One of three National Parks in the Black Hills, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota is home to bison, elk and the nation’s fourth longest cave. It’s really more like two parks, with the vast array of animals and trails on the surface and a genuine spelunking experience underground.
Spelunking and Cave Tours in South Dakota
There are five walking tours of Wind Cave offered daily; each explores a different area of the cave. Some of the tours have age restrictions (for example, the nighttime Candlelight Tour only allows children ages 8 and older to attend) so be sure to check the website for details. Some tours fill quickly so be sure to reserve your tickets online or arrive early in the day.
Prior to your tour, I recommend visiting the exhibit in the Ranger’s Station which highlights the history of the cave and has some great interactive displays. My 10-year-old also enjoyed completing the Junior Ranger program at the park. Pick up a free booklet at the desk.
The rangers recommended the Natural Entrance Cave tour for kids. Our tour lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, during which we traveled down 300 steps and walked along ramped passageways through a number of rooms inside the cave. Bring a jacket — the cave temperature is a moist 53 degrees year round.
During the tour, the park rangers do a wonderful job of describing how the cave was found and pointing out the various cave features. You’ll see a variety of formations such as boxwork and other cave formations. You also visit several rooms in the cave.
The cave is lit with electric lights but near the end of the tour, the ranger turns off all the lights and holds up an old candle-lit lamp to give you an idea of what the old cave tour visitors felt when they were in the tunnels. A few of the younger kids on our tour (under 4) did get a little scared in the darkness.
Once the tour is complete, the group is brought back to the surface by elevator. The elevator only holds a certain number of people at one time so be sure to stick with the kids in order to ride together.
My kids had mixed reviews of the tour. Our 10-year-old enjoyed walking through the cave and exploring the tunnels. My 16-year-old loved learning about the history of the cave and enjoyed the tour for the first 30 minutes. After that, he felt that he was “just seeing the same old thing”.
Hiking & Wildlife at Wind Cave
After our cave visit, we drove through the huge land area of Wind Cave National Park. Many people think that the cave is the only part of the park, but there are 28,000 acres of wide open land with many animals.
The park also has more than 30 miles of hiking trails too. We took a hike on the Rankin Ridge Trail, which I would recommend for families. It’s a fairly easy climb (uphill on a nicely marked trail) to the top of the ridge where you’ll find a fire tower (closed to the public) and a great view of the park. This is also one of the hikes for the Junior Ranger program.
We saw a huge variety of animals during our afternoon visit. Bison and elk herds roamed the open areas and many were very close to the roads so we got an up-close look (and photos!). We also spotted marmot, prairie dogs and pronghorn.
There are no fees to drive through or hike at Wind Cave National Park. Admission is charged for cave tours and will vary depending on the type of tour you choose. The park is also located directly south of Custer State Park & Needles Highway which is another wonderful area to explore.