S Dakota National Parks: Complete Guide to Wind Cave NP 

Wind Cave National Park is one of the hidden treasures among South Dakota’s national parks. Situated in the picturesque Black Hills of South Dakota, this area has incredible underground caves to explore, unique geological formations, and breathtaking landscapes. 

In addition to the mesmerizing underground world, the park has many above-ground experiences as well. There is everything from wildlife viewing and scenic drives to hiking through diverse terrain and camping under the stars. 

So sit back and relax as we discuss everything you need to know about Wind Cave National Park!

hilly and grassy landscapes of the above-ground portion of Wind Cave National Park
The hilly and grassy landscapes pictured here are typical of the above-ground portion of Wind Cave National Park.

How to Get There & Where to Begin

If traveling by air, the nearest major airports are Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) and Denver International Airport (DEN). You can rent a car from either airport and drive to the park.

For those traveling by car, Wind Cave National Park is accessible via major highways. If you’re coming from the east or west, take Interstate 90 and exit at Custer, South Dakota. From there, follow U.S. Highway 385 south to the park’s entrance. If you’re traveling from the north or south, take U.S. Highway 385 and follow the signs to the park.

Once you arrive, the Visitor Center is the starting point for your exploration. It’s located near the park’s entrance and offers information, maps, and guided tour tickets. The park is well-marked, with plenty of signs, guiding you to various points of interest, hiking trails, and the cave entrance.

Best Time to Visit S Dakota National Parks 

The best time to visit is spring and fall. In the spring (April to May), the park comes alive with vibrant wildflowers, and temperatures are mild and pleasant. It’s an ideal time for hiking, wildlife viewing, and exploring the park’s scenic landscapes. 

The fall season (September to October) contains similar benefits, with cooler temperatures, beautiful autumn foliage, and a more peaceful atmosphere as crowds tend to be smaller. 

During these seasons, you can enjoy comfortable weather, fewer visitors, and the opportunity to witness the park’s wildlife and natural beauty at its finest. However, it’s important to check the park’s website for any updates, as weather conditions and seasonal variations can vary from year to year.

Things to do Inside Wind Cave South Dakota 

A visitor admires the stalactites that hang from the cave ceiling at wind cave s dakota national parks
A visitor admires the stalactites that hang from the cave ceiling. NPS photo

There are several fun activities and experiences to enjoy inside the depths of the cave. Here are some of the things you can do while exploring this subterranean wonder:

Guided Cave Tours: Take a guided cave tour to witness the spectacular beauty and distinctive geological features that the region is renowned for. Expert guides will lead you through the passages, sharing fascinating insights about the cave’s history, geology, and formation.

Marvel at Boxwork Formations: Keep your eyes peeled for the complex boxwork formations that decorate the walls and ceilings of Wind Cave. These delicate honeycomb-like structures are a rare sight and add to the cave’s extraordinary setting.

Experience a Candlelight Cave Tour: For a truly magical adventure, opt for the Candlelight Cave Tour. Explore the cave illuminated solely by the flickering light of candles, transporting you back to when early explorers roamed here hundreds of years ago. 

Wildlife Viewing: While inside the cave, watch for remarkable cave-dwelling creatures such as cave crickets and other specialized wildlife that have adapted to the underground environment.

Photography: With its intricate formations and otherworldly feel, the cave provides ample opportunities for stunning shots.

Appreciate the Silence: Experience the serene and peaceful ambiance within the cave as you traverse these caverns. 

Cave Tour Options 

A park ranger guides visitors through the caverns along the Candlelight Cave Tour at wind cave national park
A park ranger guides visitors through the caverns along the Candlelight Cave Tour. NPS Photo / Sheena Harper

Natural Entrance Tour 

  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Distance: 0.5 miles
  • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Description: This tour takes you through the natural entrance of Wind Cave and explores a portion of the cave’s twisted passageways. It shows off a fascinating glimpse into the geology and formations of the cave.

Fairgrounds Tour 

  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Distance: 0.6 miles
  • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Description: The Fairgrounds Tour ventures deeper into the lower level of Wind Cave, showcasing the remarkable boxwork formations for which the cave is famous. It’s an opportunity to appreciate the fragile beauty of this distinctive feature.

Garden of Eden Tour

  • Duration: 1.5 hours
  • Distance: 0.8 miles
  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous
  • Description: The Garden of Eden Tour is a more physically demanding experience that explores a greater portion of Wind Cave. It involves climbing stairs, navigating narrow passageways, and encountering various cave formations, including the special honeycomb-like boxwork.

Candlelight Cave Tour 

  • Duration: 1.5 hours
  • Distance: 0.6 miles
  • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Description: The Candlelight Cave Tour is a truly extraordinary experience, as the cave is lit only by candlelight. This tour takes you through selected areas of Wind Cave, giving you a feel for what the cave’s early exploration felt like.

Things to See at Wind Cave South Dakota You Don’t Want to Miss 

The beautiful lattice boxwork formations along the Garden of Eden segment of Wind Cave National Park
The beautiful lattice boxwork formations along the Garden of Eden segment of Wind Cave National Park.

Here are some of the highlights of the park’s must-see natural wonders:

Garden of Eden 

Located near the cave entrance, the Garden of Eden is an excellent spot to view the cave’s beautiful formations. Gorgeous boxwork formations and other unique features cover the walls and ceilings, creating a mesmerizing underground landscape.

Lookout Point 

Lookout Point has striking panoramic views of the surrounding Black Hills and prairies. From this vantage point, you’ll see an expansive landscape of beautiful forested hills and vast grasslands.

Rankin Ridge 

This nature trail leads you to the top of Rankin Ridge, rewarding you with sweeping vistas that extend for miles. This elevated viewpoint provides a remarkable perspective of the park’s diverse terrain and the Black Hills.

Prairie Overlook 

Located along the Prairie Ecology Trail, this Overlook offers a lovely view of the sprawling grassland prairies that stretch across the park. 

Hiking Trails to Explore 

A fire tower standing amongst the hills of the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail
A fire tower standing amongst the hills of the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail. NPS photo

Whether you’re seeking an easy stroll or a more challenging trek, the park’s hiking trails provide opportunities to discover scenic vistas, encounter wildlife, and explore the area’s natural beauty. 

The trails within Wind Cave National Park cater to different skill levels and interests, allowing you to choose a hike that suits your preferences. 

Rankin Ridge Nature Trail 

  • Distance: 1 mile
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Trail Type: Loop
  • Ascent: 245 feet

This scenic loop trail takes you to the summit of Rankin Ridge, offering far-reaching views of the park and surrounding Black Hills. Along the way, you’ll encounter diverse plant life and potentially spot some animals as well.

Highland Creek Trail 

  • Distance: 3.4 miles
  • Duration: 2-3 hours
  • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Trail Type: Loop
  • Ascent: 510 feet

The Highland Creek Trail leads you through meadows and pine forests, providing opportunities for wildlife sightings and serene nature experiences. 

Centennial Trail (portion within the park) 

  • Distance: Varies (111 miles in total, a part of the trail is within the park boundaries)
  • Duration: Varies
  • Difficulty Level: Varies (ranges from easy to strenuous)
  • Trail Type: Point-to-Point
  • Ascent: Varies

The Centennial Trail is a longer hiking trail that stretches for 111 miles in total, but a portion of it can be accessed within Wind Cave National Park. This trail traverses the Black Hills, providing diverse landscapes and challenging sections for more experienced hikers seeking a multi-day adventure.

Camping at Wind Cave N.P. 

Campsites set up along the grassy fields of Elk Mountain Campground
Campsites set up along the grassy fields of Elk Mountain Campground. NPS / Megan Porter

There are several great campgrounds to choose from here. Whether you choose to set up your tent or park your RV, you’ll have the opportunity to sleep under the starry skies and awaken to the tranquil sounds of nature. 

Elk Mountain Campground 

  • Number of Campsites: 65 
  • Reservations: First-come, first-served (no reservations required)
  • Accessibility: Suitable for tents and small RVs (limited space for larger RVs)
  • Amenities: Picnic tables, fire grates, vault toilets
  • Nearby Attractions: Close proximity to hiking trails, wildlife viewing areas, and the visitor center.

Elk Mountain Campground is more of a laid-back camping experience in a quiet forested area. While the campground does not require reservations, arriving early to secure a site is recommended. Enjoy picnicking, stargazing, and easy access to hiking trails from this charming campground.

Stockade Lake North Campground 

  • Number of Campsites: 11 sites
  • Reservations: First-come, first-served (no reservations required)
  • Accessibility: Suitable for tents and small RVs (limited space for larger RVs)
  • Amenities: Picnic tables, fire grates, flush toilets, dump station
  • Nearby Attractions: Scenic Stockade Lake, fishing opportunities, and easy access to hiking trails.

Situated near the scenic Stockade Lake, this campground is a hidden gem within the park. With 11 campsites available, this is a more secluded camping experience. Take advantage of amenities such as picnic tables, fire grates, and flush toilets, and explore the nearby hiking trails or try fishing in the lake.

Stockade Lake South Campground 

  • Number of Campsites: 18 sites
  • Reservations: First-come, first-served (no reservations required)
  • Accessibility: Suitable for tents and RVs
  • Amenities: Picnic tables, fire grates, flush toilets, dump station
  • Nearby Attractions: Scenic Stockade Lake, fishing opportunities, and convenient access to hiking trails.

Located just south of Stockade Lake, Stockade Lake South Campground is a convenient camping option with beautiful surroundings. It offers a mix of shaded and open areas for tents and RVs. Enjoy picnicking, campfire cooking, and amenities like flush toilets and a dump station. From this campground, you can easily access hiking trails and enjoy the beauty of Stockade Lake.

Game Lodge Campground (Custer State Park) 

  • Number of Campsites: Varies (multiple campgrounds available)
  • Reservations: Reservations are recommended; visit the Custer State Park website for more information
  • Accessibility: Suitable for tents and RVs
  • Amenities: Picnic tables, fire grates, flush toilets, showers, dump station
  • Nearby Attractions: Custer State Park has stunning landscapes, wildlife viewing, fishing, scenic drives, and various recreational activities.

If you’re looking for a campground outside of Wind Cave, the nearby Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park is a fantastic option. With multiple campgrounds available, this campground provides a variety of amenities, including picnic tables, fire grates, flush toilets, showers, and a dump station. Custer State Park has plenty to enjoy, including wonderful landscapes, abundant wildlife, and opportunities for fishing, scenic drives, and outdoor activities.

RV Camping 

Bringing your RV is a convenient and comfortable way to explore the park’s natural wonders. With RV-friendly facilities and amenities available, you’ll enjoy a hassle-free experience while visiting. As you drive through the scenic roads, you’ll be free to go on various adventures while having all the comforts of home at your fingertips.

Wildlife to See at Wind Cave N.P. 

A cautious prairie dog pup observes its surroundings inside wind cave national park
A cautious prairie dog pup observes its surroundings inside the park.

Wind Cave National Park is home to a diverse collection of wildlife species. Here’s a brief list of some notable wildlife you may encounter in the park and where you may have the best chances of spotting them:

  1. Bison: These majestic creatures can be seen throughout the park, particularly in the prairie areas. Keep a safe distance and observe them from a vehicle or designated viewing areas.
  2. Elk: Look for elk in the forested areas of the park, particularly around dawn and dusk when they are more active. The Elk Mountain Campground and surrounding trails offer good opportunities for elk sightings.
  3. Pronghorn: Pronghorn are often seen on the open prairies of the park, where they roam freely. Drive slowly along park roads or take the Prairie Ecology Trail for a chance to spot them.
  4. White-tailed Deer: These graceful deer can be found in various habitats within the park. Look for them along trails, meadows, and forested areas, especially during dusk and dawn.
  5. Coyotes: These elusive predators can be seen throughout the park, particularly in open areas or along roadsides. Listen for their distinctive howls during the early morning or evening hours.
  6. Prairie Dogs: Look for prairie dog towns in the prairie areas of the park, particularly near picnic areas or along the Wildlife Loop Road. These social animals can be observed as they pop up and communicate with each other.
  7. Birds: Wind Cave National Park is a haven for birdwatchers, with over 200 species of birds recorded. Keep an eye out for raptors, such as hawks and eagles, as well as songbirds, waterfowl, and migratory species. The park’s varied habitats, including forests, prairies, and wetlands, offer diverse birding opportunities.

Basic Things to Bring with You 

  1. Clothing appropriate for the weather and activities, especially during colder months
  2. Sturdy footwear for hiking
  3. Water bottles to stay hydrated
  4. Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat for sun protection
  5. Insect repellent
  6. Your phone with a navigation app and power bank
  7. Binoculars and a camera for more serious photographers
  8. Basic first aid kit
  9. Camping and hiking gear (if applicable)
  10. National Park Pass or entrance fee

Final Thoughts

Wind Cave National Park offers a truly unique and captivating experience. From the moment you step into the underground realm, you’ll be awed by the intricate formations and the rich history that surrounds you. Above ground, the scenic vistas of the Black Hills and the sprawling prairies add to the allure of this unique park.

Whether you choose to embark on a cave tour, hike the picturesque trails, or simply relax and enjoy the tranquil beauty, Wind Cave will leave you with remarkable memories. Pair your visit with some of the other great attractions of South Dakota and you’ll be treated to a diverse and rich journey.

So, experience a mysterious cave tour, enjoy a hike or camping, and view the extraordinary wildlife at Wind Cave National Park. The beauty and magnificence of this hidden gem await, ready to make your adventure an unforgettable one.

National Parks List, Map, and Complete Guide (All 63 Parks + Downloadable List & Map)

Want a FREE complete list and recap of all our US National Parks as well as downloadable maps and other great resources? Check out our US National Parks List and Map guide!

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Visit our complete National Parks Guide for FREE Downloadable National Parks List & Map (multiple versions)

FAQs

Is Wind Cave worth going to?

Yes, the park is definitely worth visiting. It’s an unbelievable underground experience, with phenomenal cave formations, beautiful hiking trails, and the opportunity to witness diverse wildlife in a dramatic setting.

What is special about Wind Cave?

It’s known for its extensive underground network of passages, including the distinctive boxwork formations found nowhere else in the world. It is also one of the longest caves in the world and holds cultural and historical significance.

Can you go inside Wind Cave?

Yes. You can explore the cave through guided tours offered by the park. These tours allow you to witness the awe-inspiring cave formations and learn about their geological and cultural importance.

Which is better, Wind Cave or Jewel Cave?

Both offer unique experiences, but the choice between them depends on personal preferences. Wind Cave is known for its boxwork formations, while Jewel Cave features intricate and diverse cave formations. Consider your interests and research both caves to determine which you’d prefer to visit. My favorite is Wind Cave.

How long does it take to visit Wind Cave, and how many days do I need there?

The duration of your visit depends on your interests and activities. A cave tour typically takes 1 to 1.5 hours, but exploring the park’s hiking trails and enjoying the above-ground attractions can add more time. You could plan for a half-day to a full day or more to fully experience the area.

Where is the Wind Cave National Park Visitor Center located?

The visitor center is near the park’s entrance, just off U.S. Highway 385, in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota.

What is the best place to visit in South Dakota?

There are several must-visit places, but Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and Custer State Park are often considered among the top attractions in the state.

What are things to see in South Dakota?

In addition to Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and Custer State Park, South Dakota offers attractions such as Crazy Horse Memorial, Deadwood historic town, Falls Park in Sioux Falls, and the scenic drives of Spearfish Canyon and Needles Highway.

Is it bear country in South Dakota?

Yes, South Dakota is home to black bears in certain regions, including the Black Hills area of Wind Cave National Park. While bear encounters are rare, following proper bear safety guidelines is important if you are camping or hiking in bear country.

What are some good South Dakota campgrounds near Wind Cave?

Some good campgrounds nearby include Elk Mountain Campground and the Stockade Lake North and South Campgrounds within the park. Additionally, Custer State Park has multiple campgrounds within a short drive of Wind Cave.

What are the top attractions of South Dakota?

Some of the top attractions include Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and historic Deadwood.

Is there a good Wind Cave tour map?

Yes, the Wind Cave National Park Visitor Center provides maps and information about cave tours, hiking trails, and other attractions. The maps are helpful for planning your visit and navigating the park’s layout. 

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

Let us know what you think about our content and if you have any questions, suggestions, or have any favorite memories or tips you would like to share. We would love to hear from you!

Happy Travels! Sandy

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