One of Our Oldest National Parks was Also the First of Its Kind in the World

Active exploration is still underway at Wind Cave. NPS photo.

One of our oldest national parks was a pacesetter in several categories: it was the first cave in the world to be designated a national park, among the first NPS areas to use fire as a natural tool to maintain a prairie and forest landscape, and a key location in the effort to restore a wild bison population to the West.

Wind Cave National Park was established on January 9, 1903, and now protects the fourth longest—and one of the most complex—cave systems in the world. As previously reported in the Traveler, there's also plenty to see and do above ground in the park's 28,295 acres, with excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and hiking.

Native Americans have known about the opening to Wind Cave for centuries, but the first recorded "discovery" came in 1881, when two cowboys were attracted to the cave's small natural entrance by a whistling noise. We now know that the wind blowing in and out of the opening is related to the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface.

In the late 1800s private owners promoted the cave as a tourist attraction and business enterprise, developing access to underground passageways, and mining and selling cave formations. Accounts of early days in the cave are available in the diaries of Alvin McDonald, the self-described "chief guide" of Wind Cave. Ironically, this commercialization of the site, plus a western version of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, may have helped in its eventual preservation.

Two families who formed a partnership in 1892 to manage the cave became locked in a bitter feud over its ownership. After numerous hearings, appeals and counter-appeals, the Commissioner of the General Land Office suggested the cave be set aside as a public resort. A report on the cave's suitability for that purpose fueled congressional interest and led to national park status for the area in 1903.

Along with the cave, the NPS acquired a colorful legacy of names assigned by earlier explorers to underground passageways, formations and rooms: Petrified Clouds, Devil's Lookout, Napoleon’s Tomb, Masonic Temple, and Bridge of Sighs.

Some names, such as Hard Scramble Avenue, hinted that those early trips into the cave were a bit of a challenge. The Alpine Way was described as a "sort of a cork screw twisting through the rocks, not unlike a badly walled well, assisted at the lowest portion by a short and nearly perpendicular ladder." The approach to the Arch of Politeness was possibly inspired by the necessity of a near-crawl, referred to discreetly in one account as "a graceful prolonged bow."

Things were better by 1928, but perhaps not dramatically so, based on a report by Superintendent Anton Snyder:

"When I say that the season has been successful I mean to imply that the travel has been heavier, and that by a loyal and energetic ranger force the chaos of the heavy travel days has been reduce to sufficient harmony to send most of the people away smiling. This in spite of rough roads, lack of water, a poorly lighted cave, and no facilities whatsoever for the comfort of the visitor while he is here.

That situation has now improved considerably, and of small portions of the cave are offered daily throughout the year except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. While crawling and ladder-climbing are no longer necessary on the standard tours, the park also offers wild cave tours to undeveloped sections for those who want a more adventurous experience. Check for schedules and more details on the park website before your visit.

The vast majority of this three-dimensional maze cave is still undeveloped, and it contains the world's best collection of a rare formation known as boxwork. The passages are complex even by caving standards, and active exploration and mapping is an ongoing project. Most of the work is being conducted by volunteer cavers who are members of groups affiliated with the National Speleological Society, and the hope for a new discovery is always present.

For the first eighty years of exploration, Wind Cave was known to include about eight to ten miles of passageway. In 1964, discovery of the route named the Spillway led to over seventy miles of cave, and over 129 miles of passages have now been mapped! This makes Wind Cave the third longest cave in the United States and fourth longest in the world.

The park website includes information about cave geology, formations, exploration, meteorology and natural history, along with trip reports from ongoing exploration and mapping efforts.

All the action at this park, however, isn't underground. Wind Cave was one of the first parks to embrace the role of fire as a natural process. A small test burn in 1973 has gradually led to a plan that allows almost all of the park's vegetated areas to burn in small increments every ten to twelve years. This cycle mimics the natural fire regime and has become a critical tool in managing the area's mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine forest. The result is not only a healthier, natural landscape, but also one which is both attractive to human eyes and ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife.

Although the park was originally established to protect the cave, it soon embraced a wider role in wildlife protection. By the early 1900s, bison, elk and pronghorn had been hunted almost to extinction; fewer than 600 bison are believed to have remained at one point, and wildlife enthusiasts became interested in reestablishing herds in the West.

Wind Cave National Park was chosen as a site for that effort, and the Wind Cave National Game Preserve was established on land adjoining the park in 1912. During the next several years, elk and pronghorn antelope joined bison in the Preserve, and in 1935 that area was officially incorporated into the park boundary. Today all three species are well-established in the park.

The 14 bison that started the Wind Cave herd in 1913 were a gift from the American Bison Society. Along with six additional bison received from Yellowstone in 1916, they were believed to have descended from the last remaining wild bison. This makes the park’s herd significant to bison conservation, because they are without evidence of cross-breeding with cattle and are genetically diverse and disease-free.

That wildlife preservation tradition continued with the reintroduction in 2007 of one of the rarest mammals in North America. Black-footed ferrets are natural residents of prairie dog colonies, but by the 1980s, prairie dog eradication programs throughout the country had pushed ferrets to the brink of extinction.

Wind Cave has a well-established population of prairie dogs, but they have few natural enemies in the park, and their numbers can grow quickly. Prairie dogs are the primary component of a ferret's diet, so returning the small predators to the area will help control the prairie dog population while assisting in the potential recovery of this endangered species.

The western "Hatfields and McCoys" are no longer feuding here, and you can easily spend a day in the park in combination with the outstanding wildlife-viewing opportunities at the adjoining Custer State Park.

Wind Cave is located on the southern edge of the popular Black Hills region of South Dakota, and can provide a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the area's tourist attractions. The park website includes driving directions and maps and other details to help plan a visit.