We recently returned from an amazing 9 day trip across North and South Dakota. With so many wonderful parks and sights to explore, I was tempted to skip South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. While this park is less well known than other big name sites, I’m so glad we did make the time to include Wind Cave on our itinerary. The intricate cave formations, vast prairie terrain, and diverse wildlife are worth the trip. Here is the ultimate travel guide to plan a family trip to Wind Cave National Park.
Wind Cave Location and Admission
The park is located near the southwest corner of South Dakota in the Black Hills region of the state. Most people combine Wind Cave with other Black Hills parks and attractions. Wind Cave is about 60 miles from Rapid City.
Admission to enter the park is free, although there are fees for cave tours. There are no entrance gates or booths to enter the park.
Wind Cave History
Native Americans in the area had early stories about a hole in the Black Hills that blew wind. The Lakota believed the opening of Wind Cave provided a portal to the spirit world.
While riding nearby in 1881, Tom and Jesse Bingham heard the sound of blowing wind on a calm day. They followed the sound to a hole in the ground. Legend states that when Jesse looked into the hole the wind blew his hat right off. The story spread and others came to see this strange phenomenon which continues to this day. The air in the cave changes with the weather pressure systems so that the wind can either blow out or draw in air from the small natural cave entrance.
The cave and the area around it officially became a national park in 1903, one of the country’s oldest and the first to protect a cave. To date, over 150 miles of passageways have been documented. This makes the cave the third largest in the U.S. and sixth largest in the world!
Wind Cave Visitor’s Center
The Visitor’s Center is a great spot to start your adventure. The center features restrooms on both levels, exhibits, a bookstore and gift shop, and information station. Kids can pick up Junior Ranger books to earn a ranger badge. This is also where you can purchase tickets for the various cave tours. Masks are currently required inside.
The Visitor’s Center is open 8:00 – 4:30 daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Hours are extended in the summer.
Tours of Wind Cave
The Cave Tours are the big attraction at the park. Tickets for the tours are sold on a first come basis with no online reservations available. You can buy tickets for later in the day, but only same day purchases are allowed. During the summer months there can be a line an hour before the Visitor’s Center opens and tickets will sell out early. During our mid-week September visit, tours sold out for the day around noon.
There are typically three main tours to choose from with different distances and difficulty levels.
- Garden of Eden – This is the shortest tour at 1/3 mile in length and 150 stairs. It is recommended for those with limited mobility or time.
- Natural Entrance Tour – This tour is the most popular option. It travels 2/3 of mile over 1.25 hours with 300 stairs going down.
- Fairgrounds Tour – This tour is more difficult with 450 stairs over two levels of the cave.
Cave Tour Fees
The Garden of Eden tour is $10.00 general admission, $5.00 ages 6-16, or senior interagency passholders. 5 and under free.
The Natural Entrance and Fairgrounds Tours are $12:00 general admission, $6.00 ages 6-16, $6.00 senior or access interagency passholders. 5 and under free.
Preparing for a Tour
You are not allowed to bring anything in the cave other than a light jacket, phone, and camera. Leave the purses, tripods, selfie sticks, strollers, and backpacks in the car. Masks are required on the cave tours.
The cave temperature is 54 degrees year round so long sleeves or a jacket is recommended. Shoes with good traction are also recommended as the ground can be slick.
The tours go through passages that can be narrow and involve some stooping. All tours have quite a few stairs, but do have elevators that bring you back up from the cave. Touching the cave or removing anything from the cave is not allowed at any time. This is especially tricky for kids to remember as they want to touch everything!
Restrooms are located in the Visitor’s Center but not the cave so make sure the kids make one last bathroom stop before a tour.
Natural Entrance Tour
We chose the Natural Entrance Tour and it was amazing. The guide explains the history of the natural entrance to the cave which remains a small opening. The tour then proceeds through a man-made entrance tour into the cave.
Compared to the Missouri caves we normally visit, Wind Cave was very different. The type of rock means the cave is very dry. Therefore there aren’t towering stalagmites and stalactites like we have seen in other caves. However, Wind Cave has its own unique features such as rare boxwork, which was named because the early cave explorers believed it resembled post office boxes.
The cave also contains delicate frostwork and cave popcorn. The park ranger was great at pointing out all the various features.
The tour also has some areas that are a little more narrow compared to other tour caves. The ceiling can be low, keep an eye out to avoid getting a headache.
At one point during the tour, the ranger turns out the lights so you can imagine what it was like to be an early explorer in the cave without electricity.
At the end of the tour, a fast elevator takes the tour group 200′ back up to the surface. Overall, we really enjoyed the tour. It felt more natural than some other tour caves and had several unique features to view.
Wind Cave Hiking Trails
While the main attraction is underground, don’t miss the 30 miles of hiking trails above ground. Be prepared with plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and bug spray. Some trails are more forested while others travel the prairie with little shade. Summers can be hot and dry while other seasons can mean rapidly changing temps. Several kid-friendly trails include:
- Rankin Ridge – A one mile nature loop climbs to an old fire tower.
- Elk Mountain – This one mile trail explores forest and grassland. Leashed pets are also allowed.
- Prairie Vista – This nature trail leads from the Visitor’s Center into the prairie. Pets are permitted on this mile loop.
- Wind Cave Canyon – This easy out and back path follows a former road along Wind Cave Canyon for a distance of 1.8 miles each way.
- Cold Brook Canyon – This trail passes through a ponderosa forest, open prairie, and a prairie dog town. Traveling out and back will measure about 3 miles total.
We chose the Rankin Ridge Trail to explore and it was the perfect way to start our Wind Cave visit.
Rankin Ridge Trail
- Distance: 1 mile loop
- Difficulty: 3/5. Moderate uphill walk to fire tower.
- Scenic Value: 4/5. Great views from the top.
The Rankin Ridge Trail starts off a side road off Highway 85. The path makes a loop from the parking area. We decided to head up the trail straight for the the tower first along the wider path.
The trail climbs steadily through the trees, but it is not super steep. Soon you come up out of the forest for a great view of the valley below.
The trail continues to climb the remaining distance to the old fire tower. While the fire tower is closed off to visitors, you can still gain an impressive view from the base of the tower of the surrounding terrain. On a clear day, you can even see as far away as the Badlands.
From here, the trail heads north from the tower along a rocky ridge. The trail along this section is more narrow, but there are no sharp drop-offs which keeps the path safe for littles.
Soon the trail turns left downhill and back into the trees before returning to the parking area.
Wildlife Viewing at Wind Cave
The open prairie of much of the park makes it easy to spot wildlife. The Bison Flats area of the park along highway 385 is a good area to find both Bison and Proghorns. Elk may even be found in the area.
The park is also home to several prairie dog towns. Our kids always like watching these furry critters pop out of their burrows.
Black-footed ferret are also common here, but trickier to find.
Be sure to always observe wildlife safely and from a distance. Keep an eye on the road closely for any wildlife in or next to the road. Never feed prairie dogs or other park wildlife.
Places to Stay Near Wind Cave
The park has a 62 site first-come first-served campground available. The nearest other accommodations would be in the towns of Custer or Hot Springs. Nearby Custer State Park also offers camping, cabins, and lodges.
Places to Eat Near Wind Cave
There are no concessions in the park other than vending machines. A picnic area is available just north of the Visitor’s Center. Hot Springs is about 20 minutes away and has several restaurant options available. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe in Hot Springs while waiting for our cave tour. Custer is also 20 minutes away with numerous dining options. We loved Maria’s Mexican Restaurant so much we ate there twice.
Additional Things to Know
- The park is open 24 hours a day all year. Admission to the park is free.
- GPS may be confused on the Visitor’s Center location. It is 11 miles north of Hot Springs off Highway 385.
- At this time Highway 87 is closed in the park from Centennial Trailhead to Rankin Ridge turnoff due to maintenance on historic bridges. Closure is planned to continue through Oct. 12. The Rankin Ridge trailhead is still accessible heading south on Highway 87 from Custer State Park.
- A park map can be found here.
More to See
The Hot Springs area is also a must see near Wind Cave. This charming and historic town is the location of the Mammoth Site, an indoor dig site full of Ice Age fossils.
Don’t miss the beautiful waterfall right in town and make a stop at the old jail and train depot.
Overall, Wind Cave is highly recommended. Be sure to add this lesser known park to any Black Hills vacation you might be planning. Happy travels!