Nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park preserves not only its namesake cave, but one of the last remnants of the mixed-grass prairie that once covered the majority of the Northern Plains.
Long considered sacred by Native Americans, the cave was discovered by outsiders in 1881 when brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham were drawn to a small hole in the ground by a loud whistling noise and the accompanying wind. In time, scientists would determine that the wind blowing in and out of the cave is caused by a difference of air pressure between the inside of the cave and the outside air.
Alvin McDonald, a teenager at the time, became the first settler to explore the cave beyond the entrance, and even he didn’t enter it until the 1890s – ten years after the Binghams discovered it. But when McDonald and others finally entered the cavern, they found an underground wonderland of delicate boxwood, popcorn, and frostwork cave formations – quite a difference from the massive stalagmites and stalagmites or caves in the East.
The early explorers’ wonderment lives on today in the fanciful names of cave areas, such as the ‘Garden of Eden’, ‘Pearly Gates’, and ‘Fairy Palace.’
Soon, word circled around and inquisitive visitors came to the area. Finally, on January 9, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the area a national park, and Wind Cave was permanently protected.
Over the years since, scientists have continued to map the cave; barometric wind data hint that only 5 percent of the cave has been mapped, according to the National Park Service. Wind Cave National Park is also the first national park in the world created specifically to protect a cave.
Wind Cave’s primary mission continues to be the preservation of the underground features, but the park is increasingly focused on the prairie aboveground.
“By 1912, the protection and reestablishment of native wildlife within the park was recognized as an equally important goal,” the park’s official map and guide states. Today, the park is home to bison, pronghorn antelope, as well as bobcat and black-footed ferrets, which were brought back in 2007 under a recovery program.
On the surface, one can hike on more than 30 miles of trails throughout the park, camp, or go sightseeing, as Jewel Cave National Monument, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore National Monument are all within a half-day drive. All of the parks are directly adjacent to Black Hills National Forest.
Wind Cave has no entrance fee, but you do have to pay to go on a cave tour.
There is one designated campground, Elk Mountain, which offers sites for tents and motorhomes. Located a short distance from the park's visitor center, the campground is open year-round and has running water, although flush toilets are available only part of the year. There are no hookups, and no dump station. Reservations for the sites, which are $12 a night during the warmer months and $6 when a night when the water is turned off, are not available.