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Wind Cave National Park Things to Do

When someone first thinks of Wind Cave National Park, they naturally think of cool, wet, underground labyrinths. But, it has more than caves! During our travels out west, we explored the wonders of Western South Dakota, and learned a lot. A drive through the prairie, hiking along the trails and learning about the Native American significance of this park are also available. So, can you go to Wind Cave without a cave tour? Absolutely.

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After driving into Wind Cave, which will take you through some smaller roads, you will find a wholly unique landscape. Transitioning to a traditional prairie, of rolling hills and minimal trees was striking. There are several pull outs on the route to the visitor center that can allow you to get a sense of the scenery and drop a little knowledge as well.

Apparently, this is one of the last remnants of a mixed-grass prairie in the area. We stopped at a pull out and heard the distinctive sounds of prairie dogs scurrying about, much to the delight of my wife. As we continued the drive, we were also able to see Bison and Pronghorn Antelope across the landscape, which was a special treat. 

  • Wind Cave is the 6th longest cave system in the world at over 165 miles
  • The Park was founded in 1903 and was the first cave to become a National Park in the world
  • Includes over 33,900 Acres, ranked 116th in size compared to other NPS units
  • You do need reservations and/or ticket for a cave tour

Coming up to the Visitor Center, which was quite expansive, we were able to take in a Ranger talk who showed all the valuable components that the Lakota were able to use from hunted Bison. 

Every part of the animal was used, from the obvious uses, food, to utilizing bone and sinew for various tools and implements. Looking at the landscape and the lack of forest resources, it makes sense that they would leverage the bison as a resource for their daily existence. 

There were several ‘ewws’ from my daughter when they described a water canteen created from the bison’s bladder, but she was clearly still interested.  Really neat stuff!

In talking with the Ranger inside the visitor center, she let us know about a ranger walk/talk that explained the origins of the name ‘Wind Cave’ and its close connection to the Native American culture. We had some time to kill before the start of that, so we were able to take in some of the exhibits. There is a nice walkthrough of the history and formation of the park in the downstairs exhibits. 

Where is the National Park Cancellation Stamps at Wind Cave?

Stamping Station at Wind Cave

The stamping location at Wind Cave National Park can be found in the bookstore off the main lobby across from the main visitor center counter. The location is well stocked with accessories and a snazzy overhead sign. Learn more about National Park Cancellations Stamps.

History of the discovery of the cave

When discovered by settlers in 1881, it was soon a destination helping to gain popularity and eventually a designation as a National Park in 1903. The Civilian Conservation Corp was key in building out the infrastructure of the park which allowed for its continued expansion. We saw the CCC also helping Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park and several other national park properties.

In 1881, Tom and Jesse Bingham heard the sound of blowing wind, but it was a very calm day. They followed the sound and came upon a hole in the ground. When they looked down the hole it apparently blew the hat of his head(!) This story started the influx of people who began to explore the cave system and it was added as a location of interest for travelers.

Native American Origin Story at Wind Cave National Park

The Native Americans see the cave as a key origin story for their culture. The natural entrance to the cave is believed to be “the doorway of the buffaloes” and hole that breathes cool air. This was believed to be the entrance to the spirit world and how the first people and bison emerged and populated plains. To the Lakota Indians Wakan Taka, or the “Great Mystery” sent buffalo out of the cave onto the hunting grounds.

Hikes of Wind Cave National Park

After the ranger talk, wife and kids wanted to peruse the gift shop and exhibits in the visitor center further. This afforded me the opportunity to take a small hike along the Prairie Vista trail and get a broader view of the landscape of this small portion of the park. Although most come to the park for the Cave, the park is comprised of over 33,000 acres providing many opportunities on the surface. My small little jaunt did not do it justice at all!

Best Hikes in Wind Cave National Park

  • Prairie Vista Trail: 0.9 mi loop trail near the visitor center. Considered an easy route and very popular, taking about 20min to complete.
  • Lookout Point Trail & Centennial Trail Loop: 4.8 mi loop trail that moves from easy to some rocky inclines. Average time to complete is about 2 hours.
  • Wind Cave Canyon Trail: This out and back trail runs 3.6 mi and is considered easy and family friendly. Taking about 1 1/4 hours to complete it follows a service road but gives views of the canyon and prairie dogs.
  • Rankin Ridge Interpretive Trail: This trail has one of the best views of the park. A 1-mile moderate loop trail that will take you 30 minutes to complete. There is a self-guide you can use from the NPS.gov app that gives interpretive information along the walk.

Wind Cave National Park Cave Tour Details

There are several Caves tours available. All are guided tours, requiring a tour ticket. Half of the tour tickets are held in reserve for same day sales which are first-come, first-served. Most sell out over an hour before the tour time. As you can tell, there is a lot of things to do at Wind Cave, so make sure to come early so you can experience as much as you can before your tour starts.

Garden of Eden Tour

  • Tour Length: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Description: A 1/4 mi (1/2 Km) walk with about 150 stairs and is the least strenuous of all that are offered. A small sampling of cave features is available. You start at a natural entrance and exit using the cave elevator.

Natural Entrance Tour

  • Tour Length: 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Description: A 2/3 mi (1 km) walk with 300 stairs and is a little longer than the Garden of Eden Tour. You start at a natural entrance and exit using the cave elevator. Suggested for families.

Fairgrounds Tour

  • Tour Length: 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Description: A 2/3 mi (1 km) walk with 450 stairs including one stretch of 89 stairs at once. This is the most strenuous walking tour, entering and exiting through the cave elevator.

Accessibility Tour

  • Tour Length: 30 minutes
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Description: A 100 feet walk and is a great introduction to the cave showing the cave’s signature feature.

Candlelight Tour (Summer)

  • Tour Length: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Description: A tour in the less developed area of the cave. Each participant must carry a candle bucket while negotiating the twist and turns of the cave. Must be 8 years old or older.

Wild Cave Tour (Summer)

  • Tour Length: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: Very Strenuous
  • Description: This is an extremely strenuous in-depth spelunking tour. You will wear a hard hat, kneepads and headlamp and be required to crawl through a passage the size of 8 1/2 inch by 24 inches before you leave on the tour. You must be 16 years of age or older. There are also equipment requirements that you have to provide (Ankle high hiking boots, long pant & shirt, and a change of clothes (to protect against white nose syndrome). Only 10 visitors per group. No cameras or phones allowed. Only available in the summer.

How do you get cave tour tickets?

Advanced tickets are recommended for the cave tours at Wind Cave National Park. To get the tickets go to the recreation.gov website. Half of the tour tickets are held in reserve for same day sales which are first-come, first-served. Most sell out over an hour before the tour time.

Which Wind Cave Tour is the Best?

That is a bit of an unfair question. If you are 18 years old and love tight spaces and have 4 hours to spare, then the wind cave tour is for you. If you are 70 years old and have challenges climbing stairs, then the accessibility tour or maybe the Garden of Eden tour is best for you. Check the above descriptions and match your time requirements and mobility capabilities with the tour and you will not be disappointed.

Wind Cave National Park Entrance Sign blue sky

Wind Cave clearly has a lot to give. There is a broad history associated with the park, from the importance of the site to Native American culture, to the early settlers and the deep explorations of cave explorers, the park has much to give.

I absolutely believe you must give this park a look and hopefully your visit will include one of the cave tours. We definitely want to come back and check that out! 

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