Wind Cave National Park
RR 1 Box 190
Hot Springs, SD 57747-9430
Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota features one of the world's longest and most complex cave systems. Located about 50 miles from Rapid City, South Dakota, the park also has more than 28,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine forest.
Cave tours are given daily throughout the year; visitors can get an up-close look at an incredible display of boxwork, a cave formation of thin calcite fins that resembles honeycombs. In addition to exploring the caves, visitors can camp amid the prairie and forest or search for such wildlife as elk and prairie dogs.
Entrance fees: Admission to the park is free. Cave tours are available for $7 to $23. Some reservations are available (605-745-4600).
Visitor center: The visitor center is open daily, except January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25.
Other services: Exhibits and one campground
Accommodations: Elk Mountain Campground is open year-round and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
Visiting Wind Cave National Park
Buffalo, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer still roam the grassy hills of the Great Plains in South Dakota. Overhead, prairie falcons circle, looking for prey. To the northwest, the eastern flank of the pine-covered Black Hills looms in the distance.
But this tranquil world of prairie grass and sunshine is somewhat deceptive. Below the vast prairie, there is a great underground wonderland, where nature is putting on a spectacular display of geological artisanship.
Wind Cave is one of the largest caverns in the world, a labyrinth of passages carved out of limestone beds that have existed for 60 million years. Unlike many limestone caverns, including Mammoth Cave, that formed at relatively shallow depths -- sometimes less than 100 feet -- Wind Cave twists and turns its way through rock hundreds of feet below the surface. In one place the cavern is more than 600 feet below the surface.
The cave gets its name from the strong air currents that blow alternately in and out of the caverns. The direction of the wind depends on whether the air pressure in the cave is higher or lower than the atmospheric pressure outside.
In a very real sense, the cave is breathing, and this constant rush of air, first in and then out, keeps the interior of the great cavern drier than most other caves. In Wind Cave, you won't hear the eerie sound of endlessly dripping and seeping water.
Because Wind Cave is not as wet as many other caves, there are almost no stalactites and stalagmites. Nature has worked a different kind of underground magic here. Instead of flowing through wide openings and depositing minerals in thick columns, water from the surface seeps through tiny cracks and pores in the limestone. This seepage deposited a thin film, along with tiny droplets, on the walls and ceilings, creating a unique geological spectacle. Stunning multicolored encrustations decorate the walls and ceilings throughout the cavern.
Descriptive names explain the character of these startling works of nature. One kind of formation is called popcorn, a knobby growth that looks like splotches of coral of every size and shape. Another is called frostwork; it varies in size from small strands to large round formations that resemble snowballs.
Wind Cave is probably most famous for what is undoubtedly the world's finest display of boxwork, a calcite formation resembling honeycomb. Boxwork is found everywhere in the cave, but the best examples are in the subterranean chambers called the Post Office, the Temple, and the Pearly Gates.
Take a look at the next section to discover more about what visitors to the park can enjoy.
Sightseeing at Wind Cave National Park
Today unspoiled remnants of the original prairie grassland in Wind Cave National Park are difficult to find. However, the park does offer visitors a living vignette of this once widespread ecosystem. In this small but rich park, wildlife as diverse as black-tailed prairie dogs, coyotes, buffalo, pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, elk, western meadowlarks, and sharp-tailed grouse can be found.
Both tall and short prairie grasses blanket the park, which presents a gentle rolling landscape with miles of hiking and horseback riding trails. But underneath the quiet surface of the park is the true attraction: Pahsapa limestone, which has been dissolved and fractured into a cave system with a known length of 80 miles. The caves are unique in that, instead of traditional stalactite and stalagmite growths, there are a series of passages covered with much more fragile crystal formations.
Wind Cave National Park Photo Opportunities
Whether you're interested in detailed shots of Wind Cave's unique formations or want a panoramic shot of the Black Hills, you and your camera will find it all at Wind Cave National Park. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Garden of Eden: This one-hour cave tour is designed for those who want a quick but excellent sampling of beautiful cave formations -- boxwork, cave popcorn, and flowstone can all be seen here.
- The Post Office: The first large room on the Natural Entrance cave tour, the Post Office has a ceiling that is covered with boxwork.
- East Bison Flats: To get to this vista, visitors must hike across the rolling hills of the park's prairie. Upon arriving at East Bison Flats, you'll be treated to panoramic views of Wind Cave National Park, Buffalo Gap, and the Black Hills.
- Frostwork Ledge: Located in the Fairgounds Cave, this ledge features outstanding examples of popcorn and frostwork.
In the next section, we'll focus on the formation and exploration of Wind Cave.
History: How Wind Cave Was Formed
Roughly 350 million years ago, a shallow sea covered South Dakota. At that time North America was located on the earth's equator, and its climate was tropical. Gradually, the sea's water level dropped as the land rose and moved north. A layer of sediment grew to a thickness of between 300 and 600 feet.
About 320 million years ago, another sea inundated this area, depositing another layer of sediment several hundred feet thick on top of the first one. The forces that lifted the Black Hills created cracks in these limestone layers.
Over a time span of millions of years, water seeped into these cracks, gradually dissolving the rock and creating the labyrinth of passages and chambers that we see now.
An unusual ecosystem also extends across the land above Wind Cave. This area marks the boundary between the prairie and the ponderosa pine forests of the Black Hills.
The grassland here is inhabited by prairie birds, such as falcons and meadowlarks, as well as nuthatches and wild turkeys that come from the forests.
Exploration of Wind Cave
In 1881, brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham discovered the unique underground realm of wonders that is now Wind Cave. One of the brothers was chasing a wounded deer in a ravine when he heard a loud whistling noise. As he looked down, his hat was blown off his head by a powerful wind blowing directly out of a crack in the rocks.
When Jesse brought people to see the cave's wonders a few days later, the wind had changed, and his hat was sucked into the cave. Everyone who saw the cave seemed to want to develop it for a profit. Several groups, one of them calling itself the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company, competed for the right to mine the cave and lead tourists through it. In 1903, the federal government ended years of fierce bickering by establishing Wind Cave as a national park. It was the first cavern to be brought into the park system.
Today, it is one of the gems of the national park system. From prairie wildlife to cave formations like you've never seen, Wind Cave National Park offers a unique experience the whole family will enjoy.
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