Most of the cave was pretty closed in with small little rooms and pockets but when it opened up it was pretty magical. Camera Nerd Fact: you can reasonably shoot a Sony a7r ii handheld in a cave without a flash. #findyourpark #windcavenationalpark #windcave #nps #gooutside #optoutside #nationalpark #americanfieldtrip #southdakota

The AFT Guide to Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world, and only about 5% of it has been explored. Its first documented discovery was in 1881 when two brothers passing by noticed wind coming out of a hole in the rock. As the story goes, the wind was so strong it blew one of the brother’s hats off and led them to find the cave’s only natural entrance.

Wind Cave was one of the U.S.’s first national parks—#8, designated by Teddy Roosevelt—and the first dedicated to protecting a cave. Unlike other caves in the NPS system, Wind Cave has few stalactites and stalagmites because it’s quite dry. What it’s most known for is its calcite boxwork formations—Wind Cave contains 95% of the world’s known boxwork.

Aboveground, the park preserves a swath of grassland that is home to all sorts of prairie critters and scenic hiking trails.

Read about our first visit to Wind Cave National Park here.

Most of the cave was pretty closed in with small little rooms and pockets but when it opened up it was pretty magical. Camera Nerd Fact: you can reasonably shoot a Sony a7r ii handheld in a cave without a flash. #findyourpark #windcavenationalpark #windcave #nps #gooutside #optoutside #nationalpark #americanfieldtrip #southdakota

Where Wind Cave National Park is located: 

Wind Cave National Park is located about 60 miles south of Rapid City, in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.

Getting to Wind Cave National Park: 

There is no public transportation to the park; you’ll definitely want a car for this one. The park service recommends against using a GPS to get to the visitor center. Find their directions here.

Where to stay in Wind Cave National Park:

Wind Cave has one campground, Elk Mountain. The 62 sites are first-come, first-served and open year-round. Water and flush toilets are available during the high season, from late spring to early fall. RV’s are allowed, but there are no hookups and not all sites will accommodate long vehicles.

You can camp in the backcountry if you’ve obtained a free permit.

There’s no lodging inside the park, but there are lots of motel options in the towns of Hot Springs, 15 minutes south of the park, and Custer, 30 minutes north.

Custer State Park, which borders Wind Cave, also has nine campgrounds, plus five lodges and cabin rentals. Some of Custer’s campgrounds are more developed than Elk Mountain, with hookups and showers.

How long to stay in Wind Cave National Park: 

You can see Wind Cave in two days, with one each dedicated to underground and aboveground sights. Combined with more sites in the Black Hills region, your trip could easily occupy a full week.

When to go to Wind Cave National Park: 

The weather in this area can be extreme, with sudden storms, hot summers and cold winters. Summer is the busiest season; arrive early in the day to book your cave tour. Spring and fall are less crowded, with pleasant weather. The fall foliage in the Black Hills is stunning.

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • Caving
  • History
  • Scenery

Pair with:

Custer State Park, which borders on Wind Cave, is a beautiful grassland with hiking trails, lakes for paddling, beaches, fishing, wildlife, camping, rock climbing—we highly recommend adding it to your Wind Cave visit.

The Black Hills region is full of other gems. Continue caving at Jewel Cave National Monument, visit Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, take a beautiful drive through Spearfish Canyon or the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. Check out the Crazy Horse Memorial and learn about this area’s native peoples, as well as the troubling history of Mt. Rushmore.

Some parts of the Black Hills are very Pigeon Forge-y, with everything from water parks to ropes courses to Wild West shows. If you’re into that, Keystone is a good base of operations.

Activities:

Cave Tours:

A ranger-guided tour is the only way to enter Wind Cave. Tours are ticketed, with limited group sizes, and are sold on a first-come first-served basis. The park recommends visiting early in the day or on weekends for the most ticket availability; Tuesdays and Wednesdays are its busiest days for tours.

More frequent tours and more types of tours are offered in summer. Between Labor Day and Memorial Day, your choices will be limited.

There are three main tours offered:

Garden of Eden Tour: 1/3 mile; 1 hour; least strenuous

The Garden of Eden Tour sticks mainly to the upper part of the cave, where there are small areas of the formations the cave is known for.

Natural Entrance Tour: 2/3 mile; 1 hour 15 minutes; moderate

The Natural Entrance Tour enters through a man-made entrance and descends to the middle level of the cave, then ascends via elevator. The tour focuses on the history of Wind Cave, including its discovery and early tourism. You’ll see lots of boxwork. We think this is a good option for families!

Fairgrounds Tour: 2/3 mile; 1 hour 30 minutes; strenuous

The Fairgrounds Tour is listed by the park as strenuous because it requires the most stairs—450, with 89 ascending at one point. For someone in reasonable hiking shape, it shouldn’t be too difficult. But because footing in caves is usually slippery, ducking and squeezing is required, and there’s no way to back out once you’re in the middle of it, the park is careful about its warnings. Don’t let the “strenuous” label scare you off too much, just be aware of cave conditions.

This tour takes you through both the upper and middle levels of the cave, so you get to see the widest range of formations.

Specialty Tours:

During the summer months, you can join a specialty tour:

Candlelight Tour: 2/3 mile; 2 hours; strenuous

On the Candlelight Tour, you can check out a less developed section of cave the way its early explorers would have seen it—by candlelight.The tour takes place is an unlit section of cave, and participants carry candles in buckets for light. It’s only for ages 8 and up, and there is no photography allowed. Reservations required; see here for details.

Wild Cave Tour: 1/2 mile; 4 hours; very strenuous

Learn basic caving techniques on this tour, in which participants don helmets and kneepads and crawl through tight passageways to explore the way cavers do today. Reservations are required and you can make them up to one month in advance, by telephone only (see here for details.) Participants must be 16 or older and no photography is allowed. Claustrophobes need not apply!

Hiking:

Wind Cave has about 30 miles of hiking trails. You are also allowed to hike off-trail throughout the park.

Here are a few options:

Rankin Ridge Nature Trail

A popular 1-mile loop that leads to the park’s highest point. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Badlands! It’s a moderate climb, with a steady uphill slope for the first half.

Elk Mountain Nature Trail

An easy 1-mile loop that takes in the area where the ponderosa forest borders the prairie. This is a good interpretive trail to learn more about the park’s fauna.

Wind Cave Canyon

An easy 3.5-mile out-and-back trail. There’s little shade, so bring water and a hat!

Lookout Point and Centennial Loop

A scenic 5.2-mile loop that combines portions of several longer trails. Find a map and more details here.

Wildlife Viewing:

Wind Cave is a great prairie habitat and is home to a lot of class American wildlife! You can see bison, pronghorn, deer, elk, coyote, badger, porcupine, prairie dogs, and loads of birds.

Check out bison along US Hwy 385, or explore NPS roads 5 and 6. Both are less-trafficked gravel roads and will take you past prairie dog towns and wide stretches of grassland where you may spot bison or pronghorn.

Bringing Kids:

Yes, with a few caveats. Kids must be at least 8 years old for the specialty Candlelight Tour and at least 16 for the Wild Cave Tour. The three main tours—Garden of Eden, Natural Entrance and Fairgrounds—are open for all ages.

Soft carriers (Ergo, Baby Bjorn) are allowed for carrying babies, but not structured hiking backpacks or strollers. All but the specialty Accessible Tour require that you go up and down stairs, which are sometimes slippery. Make sure kids use the bathroom before the tour, and watch them closely so they don’t touch anything!

When hiking aboveground, be aware that many trails have little shade and you’ll want to bring a lot of water and wear sun protection. Instruct kids on maintaining proper distances from wildlife, especially bison (they’re very unpredictable!)

The park has a great jr. ranger program. You can also request an activity booklet specifically about caving so kids can earn a caving badge.

Down Down Down into the Wind Cave. Nerd Fact: They call it Wind Cave because of the wind blowing out of the cave entrance that led the first settlers to discover the cave. #findyourpark #windcavenationalpark #windcave #nps #gooutside #optoutside #nationalpark #americanfieldtrip #southdakota

FAQ’s:

What is there to do aboveground?

Hiking, wildlife spotting and scenic drives are some of Wind Cave’s primary aboveground activities. If you want to add a little lakeside recreation to your visit, add Custer State Park to your itinerary!

Are the caves kid-friendly?

Yes, with a few caveats. See the “Bringing Kids” section above!

How do you take good photos in the caves?

Bring a flash! Tripods and monopods are not allowed in the cave. If you have a camera that is extremely light sensitive, you can get okay handheld photos without a flash.

Honestly, don’t try too hard. You’ll be in tight quarters with the other visitors and most of the things that are cool about the cave don’t photograph all that well (see: boxwork.) It’s hard to really capture a cave environment well without additional equipment. So just take what pictures you can get just for fun, and don’t worry too much about getting a jaw-dropper.

What are some ideas for mobility-challenged visitors?

The park offers an Accessible Tour for anyone with limited mobility. It’s a half-hour-long tour that uses the elevator to get in and out of the cave. Though the tour is offered regularly, it’s a good idea to call the park ahead of time to make sure you’ll be able to get in on the tour! Find the number and more info on accessibility, including for those with vision or hearing impairment, here.

Tips from our Readers:

“The cave is cool, but don’t skip all of the aboveground parts of the park. Great wildlife!”

“Check ahead of time about the elevator. It’s frequently not running, and then you can’t get into the cave.”

“Don’t leave without a cave tour!”

“Still totally worth the time, even if you have cave-phobia.”

“We didn’t get to do a cave tour, only hiked and drove through the park, but it’s great!”

Final tips:

Plan ahead and show up early in the day to make sure you don’t miss out on a cave tour. Be sure to spend some time taking in the prairie environment aboveground, too! And enjoy the wider Black Hills area—this is a gorgeous part of the United States, and full of fascinating history, too.

FLASHBACK to our trip out from NYC. Windcave National Park! #findyourpark #windcavenationalpark #windcave #nps #gooutside #optoutside #nationalpark #americanfieldtrip #southdakota

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