Wind Cave National Park is located on the western side of South Dakota. The park covers an area of 52.88 square miles (136.97 sq km).
Wind Cave was the first cave system in the world established and recognized as a national park. The currently explored part of the cave measures a distance of 149.01 miles (239.81 km) establishing it as one of the longest caves in the world. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is currently the longest known cave in the world.
Although not the longest, it is recognized as the densest cave system in the world while demonstrating the largest passage volume per cubic mile. The cave also features a number of unique cavern features like boxwork and frostwork.
Wind Cave protects more than just the cave below ground. Atop the cave rests the most extensive naturally occurring mixed-grass prairie left in North America. The prairie lands, ponderosa pine forests, and other vegetation have created a diverse ecosystem that is home to an abundance and array of wildlife.
The name of the park comes from the sounds the wind creates as it blows into the entrance of the cave. The air blows in and out of the cave depending on the atmospheric pressure. The sensation of air going in and out of the cave has led some to affectionately describe the cave as “breathing.”
Some of the more exciting wildlife sightings include bison, pronghorn, elk, bobcat, cougar, and coyote. Some of the smaller and often considered cuter sightings include raccoon, skunk, ferret, mink, and prairie dog. The park protects one of the few genetically pure free-roaming bison herds in the country. Yellowstone National Park has one of the others.
One of the longest caves in the world as well as the world’s first cave as a national park is a bucket list checkoff that is a highlight for many. However, there is so much more that this park offers those who venture into the wilderness it protects.
Boxwork, from a cavern perspective, is a mineral structure created from the erosion in the cave versus any type of accretion. It takes on a quartz-like presentation and is quite picturesque.
Frostwork is a cave formation that displays a needle-like growth. Some would say it resembles a small white pine needle branch. They are comprised of aragonite or calcite.
The frostwork is often associated with the boxwork seen growing on top of it. It may also be seen growing on top of cave popcorn which are small nodes of aragonite, calcite, or gypsum.
Wind Cave National Park Trails
The road system is complemented by over 30 miles (48 km) of hiking trails separate from the exploration of the cave below. The majority of trails are easy to moderate with only a small percentage accounted for by a difficult rating.
Wind Cave Canyon Trail
This is an easy 3.8 mile (6.11 km) that meanders along the canyon with slight elevation gains. It provides panoramic views of the prairie and canyon as well as chances to see wildlife.
Cold Brook Canyon Trail
This is a short 2.8-mile (4.50 km) trail that travels along canyon walls and picturesque rock formations. There are chances to see wildlife but take lots of water because there is no shade.
Rankin Ridge Interpretive Trail
Although it has a moderate rating, this is one of the most popular trails. It is only a 1-mile (1.6 km) loop but the terrain is rocky as you meander across the rim overlooking the prairie and hills below. Wildflowers can be seen during the spring and early summer.
Lookout Point Trail and Centennial Loop
This loop trail covers a distance of 5.2 miles (8.36 km) and 515 feet (157 m) elevation gain. The loop trail meanders through the prairie from Bear Butte and up some rocking inclines. The highlight is the scenic views of the black hills and chances to see wildlife, wildflowers, and the roaming wilderness.
Wind Cave Highlights
- All Trails, Best Trails in Wind Cave National Park, https://www.alltrails.com/parks/us/south-dakota/wind-cave-national-park, retrieved July 2020.
- Black Hills and Badlands, Wind Cave, https://www.blackhillsbadlands.com/parks-monuments/wind-cave-national-park, retrieved July 2020.
- Britannica, Boxwork, https://www.britannica.com/science/boxwork, retrieved July 2020.
- Britannica, Wind Cave National Park, https://www.britannica.com/place/Haleakala-National-Park, retrieved July 2020.
- National Geographic, Complete National Parks of the United States, National Geographic Publishing, Washington DC.
- National Geographic, Guide to the National Parks of the United States, National Geographic Society, 2003.
- National Geographic, National Parks of North America, Canada-United States-Mexico, National Geographic Society, 1995.
- National Park Service, Wind Cave, https://www.nps.gov/wica/index.htm, retrieved July 2020.
- Wikipedia, Frostwork, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frostwork, retrieved July 2020.