One of the interesting pullouts along the road through the park discusses the geologic history/formation of the area. If it were not for erosion these hills would be 7500 feet higher (over 14,000 feet). You also probably would not see these pink rocks. These pink rocks are called Granite Pegmatite and were formed about 1.7 billion years ago as a part of a large molten magma intrusion into an ancient mountain range.
The major attraction here is of course Wind Cave. All tours of the cave are ranger-led tours. Wind Cave is the 4th longest cave system in the world. Only a small part of it is open to the public. Of particular interest to me is how different this cave is than other caves you may have toured. It is basically a "dry cave" so there are not the stalactites, stalagmites, or soda straw formations you may be used to. Wind Cave does, however, contain 95% of the boxwork formations in the world. Boxwork Formations are thin walls of box shaped rock.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up a camp here and built the visitors center, these cabins, and made many other improvements to the park. These cabins served as their living quarters. The cabins and many of the buildings in the park are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Wherever I go I enjoy meeting the people. The rangers at Wind Cave were very nice and I enjoyed talking to them. Ranger Lacey gave the cave tour, and Ranger Marvin was informative and helpful. I do not remember the volunteers name.
There were several very well done, interesting, displays about the geological history and formation of the badlands, the vast difference in its climate and wildlife millions of years ago, and its history of human habitation. I especially liked their educational/hands-on displays for children.
The place to begin your tour of Wind Cave National Park is the visitors center where you can get a brochure and newspaper for the park; look over maps; and get recommendations from the helpful rangers on how to best enjoy your visit based on your interests and the amount of time you have to visit. This is also where you arrange for tours of the cave.
Wind Cave has several short trails to view the park. The Cold Brook Canyon Trail is recommended for birding but most of the trails give you good views of the park. If you have time do a guided nature hike/talk with the ranger. They take you out to one of the trails for a couple mile hike and discussion of the land above the caves.
There are prairie dog towns all over the park so enjoy watching them. I've included a picture of a dog picking up a pretzel that some dorky visitors used to coax it out. Please don't do this, notice the road, the world does not need more road kill. Enjoy the wildlife as wild.(OK of my soap box now)
The best buffalo watching has always been on South Dakota 87 between the cave and Custer State Park. Of half dozen visits, we've always seen buffalo along this road. We've also had to wait for the buffalo to get off the road. It's up close and personal.
DON'T GET OUT OF YOUR CAR!! These are wild beast. If they feel threatened, they'll turn on you. See warnings for a story.
County roads 5 and 6 travel across the eastern portion of the park. Here, you can visit the high plains and possibly see buffalo. You'll feel like you're a pioneer out on the prairie. Long views with no human intrusions. Plan to take a while, as the roads are dirt and the speeds are slow. Be sure to check weather conditions before you leave. You don't want to be out there is a snow storm is coming or a rare summer thunderstorm.
This is the tour that we chose to go on when visiting Wind Cave. The tour gathers outside and is led to the "natural entrance" - where the cave was first discovered in 1881 by Jesse and Tom Bingham. This entrance is much too small for most people to fit through, of course, so the park built a tour entrance just to the side of this. You descend down several hundred stairs to explore the cave.
The tour lasted just over an hour, and we really only stopped as a group to learn about the formations three times, so most of the tour involved walking through the cave. You do get to take an elevator up to the surface at the end. Tours were $8 per adult.
Overall, I would say this was only an average tour. I didn't feel the guide spent much time explaining what we were seeing, and the formations are a little dull. I do recommend it if you want to take a cool break during the hot summer months.
This tour is a lighted path with spotlights on various cave formations. There are alot of steps so you will get some exercise. There are lots of various cave formations on this tour. I'd say more than on the Wind Cave tours but very little boxwork which is more prevalent at Wind Cave. If you only have time to do one tour in the 2 parks I would choose this one.
The temp. down below is a little cooler than Wind Cave at about 50F. You can easily use a camera on this tour, again the lighting may make it difficult to get great shots but it's worth a try.
This cave tour is similar to the wind cave tour only in that you use a bucket with a candle in it. For this tour you will need to squeeze through some tighter passages. However it's not a caving tour so you won't be crawling around on your knees and stomach very long if at all.
The tour takes you into the cave via the original cave entrance. You won't see alot of unique cave formations but you will get to experience what it was like for the original discoverers of the cave.
A camera on this tour is a little difficult to use/carry due to the nature of the trail.
Wind Cave in Summer offers several different cave tours of various lengths and difficulty. For candlelight tour you walk a portion of the in lighted sections which are part of the Fairgrounds tour where you can see boxwork and popcorn and If I remember correct some cave bacon. Then they light your candle that sits in a can and you move on through the unlighted sections.
If you are a bit claustraphobic or have issues with dark places, then this is not the tour for you and try one of the 3-4 other tours that use completely lighted pathways.
If you go to the park in the summer time your tours to be in later in the day so you can avoid some of the afternoon heat. The cave is 54F/humid so if you get cold easily wear appropriate clothing.
Take a camera with Flash but it is hard to get good pictures in the existing lighting.
You and your kids will get a kick out of watching the roadside communities of prairie dogs. They scurry from hole to hole, have an elaborate warning system, feed and watch on their hind legs, and use one paw to guide in straws of grain into their gaping mouths.
These creatures are easy to spot but not to photograph. They are so timid that they are usually back in their holes or alerting their neighbors by a personal intrusion into other burrows. Watch carefully, use your zoom lens and keep still. Keep an eye out for buffaloes on every hillside. The biggest creatures in North America do not yield to man or beast.
There are about 30 miles of hiking trails in the park ranging from easy to moderately strenuous. I will discuss some of these trails in more detail under Sports Tips.