Last time I posted I talked about Wind Cave National Park– Above Ground. Today we’re going down into the caves. After all, that’s what most people come here for. Aside from being awe-inspiring to visit, Wind Cave has a really cool story behind its discovery. I’ll give you a little taste of both the experience and history, (which I’ll make fun so you’re not bored to tears), but you really should go and experience it for yourself because there is just so much to learn and see. Something I’ll be upfront about: Unless you are a professional photographer with professional equipment and a tripod, it is incredibly difficult to take quality photographs that truly represent the experience of being in a low lit cave. So apologies in advance for my terrible photographs. Let’s begin.
As with virtually all of America’s natural points of interest, Native Americans discovered Wind Cave first. Considered a sacred ground, Wind Cave was respected and cherished as it should have been, specifically by the Lakota people. Jump to 1881… a bunch of white dudes stumbled upon the cave and were like “Woah! This is neat!” and decided to make money off it. Classic. The first person (r.e. WHITE person,) to enter the cave was Charlie Crary, but credit for first exploring and mapping the cave in detail actually goes to a teenager. In 1890, 16 year old Alvin McDonald’s father was hired by the South Dakota Mining company to see what they could mine-up on the land that is now Wind Cave National Park. Finding nothing of worth on these sacred Native American grounds cherished by the Lakota people, the mining company left town, but the McDonald family stayed. Wind Cave had been re-re-discovered! Although the mining company didn’t find anything worth sticking around for, the McDonalds and another family, the Stablers, did: an opportunity for tourism.
Apparently back in those days it was totally cool to let your 16 year old kid run around in an undiscovered, unlit, unmapped, unsafe cave system. When I was younger I used to play a computer game called “Crystal Caves“, in which you were this little miner guy who ran around with a pickax collecting pixelated gems, and even that digital spelunking was heavily monitored by my parents. But Alvin’s parents were all “it’s cool, he’s a free spirit” and let him wander around the caves at all hours of the day and night, lighting his way by candle and keeping track of his steps via significant amounts of twine. But he didn’t do this all for fun and whimsy; Alvin created maps and kept detailed diary notes of his adventures in order to establish a family business guiding tours through the caves. (Cha-CHING!) Here are some images from his diary, curtesy of the National Parks website:
Click here to see more from Alvin’s diary.
By 1891 tourism at Wind Cave was booming. The McDonalds and Stablers took the liberty of widening some passages, building staircases within the caves, and erecting a hotel just outside the cave entrance. Clearly they had the highest respect for the land. Just kidding. They didn’t. But they were making tons of cash! It was awesome! One day JD Stabler had a great idea that would help both families make even MORE money. “Let’s go to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and advertise our cave adventures!” Alvin said “Totally! What could possibly go wrong with that?” So JD and Alvin went to the fair and had lots of fun. But at the fair, Alvin came down with a nasty case of typhoid fever (do people still get that??) and he died within the year, at the young age of 20. After that tragedy, things got all Hatfield & McCoys between the two families, and ownership over the rights to the cave came into dispute. They went to the courts to settle the matter, and the courts were like “Hey, so in order to establish a land claim, you have to, like, have established a mine or a homestead or something. Have either of you done that?” And the McDonald’s were like, “Well we’ve got this cave…and we give people tours.” The courts said “Is that it?” And the Stablers were like “We give the tours too, and improve the cave.” And the courts were all “Yeah but are you taking anything out of the cave and selling it? You know, like a MINE?” And the McDonalds and the Stablers were like “Um, no?” So the courts said NO DEAL! and took the land away from both families. That’s how 1901 went down.
It’s 2 years later. President Theadore Roosevelt was like “Hey everyone! I’ve never been to Wind Cave but I’ve heard it’s awesome so I’m going to make it the 8th National Park. It’s going to be the first one that’s a cave!” And so it was, but just the cave part below ground. Fast forward to 1912. The American Bison Society is scouting around for a place to establish a National Game Preserve and they came across the beautiful land above Wind Cave National Park. “This looks like a jolly good spot for Buffalo to roam!” they said, and so it was. With enhancements such as new roads and structures being built by the Civilian Conservation corps, the National Game Preserve became knighted as an addition to Wind Cave National Park in 1935. The park now boasts unique geological features below ground, as well as robust wilderness above, filled with bison, pronghorn, elk, and deer.
And that my friends, is how sacred Native American ground becomes a National Park.
Oh no. After writing that sentence I now feel really terrible about telling you how awesome the tour was.
The tour was great! There are 3 guided tours and 2 specialty tours you can choose from, even one where you only have candles to light your way. Click here for a list of the tours and and the tour schedules. We went on the Fairgrounds Tour, which the description on the NPS website describes as “Strenuous: Widest array of features and most stairs of any tour.” I wouldn’t exactly call it “strenuous” unless they’re referring to the fact that you can’t pee for the whole 90 minutes. The tour started above ground at an elevator shaft (conveniently located next to a bathroom). You take the elevator down TWENTY STORIES under ground. Or was it 21? I can’t remember. I was busy trying not to think about the earth collapsing on top of me. If you are even remotely claustrophobic, stick to the visitors center and watch their 20 minute video which glorifies The White Man trying to steal land from each other, after having stolen it from the Native Americans, and then the government steals it from everyone. (Have I told you yet how AWESOME this tour was?)
The cave ceilings are low, so if you’re over 5’10”, this is going to be how you walk for 90 minutes:
The most interesting thing to me about the cave system is how much has been explored and how nobody has even come close to finding the end yet. There are miles and miles of cave tunnels and caverns layered on top of each other in 3 dimensional sprawl. Wikipedia, which I’d trust with my life, says that there have been 140.47 miles of explored passageways, and several miles of new cave are discovered each year.
Check out the map below. The small green line represents the Fairgrounds Tour, which took us 90 minutes to walk. Now look at all the white lines that represent additional tunnels and passageways. That’s a LOT of cave.
I’m going to wrap this up by telling you the coolest thing about Wind Cave. I figure, if you’ve read this far, you deserve to get this extra fun bonus fact. Wind Cave is called Wind Cave for a reason! If you stand at the entrance to Wind Cave, you’ll actually be able to feel a really strong breeze blowing in or out of the cave. If you come back several hours later it could very well be blowing in the opposite direction! This anomaly is due to changes in the barometric pressure. You can actually predict clear or stormy weather depending on if the wind is blowing in or out of the cave. How cool is that?? So that’s my fun fact for the day.
Click here for directions to the park.
In summary, Wind Cave is awesome and my photography is not, so you’re probably going to have to check it out for yourself in person. And while you’re there, don’t forget to check out the land and the animals above— they’re an equal part of this great national treasure.
– C. Egli