Wind Cave National Park Welcome Sign in Grassy Field on Sunny Day

Where is Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is located within the Black Hills region of western South Dakota. The closest city to the national park is Hot Springs, South Dakota. However, the largest neighboring city is located about an hour’s drive north of the park. Rapid City is the state’s second largest city and the largest in the western portion of the state. Arriving at Wind Cave US National Park, visitors will find acres of lowland forest and prairie upon the surface. However, the park’s most notable feature sits underground. The Wind Cave system is one of the largest cave systems in the world. Besides the park’s geography, Wind Cave National Park also holds several other interesting characteristics. The park is located within a region of the United States that is largely recognized as the meeting place between eastern and western wildlife species.

How Large is Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park covers a total area of 33,847 acres. The park’s acreage features old growth forests, expansive stretches of prairie, several streams, and the elaborate cave structure found under the surface. The total length of the Wind Cave system frequently changes as cave explorers continue to find more passageways. As of 2019, the total explored length of the cave was over 150 miles. This length makes Wind Cave the sixth largest cave in the world.

While the Wind Cave System is very interesting and the park’s premier attraction, the national park also contains several other noteworthy features. The park’s trail system contains more than 30 miles of designated hiking trails that wind through the prairie and forest ecosystems. The Centennial trail, Rankin Ridge trail, and the Cold Brook Canyon trail are popular hikes found in the park.

Rocky Boxwork Formation Inside Cave of Wind Cave National Park South Dakota

Wind Cave National Park Weather

Wind Cave National Park experiences warm to hot summers and cold to freezing winters. The park’s average temperatures in the summer range between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas average winter temperatures in the park fluctuate between 10 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Sudden snowstorms are common throughout the winter in Wind Cave National Park. During these storms, the park normally remains open to visitation. However, severe amounts of snow or a sudden storm can cause the park roads and facilities to close momentarily. Visitors planning to arrive at the park during the winter months should be prepared for snow and colder temperatures. Spring and fall in the park are relatively mild and serve as a buffer between summer and winter weather.

When did Wind Cave Become a National Park

Wind Cave National Park was the seventh national park to be protected. President Theodore Roosevelt ordered for the protection of Wind Cave National Park in 1903. The park was the first national park located anywhere in the world to be designated for the protection of a cave or cavern system. The earliest inhibitors of the Wind Cave area were the Lakota and Cheyenne native American tribes. The Lakota history and culture is directly tied to the Wind Cave system through their emergence story and oral history. The cave system's earliest European explorer was a sixteen-year-old kid named Alvin McDonald. Over the next few years, McDonald explored the Wind Cave system and started offering cave tours. McDonald and his brother are responsible for recording and mapping the first several miles of the cave. The park keeps a replica of Alvin McDonald’s diary for viewing in the visitor center.

Things to do in Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is one of the oldest national parks’ in the United States, and for years it has provided its visitors with a variety of outdoor recreation experiences. Cave tours, hiking trails, and a diverse list of wildlife species can all be found within the borders of Wind Cave National Park.  Our National Park Visitors Guide highlights some of the exciting activities this park has to offer.

Picture of Map Centered Around Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota USA

Take a Cave Tour

Wind Cave National Park offers cave tours throughout the entire year. These cave tours are normally offered on a consistent schedule. This schedule can be found on the park’s website. Visitors electing to venture into the Wind Cave system will have the option of choosing between the Garden of Eden tour, the Natural Entrance tour, or the Fairgrounds tour. Each of these three tours require visitors to climb stairs and move throughout dimly lit cave passageways. The shortest of the three trails is the Garden of Eden tour. The national park also occasionally offers candlelight and wild cave tours. More information on cave tours can be obtained from the park’s visitor center.

Lakota Culture & Emergence Story

A large portion of what makes Wind Cave National Park special is its relation and inclusion in Lakota culture. The Wind Cave system is the location of the Lakota emergence story. This story explains how the Lakota people came to live on the earth. Visitors interested in learning more about the Lakota emergence story and other bits of Lakota culture should take the Natural Entrance cave tour.

Centennial Trail

The Centennial trail is one of the most popular trails in South Dakota. The trail is over 111 miles long and stretches throughout most of western South Dakota. The southernmost point of the trail is located within Wind Cave National Park. The six miles of the Centennial trail that are found within the national park crosses prairies, ponderosa pine forest, and meanders along Beaver creek. Wildlife sightings are prominent on the Centennial Trail.

Hiking at Wind Cave National Park

Aside from the Centennial Trail, Wind Cave National Park also contains 24 additional miles of designated hiking trails. These trails are located within the park’s ponderosa pine forest and prairie ecosystems. Wind Cave National Park also maintains an open hiking policy. This policy allows visitors to freely hike anywhere on the surface of the park. The park urges visitors to explore. Park staff working in the park’s visitor center can point visitors in the direction of interesting hiking locations. Visitors freely hiking across the park’s surface should be equipped with a park map, supplies of water, and be aware and cautious of wildlife in their proximity.

Wildlife & Bird Watching

The wildlife and bird species found throughout Wind Cave National Park are incredibly diverse.  The park’s ecotone location provides a habitat to woodland and prairie species, while its location on the overall continent grants it eastern and western wildlife species. The park is home to large mammals such as bison, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, coyotes, and mountain lions. Bird species found throughout the park include black capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, Townsend’s solitaires, and a variety of other songbirds and prairie fowl. 

The park’s bison herd is one of the last herds in the world without any cattle genes. This distinction makes the Wind Cave bison herd important for biodiversity and satellite herds across the nation. 

Camping at Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park contains one campground. The Elk Mountain Campground contains 62 sites mostly suited for tent camping. However, recreational vehicles can park in several of the sites. The park operates Elk Mountain Campground on a first come, first served basis. The park contains no electric or water hookups. Drinking water and flush toilets are available within the campground.

Close up Photo of Bison Standing on Grassy Field in Wind Cave National Park

When to Visit Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is open throughout the entire year. Visitors wishing to visit the park can plan a visit during every season. However, the summer season is when the park receives most of its visitation. The summer season is a popular time at Wind Cave National Park because of its warm temperatures. Park staff also offer additional cave tours and interpretive programs during the summer season. The rest of the year is also a great time to visit Wind Cave National Park. Temperatures in the winter may be drastically cooler. However, the season also brings snowfall and other winter weather that transforms the park seemingly overnight.

Must Have Items to Bring to Wind Cave National Park

Visitors planning their trip to Wind Cave National Park will surely be making a list of items they need to bring with them to the park. List of Parks has created the following list which explores several essential and helpful items visitors may want to consider.

Water & High Energy Snacks

Water is essential for every outdoor trip. Visitors planning to camp in the park should bring additional quantities of water with them to the park. High energy snacks are also essential for hikers and other recreators visiting the park. The best snacks for hiking, snowshoeing, or camping are lightweight, easy to consume, and full of energy.

Layers of Clothing

The temperatures found within Wind Cave National Park will differ based on location and elevation. Temperatures in the Wind Cave system remain around 50 degrees throughout the entire year. Visitors planning to camp within the park during the winter, late fall, or early spring should bring additional layers of clothing to combat the colder temperatures.

Sturdy Hiking Boots

Every visitor planning to hike within Wind Cave National Park should be equipped with a sturdy pair of hiking boots. Visitors looking for added protection and comfort should purchase a lightweight and waterproof pair.

Field Guides

Wildlife enthusiasts visiting Wind Cave National Park will want to bring field guides with them to the park. These guides will help visitors identify and learn about species found throughout the park. Visitors interested in vegetation and avian species can also purchase appropriate field guides to assist them. Several field guides can also be found for purchase in the park’s gift shop. The gift shop is located in the park’s visitor center.

Camping Equipment

The easiest way to ensure you have packed all of your camping equipment is through the creation and use of a camping checklist. This list can be checked once during packing and again right before leaving for the park. 

Narrow Hiking Path Through Cave in Wind Cave National Park South Dakota USA

Where to Stay within Wind Cave National Park

Visitors looking to camp during their trip to Wind Cave National Park will want to arrive at the park early in the day to claim a first come, first serve campsite located within the Elk Mountain Campground. Visitors looking to stay in a nearby hotel or motel will find several offering fifteen minutes away in Hot Springs and additional options an hour away in Rapid City.

Food Near Wind Cave National Park

The closest food to Wind Cave National Park is located fifteen minutes away in Hot Springs. The city contains two major grocery stores and a few restaurants. Visitors looking for more options can find additional grocery stores, bars, and restaurants an hour north in Rapid City.

Airports Near Wind Cave National Park

The closest airport to Wind Cave National Park is located in Rapid City. The Rapid City Regional Airport is about 63 miles and an hour and fifteen-minute drive away from the Wind Cave National Park Visitor Center.

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