|Exploring Club Room of Wind Cave (NPS)|
Wind Cave National Park, in the southern Black Hills near Custer, South Dakota, is really two parks in one–both of which are stunning and surprising.
The surface is 28,000 acres of a complex mix of prairie grasses and ponderosa pine forest ecosystems with an array of wildlife. (More on this later.)
Secreted beneath this unique intact prairie is one of the world’s longest caves, say rangers at the park. Named for barometric winds–a loud whistling noise, emitting from a small hole in the ground at the cave’s only natural opening–this complex labyrinth of passages contains unique calcite formations – boxwork.
|Wind Cave NP Visitor Center. (Julianne G. Crane)|
The Wind Cave Visitor Center is the place to start. It is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, with extended hours during the summer. (Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.) All cave tours (escorted by park rangers) begin at the visitor center and are offered daily throughout the year when the visitor center is open. The visitor center features three exhibit rooms about the geology of the caves and early cave history, the park’s wildlife and natural history, and the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the park.
Among the underground adventures is the Natural Entrance Cave Tour that winds through the middle level of the cave. Wind Cave’s famous boxwork (right) is abundant throughout this trip. Most of the 300 stairs along this route are down. This moderately strenuous 1/2-mile tour lasts 1¼ hours and exits the cave by elevator.
Tour Fees are reasonable, (depending on tour) $5-$6 for seniors and $10-12 for 17-61. Holders of the Senior (Golden Age)/Access Passes are eligible for half price tickets for cave tours and camping fees for the cardholder only.
|Bison herd freely roam Wind Cave National Park. (NPS)|
Bison, elk, prairie dogs roam on open grassland
Above the 6th largest cave system in the world, the vast majority of the Wind Cave National Park is open grassland, and living in that ecosystem is a large variety of mammals.
The breathtaking Wind Cave bison herd is one of only four free-roaming and genetically pure herds on public lands in North America. The other three herds are the Yellowstone Park bison herd, the Henry Mountains bison herd in Utah and on Elk Island in Alberta, Canada.
|Blacktail Prairie Dog (Julianne G. Crane)|
The Blacktail Prairie Dog (right) is one of the more sociable wild animals of the grasslands. is a rodent that belongs to the squirrel family. “The name ‘prairie dog’ came from their bark-like call, not from their appearance. They were called ‘petit chien’ or little dog, by early French explorers and were scientifically described in the journals of Lewis and Clark,” according to the park’s website.
There are 30 miles of hiking trails where visitors can view the native plants and wildlife of the prairie ecosystem.
To find the Wind Cave National Park Visitor Center take US Hwy 385 about 20 miles south of Custer, SD; and 11 miles north of Hot Springs, SD.