If you were planning a trip to the Black Hills region of South Dakota and trying to decide which of the area's parks to include on your itinerary, what might you do about Wind Cave National Park? Perhaps you'd consider skipping it if you've already seen Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave—or maybe caves just aren't your thing. If so, you'd miss a potential treat. There's plenty to see and do above ground at Wind Cave.
Anyone who enjoys hiking, photography, driving on scenic roads or wildlife watching should find something to like in this park, especially during the milder months of the year. Both spring and fall can be pleasant times to explore the rolling hills, mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine forests that spread across the park's 28,295 acres. October weather is a mixture of warm and cold days, with an average high of 66° F and an average low of 34° F.
This week is an especially fine time to be out and about at Wind Cave. According to a staff spokesperson we chatted with on Monday, afternoons have been sunny and in the 70s lately, with cool evenings following. It doesn’t get much better than that. Do remember, though, that weather can change remarkably quickly this time of year. Visitors shouldn't be surprised to see some snow later this month.
The park has 30 miles of hiking trails that offer the opportunity to enjoy a scene remarkably similar to that seen by Black Hills pioneers in the 1890s. Three interpretive loop trails—Elk Mountain Nature Trail, Rankin Ridge Nature Trail, and Prairie Vista Trail—are each about a mile in length and include a number of marked interpretive stops.
The 1.8-mile Wind Cave Canyon Trail is "easily walked," and one of the best places in the park for birding. Limestone cliffs provide good nesting areas for cliff swallows and great horned owls, and standing dead trees serve as homes for red-headed and Lewis woodpeckers. At the other end of the park's hiking spectrum is the strenuous 8.6-mile Highland Creek Trail. The park's website has descriptions of these and other hiking opportunities.
The park contains one of the best examples of mixed-grass prairie in the United States, and it is home to an abundance of wildlife, including bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, and even a recently reintroduced population of rare black-footed ferrets.
Although your chances of seeing a mountain lion are extremely small, they are present in the area. Hikers should be aware of the proper response to a rare encounter with these impressive predators.
Both paved and unpaved roads in the park offer some fine scenic drives. Maps of the park are useful for planning your trip, and expert advice is available at the visitor center. That facility is open daily from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm all year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, and has extended hours from late April through mid-October.
You probably know that Wind Cave is one of the few places in the National Park System where there are wild, free range bison (buffalo”). The park’s bison herd – normally maintained in the 400-450 range – roams freely throughout the 28,295-acre park except in the immediate vicinity of the visitor center and campground. A perimeter fence keeps them from wandering outside the park.
The staff at the visitor center can provide updates on places where you're most likely to spot bison. Always keep in mind that bison are large, fast, agile, and can be very dangerous. Their behavior is unpredictable, so keep your distance and observe them safely.
The bison herd is not Wind Cave’s only big attraction at this time of year. Bull elk are in the rut during September and October, and the haunting sound of their shrill “bugling” can make chills run up and down your spine. (Some people say that only the howling of wolves or the calling of loons can match elk bugling for wilderness quality.) Don’t expect to see a lot of elk up close and personal. Unlike the highly visible elk at Rocky Mountain National Park and some other places, the Wind Cave elk are on the elusive side and inclined to remain out of sight.
The Rankin Ridge Road (Highway 87) runs through the northwest section of the park, and provides sweeping vistas of both mixed prairie and ponderosa forests. This beautiful drive also provides access to the adjoining Custer State Park, another outstanding area for wildlife watching. U.S. 385 crosses the southern portion of the park and provides access to the visitor center and more fine views of open grassland.
In good weather, "Primitive Park Roads 5 and 6" offer access to less traveled portions of the park. You should check at the visitor center for current road conditions, but my wife and I had no problems this past summer in a passenger car when we ventured onto Road 5. A short drive off the Rankin Ridge Road on this well-maintained gravel road provided one of those special park moments with our own private wildlife show. Bison and pronghorn grazed a short distance from the road and the only sounds were the melodious songs of meadowlarks, the constant chirping calls of prairie dogs, and a gentle breeze in the tops of the ponderosa pines—along with the frequent click of my camera!
The park -- the very first to have “National Park” as part of its official name -- was established in 1903 to protect one of the world's largest and most complex caves, so consider enjoying that part of the park during your visit, too. You can read more about the park in a Traveler article posted earlier this year. Wind Cave offers several different cave tours throughout the year, and on a warm mid-summer afternoon or a frigid January morning, the consistent underground weather can be an added bonus for visitors.
Wind Cave is located 68 miles south of Rapid City, South Dakota, which is about a 75-minute drive. If you're visiting the Black Hills area, this park is definitely worth a stop.