who had yet to enter the earth. Anog-Ite agreed to help him play his trick, and in return he would never torture her again.
Anog-Ite made a pack and filled it with clothing, berries, and dried meats. She placed the pack on her wolf friend and sent to Oniya Oshoka deep within the Wind Cave. The wolf followed the cave paths until he found the humans. The wolf shared the treasures in the pack with the humans and spoke glowingly of the surface. The humans donned the clothing, tasted the food, and they desired for these things. The wolf told them to follow him and he would help them discover these exquisite gifts for themselves.
The human leader, Tokahe, refused to follow the wolf. He exhorted the Creator’s instructions to stay within the caves. Most agreed with Tokahe, but those who tasted the meat followed the wolf to the surface. When they reached the cave opening the people were taken by the beauty of the earth. They were led to Anog-Ite’s lodge where she welcomed them, her hideous half-face hidden from view. She taught them how to hunt and how to make clothing.
The humans struggled with the labor, for they had not travailed yet in their existence. Summer turned to Autumn, autumn turned to winter, and the people began to freeze and starve. They sought Anog-Ite for help, but she was no longer willing. She revealed the ugly side of her face, and laughed.
The humans ran and the wolf chased them back to Wind Cave. Sadly, they found the cave sealed over, and they realized they were trapped and cried in despair. The creator heard their ebullitions and learned of what had happened to them. He chastened them, and decided to punish them.
He transformed them into great beasts, the first bison herd.
When the creator instructed Tokahe to lead the humans to the earth’s surface, they passed through the Wind Cave. They saw the hoof prints of the bison, and the creator instructed the humans to follow the prints. From the bison they could get their food, tools, clothing, and shelter. The bison would lead them to water. Everything needed for survival could come from the bison.
After the last of them left the Wind Cave, the creator shrunk the hole to the size it is now, too small for most people to enter. This would serve as a reminder so the humans would never forget from where they came.
Wind Cave National Park is 34,000 acres of protected grasslands. It is a vast and strikingly beautiful prairie, home to herds of bison, antelope, elk, and prairie dogs. Lots and lots of prairie dogs.
The Visitor Center where the cave openings reside is actually a very small part of the park. Without the caves, there wouldn’t be a National Park, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the caves are the only, or even the best part of what you’ll experience at Wind Cave National Park.
We would recommend setting aside the better part of a day to experience the park. Our family lived next door to this park for three months in the summer of 2021, and we visited many times Here are some of what we found to be highlights of the park. We will conclude this article with a brief itinerary of how we would spend our time if given only one day at Wind Cave National Park.
There is something special about a bison — they are the national mammal, a majestic yet filthy ungulate that can graze like a cow and ram like a rhino.
The average adult bull bison weighs 2,000 pounds, stands 6 feet tall at the shoulder, runs up to 35 mph, and can jump six feet in the air. They may look like lumbering, fluffy cows, but they are incredibly nimble battering rams that get wicked pissed if you mess with them. If you cannot imagine what kind of damage a bison can do, youtube some attack videos and feast your eyes.
Wind Cave National Park is home to between 400-500 bison and the herds break into smaller congregations from there. Most groups that we saw were between 50-100 strong.
Every morning after sunrise the buffalo herds of Wind Cave National Park graze about the grasslands and pose for photos. The average bison eats 30 pounds of grass daily.
Some days they hang out closer to the road than other days, and some days they gather in the road. You may have to drive around for a few minutes to find them, and on occasion they are too deep in the prairie. Usually though, even if the herd is inaccessible, a few male bison will be scratching themselves on sign posts or licking salt off the side of the highway. It is very cute when they do that.
We can’t put it much more plainly: If you want to have the close-up bison experience you can: A. Sit in Yellowstone traffic. B. Wander the gigantic Custer State Park looking for them. Or, C. Come to Wind Cave and have them all to yourself.
FYI, the park is open to everyone — a highway runs through the middle of it. You do not have to pay to drive through the park and look at the bison.
The rut, or bison mating season, takes place each year between June and September. Peak season is July/August. We weren’t familiar with “the rut” when we moved to town, but it didn’t take long to hear the buzz word at work and around the campground.
The male bison are totally into their girls and jump aboard as they please (see above). These fools get around — one girl won’t do — but this isn’t just a dirty sex show. Rut season is a fantastic time to observe the fluffy cows at their grunting, brawling, galloping best.
The scene pictured below was a special morning. A large herd of about 100 bison had gathered in a picturesque valley at the north end of the park. We sat on rocky hill side overlooking the valley and marveled at their beastly behaviors.
The symphony of guttural grunts that bellowed up the valley walls was a sound we will remember throughout our travels. It was a gritty love song crooned with the ardor of a Barry White hot tub party.
And while many of the larger males followed their choice female of the day, hanging just off her back hip, perhaps guiding her to the creek for fresh tasty grass and nookie, not everyone was drunk on love. Younger male bison frolicked through the grass, bounding along, chasing each other like a game of tag. Older, sentinel bison stood guard against people with cameras and established a perimeter. It was not uncommon for a bison to stop whatever he was doing and roll in the dirt, as little clouds of dirt appeared spontaneously all across the valley.
The bison below was the very first bison we saw (and probably the biggest). He was a solo dude, walking alone down the side of the highway. He looked unwell with his tongue hung out, his eyes were fixed in the distance, reminiscent of an over-served boozer staggering home. This is the common presentation of a male during rut. It’s kind of hilarious. In many ways, they aren’t all that different from their human counterparts.
The National Parks Service hosts three primary tours at Wind Cave:
The Garden of Eden Tour: 1 hour long covering 1/3 mile at moderate difficulty. $10.
Natural Entrance Tour: 1 hour 15 minutes long covering 2/3 mile at moderate difficulty. $12.
Fairgrounds Tour: 1 hour 30 minutes long covering 2/3 mile at strenuous difficulty (450 stairs). $12.
The Tour Schedules change depending on the time of year. See the schedule here. It is worth saying that the park can get very busy in the summer, with lines forming outside the visitor center an hour before opening. The line can achieve hundreds of people in length. At these times the best tours will sell-out, or the available tour times will be much later in the day, therefore it is recommended that y’all get there early.
We have taken the Garden of Eden tour and Natural Entrance tour. Of the two we preferred the Garden of Eden. It is our understanding that the Fairgrounds Tour is the best of the three.
Boxwork is one of the features that makes Wind Cave National Park unique. No other cave on earth has near the amount of boxwork as does this cave. Scientists have been studying boxwork for over a century. They do not completely understand it, but continue to unravel its mysteries.
The boxwork is actually oder than the cave. Here’s how it works:
Because of intense internal pressures, cracks form in the limestone before the formation of the cave. In time, the cracks will fill with calcite. Acid-rich water dissolves the limestone to form the cave passageways, exposing the calcite fins (boxwork). Water drains from the cave leaving the boxwork projecting into the cave. Continued weathering of limestone may still be exposing the boxwork.
While on the tour it was mentioned that many of the pathways are tight. So tight in fact that it takes a small person wiggling on their belly in the dirt to fit through. Sometimes they wiggle like this for hundreds of yards. Sounds like a nightmare, right?
So I asked the tour guide: “What happens when someone wiggles into a tight spot and can’t get through, hits a dead end, or can’t back out? Do you tie a rope around them to retrieve them?”
The guide’s answer: “Sometimes when someone gets stuck they will panic. After they pass out they are easier to move back out of the tight space.”
Did you hear that? After they pass out. This would indicate that they panic so hard they can’t handle it and lose consciousness. I doubt that happens quickly. That’s some kind of fear.
Here’s to those who wiggle on their bellies in the dark not knowing what lies beyond. They are brave beyond belief.
J.D. McDonald brought his two sons, Elmer and Alvin, to Hot Springs, SD in 1890. The mining company which employed him filed a claim on the land that contained Wind Cave National Park, but the cave proved unfruitful for mining. The McDonalds saw the possibilities of the cave becoming a tourist attraction so they filed a homestead claim over the opening and worked on improving a manmade entrance. By the late 1880’s they had built a house over the new entrance and were taking locals from Hot Springs on tours.
With his house built over the cave’s entrance, Alvin McDonald (below right), began exploring his “backyard” using candles for light and string to mark his way. He fell in love with the cave and explored it daily. For more than three years he scoured the tunnels, naming rooms and passageways, keeping a journal in which he described his exploration. Alvin quickly realized the complex nature of the cave and wrote in his journal, “Have given up the idea of finding the end of Wind Cave”.
Most every day he was in the cave exploring or guiding tours. Some of the NPS tours given today are the same routes that Alvin McDonald developed 130 years ago. All in all he explored 8-10 miles of cave.
Alvin died of typhoid fever in 1893. He contracted the disease at the fair in Chicago the previous summer when he was bearing samples of Wind Cave to promote the cave to the Columbian Exposition. Alvin was buried near the entrance of the cave where a bronze plaque marks his grave.
In 1892 a man named John Stabler saw the value of the cave and purchased an interest in the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. Mr. Stabler built a hotel nearby to accommodate visitors and invited famous people to visit. An excursion to the cave from Hot Springs included a stagecoach ride.
Since 1891 the ownership of the cave was in dispute. JD McDonald and John Stabler were often in court defending ownership against the mining company that originally claimed the land. Eventually Mr. McDonald and Mr. Stabler fought with each other over the rights while the mining company never went away.
In a surprise courtroom decision, the commissioner decided that neither McDonald (who had bested Stabler), nor the mining company could maintain ownership for different reasons, and therefore the cave would be reserved by the government as a public resort.
The land was withdrawn from settlement January 18, 1900. Captain Seth Bullock became supervisor of Wind Cave in 1902, and he appointed John Stabler’s son, George, and JD McDonald’s son, Elmer, to be guides. A local concession was granted to George Stabler and his wife.
On December 12, 1902, Congress passed a bill designating Wind Cave as a National Park. On January 9, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation officially creating Wind Cave National Park.
If we wanted to have a perfect Wind Cave National Park experience, we would:
Rise before sunrise and try to be inside the park at sunrise. It is stunning to see the pink sky over the grasslands. In summertime this means around 06:30-07:15. It’s okay if you’re a little bit late.
Drive through the park on the 385. This is best done when headed north from Hot Springs. You should see at least a few bison lumbering along. Hopefully you will spot the herd.
There are two turnoffs for the Wind Cave Visitor Center, one on each side of the cave. The most common place to see the bison is on the north side of the turnoffs.
If you drive past the turnoff for the cave and don’t see the bison, the next right will take you toward Custer State Park on the 87 highway. Go this way. Often the bison are gathered near this turnoff. The picturesque valley is the first thing you’ll see on your left, and a good place to catch the group grazing. Drive around the backside of the valley for the best views.
If you don’t see the bison yet, keep heading north on the 87 highway until you do. If you don’t eventually run into them it is possible they’re grazing deep in the park.
When you find the Bison, keep a safe distance but don’t be a nancy either. They have a tendency to walk away from us humans if we get too intrusive. I often chose to stay in my car and take photos out of the windows or sunroof. Sometimes they would be within a few feet of my window. We are told in the winter they will lick the salt off your car bumper.
Some days we would hang out with the bison for an hour or two. It is amazing to be near them.
When you’ve had enough bison, or chased them all away, drive to the visitor center around 08:00-08:30. Get in line and make reservations for the Fairgrounds Tour or the Garden of Eden Tour. Sometimes they offer a Lantern Tour, and we’ve heard that is extra special.
You may have to wait for your tour. While you wait, there is an interactive learning center in the basement and a museum/art gallery on the main floor. There is also a gift shop. Between the three locations you could keep yourself busy for well over an hour. We have walked around the grounds a bit and there really isn’t much to see.
If you have time, take more than one tour. They aren’t all that different, but you’re here and its definitely interesting.
When you’re done touring the caves, consider driving into Hot Springs to see the Mammoth Site, or heading north to Sylvan Lake or the town of Custer. Jewel Cave isn’t too far if you’re still jonesing for a cave tour. If you didn’t find the bison earlier, be sure to look for them again before you leave the park. They move around quite a bit.
We love Wind Cave National Park. It’s like a second home and the bison are our family. Perhaps there is some truth to that ancient Lakota story.
South Dakota is one of the great treasures of the USA. The people are kind and there aren’t too many of them. The scenery of the Black Hills is some of the finest in the country. There are other places where you can find bison, other caves, and other prairies, but here they’re all in the same uncrowded place.
Thank you for reading! If you would like to learn about other amazing things to do in the Black Hills area, consider:
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