Friday, September 8, 2017

Wind Cave: The National Treasure We Almost Missed

Our time in Rapid City was drawing to a close and we still had a page long list of places to go and things to see. That list included some subterranean exploring.
There are many Caves in the Black Hills, two of them are in the National Park System. 
Jewel Cave in Custer is a National Monument. 
Wind Cave in Hot Springs is a National Park.
We chose Wind Cave. It was a few miles closer, took us on some roads we had not yet driven and the cave has large spans of a formation called Boxwork that we had not seen in any other cave.

The prairie over Wind Cave.
We drove through Hot Springs and out to the park and realized that we were not just going to see a cave. 
Wind Cave National Park is a 28,000 acre prairie that runs into the Black Hills making it a kind of mixed ecosystem. It boasts a mixture of long and tall grasses with some cactus and succulents making an appearance. There are Pine, Cottonwood, and Boxelder trees.  A group of Aspens were already turning gold for the Fall.

Bison at Wind Cave National Park
The prairie is populated with bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and a small herd of elk. We stopped several times on the way to the visitor center to enjoy close viewing of the bison and antelope. 

Bison like dust baths too.
We both enjoy watching the bison as they roll in the dusty ground like puppies trying to scratch their own backs.

Wind Cave was first documented in written history in 1881 when brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham found it by accident when the wind blowing out of the cave blew the hat right off Tom's head. They went back to show friends the phenomenon and discovered that the wind had changed direction and was now blowing into the cave. The puzzling phenomenon that gave Wind Cave its name is now known to be due to the caves small natural opening and the difference in atmospheric pressure between the surface and the depths of the cave.

Lakota and Cheyenne communities have long considered the cave a sacred place. Lakota oral history describes Wind Cave as the point of emergence of The People from Tunkan Tipi-the Spirit Lodge.
Early exploration of the cave was sporadic, mining claims were unsuccessful. Alvin McDonald, the young son of the mining company's property manager, spent his teen years exploring the cave and documenting his efforts in a detailed journal. 
Wind Cave became a tourist attraction and in 1903 became our 8th National Park.

The Civilian Conservation Corps worked here extensively in the 1930's creating the elevator shaft 208 feet into the cave, building concrete steps, adding electric lights, and starting the caves official survey.
There is an exhibit of photographs of the CCC years showing the difficult work that they accomplished. Those pictures show the inventive way men moved wet concrete into the cave using half filled inner tubes slung over their shoulders.

Map of the maze that is Wind Cvae
Wind Cave is a rectilinear maze cave. 
Its 143.16 of mapped passages are contained within about 1 square mile. The map of the caves passages looks like a color coded plate of spaghetti. They are divided into upper level, middle level and lower level tiers that intersect at multiple points. These multilevel passages make Wind Cave the 3rd largest in the United States, the 7th largest in the world.

Our tour group going deeper into the cave on stairs crafted by members of the CCC in the 1930's.
We chose the Fairgrounds Tour, 2/3 of a mile through the upper and middle levels including 450 stairs over a period of 1 1/2 hours.

Boxwork formations made of paper thin calcite.

The tour gave us an extensive look at the boxwork formations as well as popcorn and frostwork, all paper thin calcite formations that are said to be so delicate that touching them breaks the fins. It is hard to imagine what the cave must have looked like before early explorers took pieces home and blasting damaged others.

The beauty of a dry cave
Wind Cave is a dry cave, so its beauty is different from the stalagmite and stalactite formations we are used to seeing in the wet caves of the eastern United States. It was a beautiful tour with a knowledgeable guide. I would have liked for it to be longer though. It is so difficult to watch your footing, be careful not to bump your head and look at the amazing geological formations.
There was a group of intrepid explorers that entered just before us to take the Wild Cave Tour. Their 4 hours of exploring included a lot of crawling and squeezing through tight places. The park provided them hard hats, head lamps and knee pads. My knees hurt just listening to their description of a 1/2 mile passage that required you to traverse it on your hands and knees. 
We are glad to have chosen to spend our last day in the Black Hills at Wind Cave.

Left for our next trip to South Dakota are all of the other attractions of Hot Springs like soaking in the Evans Plunge Mineral Springs and visiting the horses in the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. We would have also liked to spend some time in Hill City and ride the 1880 train to Keystone. Then there is the 1880 many adventures.
Our bucket will never be empty.

Wind Cave National Park
26611 US Highway 385
Hot Springs, South Dakota


  1. I have never been a huge cave fan, but Wind Cave was my favorite. I remember asking the guide how they got that concrete down there. makes my back hurt just thinking about it! :)

  2. I couldn't even picture it Jim. had to go look at the pictures. Who thinks up stuff like that?