After you’ve left the actual cave, you’ll still spend a while in Wind Cave National Park, as you drive across the rolling prairie land that lies above the seemingly endless underground passages.
There’s a fairly good chance that somewhere along South Dakota Route 87 (which heads north from Wind Cave into Custer State Park), you’ll pass a herd of bison. On this day, a few dozen buffalo were roaming near the turnoff to another attraction in Wind Cave National Park: the trail to Rankin Ridge Fire Tower.
The trailhead to the Rankin Ridge Fire Tower is less than half a mile off the main road. The trail is a one-mile loop. Assuming you travel the trail clockwise, the first half will be a narrow foot trail through the woods (as you climb the hill) and the second half will be the 4-wheel-drive road that provides access to the fire tower. The tower is about in the middle, so one direction isn’t any shorter than the other — and since both sections of the trail are so different, you’ll want to hike them both, anyway.
The only thing that’s difficult about this trail is the elevation gain. For some reason, they always put fire towers on the top of a hill. I was starting to get a cold, so the hike was probably more of a strain than it would have been under normal circumstances.
There are breaks in the trees from time to time, that let you view the incredible Black Hills landscape to the north and west. You’ll also have a view of the highway, and maybe even those bison!
In some places, steps are built into the rock, to make the climb a little easier.
The trail switches back, and the trees thin out, as you make the final approach to Rankin Ridge Fire Tower.
This fire tower is still used by forest rangers, so you won’t be allowed inside the cabin at the top. You can, however, climb up the stairs for an incredible view.
Rankin Ridge is at 4,803 feet — much higher than anything nearby to the west, which means you’ll have a great view…
… as you hike down the gravel jeep road towards the trailhead. This part of the trail was remarkably relaxing — I guess there’s just something special about walking down a dirt road.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.