In southwestern South Dakota is a single national park that is home to two different worlds. One of these worlds is among the last wild prairies in the country, a place where the animals of the plains can roam freely and where the native peoples of the Great Plains once dwelled.
However, the more famous realm in these parts is its underworld, a mysterious cavern that is still withholding secrets even after more than a century of exploration. So many people focus on visiting this deep cavern they forget to enjoy the amenities found above ground. Wind Cave National Park is famous for what lies underneath the prairie, but the duality of this place is what makes it one of the most intriguing national parks in the country.
There is also some evidence that early Europeans who visited the area, both explorers and fur trappers, knew of the caves existence but chose not to go inside it. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills pushed the Lakota away from the lands they had been allocated through treaties with the U.S., and in 1876, prospectors swarmed the area that the Lakota considered sacred. The first written record of the cave doesn’t come until 1881 when brothers Tom and Jesse Bingham heard wind rushing out of nearly square foot hole in the ground. The wind from this hole was strong enough it blew Tom Bingham’s hat off of his head. Between 1881 and 1889, various groups of people went into the cave to explore it, mostly local amatuer explorers. By 1887, about three miles of the cave had been explored and many who wandered it felt it had “no bottom.” However, mining interests would soon turn their attention to the cave and its exploration.
In 1891, a man named “Honest John” Stabler formed a partnership with the McDonald family to create the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. Together they built a hotel and stage coach station for those coming to visit the cave. In 1893, J.D. and Alvin went to the Chicago Columbian Exposition to market the cave, but Alvin caught typhoid and died later that year. Soon, a rift emerged between J.D. McDonald and John Stabler over profits from cave tours.
In 1912, attention was shifted to the part of the national park above the ground. The American Bison Society chose the park as one of the places to reestablish bison herds and helped establish a game preserve bordering the park. Over the next two years, 21 elk, 13 pronghorn and 14 bison came to live in the park. In 1935, the game preserve was incorporated into the national park and in 1946, even more acreage was added to help these animals roam freely.
Beneath the Surface
Wind Cave was formed from a limestone formation known as the Madison Limestone or Pahasapa Limestone as Pahasapa is the Lakota word for the Black Hills. The limestone deposit was located within a warm, shallow sea some 350 million years ago. As the water began to dry up, calcium carbonate seashells and bodies of gypsum crystallized within the limestone to make various formations. Fossils can still be found within the cave today, preserved in the walls.
As seas continued to advance and retreat over the next 240 million years, sediment and erosion slowly continued to form the cave. When the tectonic uplift that created the Black Hills occurred between 40 and 60 million years ago, more fractures were opened in the cave limestone and probably formed an underground river or lake that helped form the cave. Geologists believe that water slowly drained from the cave, though some water remains 500 feet below the surface.
The first official exploration of the cave began in 1902 by the U.S. States Wind Cave Survey, a group commissioned by the General Land Office and headed by Rapid City, S.D.-based surveyor Maryon Willsie. The CCC did some additional mapping in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when exploration of the cave began in earnest through a partnership with the Colorado Grotto, South Dakota School of Mines and National Speleological Society. To date, some 134 miles of the cave have been explored and mapped, but much more remains to be done.
Of course, there is just as much to do above ground at this national park. Bordered on one side by the Black Hills National Forest and the other by Custer State Park, the Wind Cave area is a haven for wildlife and hiking. In the southwestern end of the park near the cave entrance visitors will find the Wind Cave Visitor’s Center, which offers information about the cave. This area is also home to several rivers and geological landmarks including Lookout Point, Prairie Dog Canyon, Bison Flats, Windy Point, Gobbler Canyon, Gobbler Ridge, and Cold Brook Canyon.
There are various pullout stops on the park road allowing visitors to safely view the park and the wildlife within. These stops offer information about the park’s history, the geological formations of the Black Hills, the animals that dwell within the park and peoples like the Lakota and Cheyenne who once called this area their home. Some of these pullouts also serve as trailheads for those who want to do a little hiking.
Flora and Fauna
The large mammals that call Wind Cave National Park home are probably the most famous of the animals in the park. At one point, more than 60 million bison roamed North America but less than 1,000 remained when a small herd was introduced back into the park in the early 1900s. The Watching the bison herds migrate across the park is a favorite pastime of many visitors. Other large hooved mammals that call the park home include pronghorn, whitetail deer, mule deer and elk.
The blotched tiger salamander, three toads species and three frog species round out the park’s population of amphibians while reptiles in the park include snapping turtles, painted turtles, three types of garter snake, the Black Hills red-bellied snake, pale milk snake, green snake, Eastern yellow-bellied racer, bullsnake and probably the most dangerous animal in the park: the venomous prairie rattlesnake that often hides in rocks, ledges and abandoned prairie dog towns. Visitors are asked to keep their eyes and ears out for this snake when exploring the park. Creeks and rivers flowing through the park are home to six varieties of fish: brook trout, white sucker, longnose dace, fathead minnow, creek chub and mountain sucker.
While the prairie might seem like simple grassland to many, it is actually a complex ecosystem full of a wide variety of plant species. Other landscapes including river canyons and forests also dot the park. Plants found in the park include cacti, succulents, ferns, grasses, lichens, mosses, liverworts, fungi, trees, shrubs and flowering plants. Six types of cacti and succulents call the park home as do two varieties of ferns, two types of mushrooms and ground pine moss.
Numerous types of wildflowers also grow in the park and spying them is a favorite activity of many visitors. The types of wildflowers can be divided into the three major regions of the park where they are found: prairie flowers, woodland flowers and riparian flowers, meaning those that are found along the riverbanks in the park. As the rivers many carve out small canyons in the park, that has some bearing on what types of flowers grow in the area.
Things to Do
Those who don’t want to walk around the park can also get around via horseback. Permits are required and there are rules about where horses are allowed in the park. Overnight stays are not permitted for horses. Horses are not allowed to travel on roadways. Bicycling is another way to get around the park and is a great way to see the park. Bicycle traffic is only allowed on paved roadways. Those who do not want to get out of their vehicle can also see the park and visit various interpretive spots and overlooks throughout the park.
- Wind Cave National Park (U.S. National Park Service) - Bison, elk, and other wildlife roam the rolling prairie grasslands and forested hillsides of one of America's oldest national parks. Below the remnant island of intact prairie sits Wind Cave, one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. Named for barometric winds at its entrance, this maze of passages is home to boxwork, a unique formation rarely found elsewhere.
- Wind Cave National Park | National Geographic - Too many visitors leave Wind Cave National Park knowing only half of its charms. Ironically, the half they know is the half that's not visible from the surface. Above the spectacular underground labyrinth for which the park is named lies an unusual ecosystem with elements from both the mixed-grass prairie of the western Great Plains and the ponderosa pine forests of the Black Hills.
- Wind Cave National Park | National Park Foundation - One of the world's longest and most complex caves and 28,295 acres of mixed-grass prairie, ponderosa pine forest, and associated wildlife are the main features of the park. The cave is well known for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs. The park's mixed-grass prairie is one of the few remaining.
- Wind Cave National Park | Travel South Dakota - The first cave to be designated a national park, Wind Cave National Park features the world’s largest concentration of rare boxwork formations along with a 28,295-acres of South Dakota wildlife sanctuary on the surface.