Wind Cave National Park is really two parks in one. First there is lovely above ground terrain with rolling hills, lush meadows and plentiful wildlife. The second part of the park, and honestly what makes Wind Cave worthy of its National Park status, are the caves themselves: 100’s of miles of tunnels layered on top of each other, 20 stories underground. Experiencing Wind Cave National Park is like watching The Sound of Music– the first part is a light hearted, happy-go-lucky sing along in a field, and the second part is DARK. (You know, cause you’re in a cave…) If you just watched Part I of Sound of Music you might say it was a delightful musical about a nanny who makes dresses from curtains and has an above-average affinity for whiskered kittens. If you just watched Part II of the film, you might call it a Nazi escape story with treachery abound. Just as you need to experience both halves of Sound of Music to understand what makes the film so amazing as a whole, so too do you need to experience both sides of Wind Cave National Park.
That being said, today we’re just going to review the above ground half, and next time I’ll tell you about the badass cave system and the cool story of how it was discovered and explored.
Until I went there in person, I never thought of South Dakota as having incredibly diverse landscapes worth driving 5 hours to see. I thought it was going to be all bland rolling hills and farm fields of nothing. Boy, was I wrong. South Dakota is BEAUTIFUL! Mt. Rushmore is the last thing you should be heading there to see (pun intended).Wind Cave NP alone has lush forests and beautiful meadows that make you want to twirl about while screeching “The HIIIILS are aLIIIIVE with the sound of MUUUUUzak!” (At least that’s what my attempts sounded like.) Not only are the landscapes beautiful, but there’s a great abundance of wildlife for your viewing pleasure. The bison are roaming, the pronghorn are pronging, and the prairie dogs are… making that weird chirping noise that sounds like a bird barking. But they’re super cute! Even if you never get out of your car, Wind Cave NP is worth driving through just to catch sight of the abundant wildlife running amok.
We stopped by the visitor center to buy tickets for the cave tour before going on our hike, which I highly recommend doing early in the morning as tour tickets can sell out very quickly. Once tickets were purchased, we did a quick look around the 2 story visitor center, watched a short film about the park in their theater, then headed out to hit the trails.
For a complete list of Wind Cave’s hiking trails, click here. We only had time to do one, but like I said earlier, it was incredibly beautiful and diverse.
And now I’ll answer some questions.
How do I get there? Click here for directions to the trailhead.
How far is the hike? It’s a 4.5 mile loop
How hard is it? Fairly easy, family friendly
Can I take my dog? Not on this trail, but check out Prairie Vista & Elk Mountain Nature Trails if you have your 4 legged friend in tow.
The trail maps look confusing. What route did you take? Take a look at the diagram to the left to follow along our route. (You can absolutely do the trail in either direction, but this is what we did.) Start out at the Centennial Trailhead, and take Trail #6 to the east, clockwise along the green highlighted route. From the trailhead to where the #6 circle is on the map, the trail runs through beautiful lush meadows following a creek. From the #6 to the intersection with Highland Creek Trail you’re still following the creek, but you are now between forests to the south and a rising cliff ledge to the north side of the trail. From that intersection where the trail turns south, to where trails #4 and #7 connect is a fairly steep uphill climb. It’s not too difficult, but it’s worth mentioning. From that intersection to the #4 circle, you will be in Prairie Dog Heaven. (Totally made that name up.) Now we’re on those rolling hills from Sound of Music, and I’m pretty sure every prairie dog in the world lives here. There are so many prairie dog dens on this stretch it looks like God was playing with a hole punch. Be really careful if you step off trail– you can and will easily twist an ankle in one of these holes. There’s Bison dung every 30 yards or so, so keep an eye out for those roaming lugs, and if you see one, DO NOT APPROACH IT, and do NOT put a calf in the trunk of your car no matter how cold it looks. From the #4 circle back to the trailhead, you’ll be heading slightly downhill, following the road. The trail here was a tad bit difficult to spot underfoot at points, so keep an eye out for those markers. And voila! You’re back at the trailhead.
TIP: If you grab a trail map from the visitor center, it’s actually really easy to follow their system of numbered trails on the map by watching for the frequent signposts that match.
Now, we only did this one surface level trail, but it was so much fun and had so much beauty, I definitely want to go back to check out what the rest of the park has to offer. But alas, we had to book it to make it in time for our cave tour, which I promise to discuss in my next post. (Spoiler Alert: IT. WAS. AWESOME.) For now I’ll leave you with a slideshow with the rest of our photos.
– C. Egli