Of Boxwork and Bison: Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave, in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota, was created as America’s eighth national park in 1903 and was the first to protect a cave. During the three days that we visited, we took two tours in the cave, unique in its abundant boxwork formations, which are found virtually nowhere else in the world. In addition to our underground adventures, we completed a ridge hike and an overnight backpacking trip above ground. We also spent time on a safari of sorts, tracking animals, including herd of bison, along Wind Cave’s backcountry roads.

We began our time in the park in the cave itself, taking the popular Natural Entrance Tour. In 2016 617,377 people visited Wind Cave, ranking it 30th among the 59 parks. As the park receives 75 percent of its yearly visitors in the summer, there was a wait for walk-up tour openings. So we booked a tour for late in the afternoon and set off to explore the above ground areas of the park.

Perhaps our favorite activity during our time at Wind Cave were the drives we took to observe animals on the park’s two unpaved roads. We spent hours watching prairie dogs by the side of the road, as well as tracking some of the approximately 500 bison in the park. The current total originates from 14 animals donated to Wind Cave by the Bronx Zoo in 1913.

We found a herd of about 70 bison, including several calves that were a reddish brown color, in contrast to their darker color parents. Viewing the herd from a safe distance in our car as it crossed the road reminded us of being on safari in Africa. We enjoyed it so much that we came back the next day and drove around again. The second time we spied some pronghorn that were close enough to photograph.

Dirt road through the park
View of grasslands from the road
Prairie dog from the side of the road
Herd of Bison with calves passing by us
Pronghorn seen during our drive

Back on our National Entrance Cave Tour, we expected to enter through a natural large opening, just as we had at Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave. Instead, we were surprised to see that the natural entrance was just a small hole. Our ranger guide, a native Lakota, showed us how the cave “breathes” through its natural opening. Sacred to the American Indians, the cave was “discovered” in 1881 when brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a loud whistling noise from the natural entrance hole. When they got closer, the wind coming out from the cave blew Tom’s hat off.

The “wind” from the cave is created when the atmospheric pressure inside is higher than outdoors (a low pressure system), causing air to flow out. High outside pressure has the opposite effect, causing air to flow into the cave’s opening.

Ranger showing us the wind blowing out of the cave’s natural entrance (hole on bottom right)

After the demonstration we entered Wind Cave through an adjacent man-made entrance to journey to its middle level, 210 feet down, and reached via 300 steps. Soon we could see the honeycomb-shaped boxwork on the ceilings and walls around us. Wind Cave contains 95 percent of the world’s boxwork. It is comprised of calcite and was formed before the cave itself.

Long ago, cracks in the limestone rock were filled with calcite. When acid-rich water dissolved the limestone to form the cave passages, calcite fins were exposed. As the water drained, the boxwork was left. Because there was less active water flow in the cave, fewer dripstones, stalactites, or stalagmites are found. The cave passages were narrow so we had to be careful not to hit our heads as we walked. The tour ended at an elevator, which took us back to the surface.

Cave passage with boxwork during the Natural Entrance Tour
Ceiling closeup of boxwork
Posing in the cave
Cave passage near the elevator

Before we arrived at Wind Cave, we reserved spots on the specialty Candlelight Tour. What made this tour different was that each of the 10 people present carried a bucket with a battery-operated candle. We took the elevator down to where we had left off the previous day on the Natural Entrance Tour to begin our journey to a different part of the cave. The candles were our only source of light as we spent the next two hours in primarily unlit portions of the cave. In addition, we journeyed through a less developed section, walking on unpaved terrain. Several times we needed to use our hands (with furnished gloves) to hold on to the cave’s walls to inch up or down some steep sections. We found it to be a challenging and a unique way to experience the cave.

During the Candlelight Tour we got a real appreciation for the density of Wind Cave, as it was almost impossible to have any sense of direction while walking. In fact, the group was surprised when the ranger told us, as we were entering a room, that we had already been there 30 minutes earlier.

Wind Cave is considered a three dimensional maze cave and is the densest in the world. Its current mapped distance of 145.3 miles of interconnected passages lie beneath only 1.2 square miles of total surface. Wind Cave is currently the sixth longest cave in the world, but experts believe that only about five percent of it has actually been mapped, leaving more discoveries to come.

We left the constant 54 degrees F temperature of the cave to explore the surface in 90 degree weather. Wind Cave is one of America’s smallest national parks, comprised of just 33,851 acres, but still has 30 miles of trails. Sixty percent of the park is open grassland, and we trekked 10.75 miles through the mixed grass prairie in two different ways.

Our first hike took us to Borland Ridge. The strenuous trail climbed 2.5 miles to the top of a ridge (making 5 miles round trip) with views of the Black Hills and valleys below. During the hike we walked out of the grassland and into pine forests. Both wildflowers and animals were abundant. We saw deer and pronghorn in the distance. The most exciting part of the hike was making a wide berth around a lone bison sitting near the trail. Even in mid-morning the temperatures were approaching 90 degrees, so we took several breaks and continually drank water to stay cool and hydrated.

Looking towards Borland Ridge as we start our hike
Butterfly and flowers along the Borland Ridge Trail
Darren maneuvering around a sitting bison on the trail
View from the top of Borland Ridge
Darren hiking down the trail lined with wildflowers

Our second hike commenced in the late afternoon, as we proceeded to spend a night in the backcountry adjacent to the Centennial Trail. The trail, 111 miles long and created for South Dakota’s statehood centennial in 1989, has its southern terminus in Wind Cave National Park. We began our hike there, following Beaver Creek and walking through a beautiful canyon with rocky walls. We followed the creek until it actually disappeared under a limestone cliff.

Hiking on the Centennial Trail
Canyon views along the Centennial Trail
Darren looking into the disappearing creek

From there, the path climbed steeply out of the canyon and onto a ridge. At that point we began to look for a flat place to camp out of sight of the trail. We found a suitable area under a grove of pine trees. Their shade was welcome on the hot and humid day. After the tent was set up, we ate dinner and slept under the stars without the tent’s rainfly.

Pine trees suitable for camping
Camping under the stars in our tent

The next morning we made breakfast and packed up, turning on the trail the way that we came. At the bottom of the canyon we joined the Lookout Point Trail to create a loop back to our car. The trail climbed to a grassy overlook, where we saw a coyote cross the path a short distance in front of us.

Darren packing up to leave in the morning

Before ending our time in the Black Hills, we drove a short distance to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. I had been there many years ago, as a young child, but Darren had never visited. Nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring experience of seeing the carved faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. We marveled at the carving details, including the realistic looking eyes and spectacles on Theodore Roosevelt’s face. While there, we hiked the Presidential Trail to a viewpoint looking up under the four presidents.

The carved faces of Mount Rushmore
Looking up to the carved faces from the Presidential Trail viewpoint

Next, our travels take us next to the only national park named after a person: Theodore National Park in North Dakota.

Hiking in Wind Cave National Park

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