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Park History: Wind Cave National Park


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.

Visitors to the park can experience three different caves tours, each between 1-2 hours long. During the summer, candlelight and wild caving tours are also offered.

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.


I think the stories that accompany cave discoveries are usually pretty funny. It is so typical that the caves find their discoverers. Thanks for the writeup Chance. Your contributions are a great addition to the site.

I lived near Wind Cave National Park for years and have not only been on may cave tours there and camped, but actually worked for the Construction Co. that built most of the current buildings.

What I would like to share is the other animals (not mentioned) at the park. Praire Dogs are the most prevelant and if you visit you will see them everywhere. Coyotes also are present and numerous birds.
I make a detour through the park every year when I travel to South Dakota.

Thanks, Chance. I enjoy reading all of your articles.

Beautiful cave, beautful landscape... I was disappointed that I didn't feel any wind when touring the cave though. I got the story about the little blowhole and was somewhat let down. But I'll definitely be back again sometime. Last summer it was Jewel Cave's turn -- another park gem (haha heehee).

Just a quick correction: the formation in the cave is called "boxwork" and probably 90 percent of the world's boxwork is found at Wind Cave. But I agree with Barky here, part of the park that many visitors miss, I think, is the wildlife on the surface. For a small park, it's got quite an abundance of easy-to-see wildlife. And--also good news--this last summer the park reintroduced black-footed ferrets--possibly one of N. America's most endangered mammals--to the prairies. An exciting day.

Ranger Chris
God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars." -Martin Luther
wonderly00, The Lone Ranger

I also think there are elk in Wind Cave NP. When my wife and I were there in 2006, we climbed to the top of a fire tower atop Rankin Ridge. A ranger was in the tower with one of those radio/antenna jobs, trying to figure out where some radio-collared elk were at.

The ranger also took the time to relate some stories of fire spotting, and to give us an example how they use the triangulation method of determining a fire's location. We had a great time at Wind Cave, above and below the ground.

I think that tiny little Wind Cave NP is my favorite National Park of the whole system (that I've seen so far, that is). It's not so much the caves as it is, as Paul says above, for the wildlife of the park. Ever since the early part of the 20th Century, Wind Cave has acted as a wildlife preserve for bison, antelope, and elk, and has a very healthy population of prairie dogs, eagles, hawks, and even possibly some big cats. I loved hiking through the Wind Cave area, it's beautiful country in and of itself. Other parks have great vistas or geologic magnificence, whereas Wind Cave's landscape is simple. But the park is full of wildlife, just like the entire country used to be at one time.

first off i have been going to wind cave for 39yrs.,i do know a little bit about it..get rid of the prairie dogs as best you can,i was there last year,they have taken over custer park,and are eating their way to wind cave...less grazing for the elk and buffalo...duh....

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