Wind Cave National Park

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Since the weather wasn’t cooperating, I decided to go someplace where the weather didn’t matter.  Wind Cave National Park is home to one of the world’s longest cave systems, and most of the many miles of passages remain unexplored.  The casual visitor, however, can get a great feel for the cave, and its unique geology, with just an hour tour.

Wind Cave National Park is located 20 miles south of Custer, South Dakota, and 10 miles north of Hot Springs, South Dakota on US Hwy. 385.  Wind Cave is also directly south of Custer State Park via South Dakota Route 87.

I chose to take the Natural Entrance Tour, because it was the next one to leave.  Unlike Carlsbad Caverns (which I still believe is the ultimate cave experience), you’re not allowed to wander through Wind Cave without a guide.

The group gathers underneath this shelter, when it’s time to begin.  A park ranger will come out and welcome you, then lead you down the path…

… to the cave’s only natural entrance.  As hard as it is to believe, this immense cave system has just one naturally-occurring entrance, and it’s nothing more than a tiny hole.

Wind Cave wasn’t discovered by European-Americans until 1881, when Tom and Jesse Bingham were exploring the small canyon that surrounds the entrance.  The sound of rushing wind (caused by a pressure difference in the air inside and outside of the cave) caused Tom to take a look at the hole, and a blast of wind blew the hat off his head.  When the brothers returned a few days later, to show off their discovery, the air pressure had changed.  This time, instead of having his hat blown off his head, a vacuum sucked it into the cave.

Since it would be impossible to squeeze through the natural entrance, there’s a revolving door (which keeps the cave constantly sealed off from wildlife) that leads to a long staircase.  The cave is dimly lit, and there are stairs with handrails at all the necessary places.  Tour groups exit the cave by elevator, so you won’t have to climb back up.

Wind Cave is a dry cave, which means you won’t have water constantly dripping on you, and you won’t slip on a wet surface.  In exchange, there are no stalactites and stalagmites — the kind of icicle-like formations that you’d find in caves like Carlsbad.  Even without stalactites and stalagmites, Wind Cave offers something so rare, it’s found in only a few places around the world.  It’s a geologic formation called Boxwork.

Boxwork is hard to spot at first — it just looks like a rough surface on the rock.  But once you learn to recognize it…

… you see it everywhere.

Boxwork looks a lot like a honeycomb.  The boxes are made of thin blades of calcite, and are extremely fragile.  The calcite was left behind, when the rest of the rock slowly dissolved or eroded away.

Wind Cave’s first serious explorer was a teenager named Alvin McDonald.  A mining company had secured the rights to the cave, and Alvin’s father, J.D. was in charge of the claim.  Of course, the cave didn’t contain any precious metals, but the McDonalds realized they could make money in a different way — by giving tours of the cave.  Alvin spent much of his free time exploring the cave, with nothing more than a candle to light his way.  He used string to mark his path, and lead him back to an exit, then he carefully documented his explorations.  You can read actual pages from his diary, on the NPS website.  Alvin named some of Wind Cave’s rooms, such as the “post office” (named for the boxwork on the walls and ceiling).  The “post office” room is one stop on the natural entrance tour.

Remarkably, and quite accidentally, I visited two places where Boxwork is found, in the same year.  Boxwork also appears in some rocks along the Highlands Scenic Highway in West Virginia.

Fortunately, I found a spot near the back of the pack of people on the tour of Wind Cave.  This allowed me time to slow down and take pictures.  I’m sure I knew what I was photographing at the time, but now, pictures like this one are confusing.  Was I looking straight up, or out into some side passageway? I have absolutely no idea, but it still looks interesting.

You’re not allowed to bring a tripod into Wind Cave, which meant I had to hold my camera very still, in order to take blur-free pictures.  You are allowed to use a flash, but you don’t want to.  If you flash, every picture will look washed out and horrible.  I should have given this advice to the guy in front of me.  I think he stopped and took a picture about every five steps.  I mean that quite literally — for a while I counted, and that was the average number of steps he took in between pictures.  Even the rest of his family was complaining.  Worst of all, I’m sure he went home with a memory card full of hundreds of pictures that showed absolutely nothing.

After descending an incredible distance, the path climbed a little near the end…

… and ended in a large room…

… near the elevator.  Once at the surface, the visitor’s center is a short distance away.

The park land is filled with small, rolling hills, and underneath almost all of them is part of Wind Cave, likely a passage that has yet to be discovered.  Also on the top side of the park, there’s a lot of wildlife, which we’ll see on the next page.

Wind Cave became a National Park in 1903.  It was just the 8th park, and the first one devoted to a cave.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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