Wind Cave, located in southwest South Dakota, is touted as the world’s most complex cave and is in the top ten largest caves in the world. About 100 miles of the cave has been mapped, which is quite impressive, especially when you pause to imagine 100 miles of multi-level, complex, rugged, dark underground terrain that reaches depths of 500 feet below the earth’s surface. Still, the most mind-blowing statistic is that per scientists’ estimates, only about 10% of the cave system has even been explored.
Wind Cave’s name reflects the principle of “barometric breathing”. Basically, the cave “breaths” (i.e. sends air out and pulls air in through above-ground holes and natural entrances) according to air pressure differentials between the inside of the cave and the outside above-ground world. When the air pressure inside the cave is higher than the above-ground air pressure, air leaves the cave (the cave “breaths” out). When the air pressure outside the cave is higher than that inside the cave, air moves into the cave (the cave “inhales” or “breaths” in). Legend has it that a local man discovered the cave when he noticed a small area of grass moving as though swaying in the wind, which was a curious sight on an otherwise still day. He went to investigate, and when he peered down into the cave’s hole (or small natural entrance), the air moving out of the cave blew his hat straight off his head. He returned later with friends to show off his discovery, and this time, when he knelt down next to the hole, the cave sucked his hat right down into the abyss!
Wind Cave is also unique for its large concentration of boxwork, a super delicate erosive formation that actually formed before the cave itself and is now naturally preserved and protected by the cave environment. Boxwork is plentiful inside Wind Cave – it lines walls and ceilings in some parts of the cave – but extremely rare elsewhere. Wind Cave actually houses 95% of the world’s known boxwork.
Lastly, Wind Cave is considered a dry cave in that it has limited active water flow and is finished forming. However, some ground water does slowly seep to the bottom of the cave, some 500 feet underground, where it’s found in aquifers. On its way down, the water travels through such an extensive system of natural purification that it’s the second purest water in the world after that found at our polar ice caps!
The only way to see any part of the cave is to take a ranger-guided tour. Only one tour goes into the undeveloped “backcountry” of the cave, and it was booked out a little too long for us and was on the edge of our budget comfort-level. Thus, we signed up for The Fairgrounds tour, the next best option in terms of length (both time and mileage wise). We saw lots of boxwork and other neat cave formations and features, and we learned a good bit. Otherwise, our tour was average. And to put it bluntly, there were lots of highly obnoxious kids on our tour: a three year old who was simply not suited for a 1.5 hour structured, rule-rich activity (I don’t know many three year olds who are, so I don’t blame him, but I may blame his parents, especially considering that there were several much shorter tour options with plenty of availability and exactly the same price-point), a group of older boys who insisted on using flashlights even though they weren’t needed and accidently kept shining them in other peoples’ eyes, and another group of boys who engaged in a silent human flatulence contest (perhaps they were inspired by the cave’s barometric breathing?). Yes, Wind Cave “breaths”, but it doesn’t breath that well; there’s nothing like foul smells in an enclosed underground space. Clearly, all of this detracted from our experience – an expensive-for-us experience, no less – and made me really appreciate the ranger at Carlsbad Caverns who kicked a family off the tour when their child couldn’t behave. Overall, though, I enjoyed our underworld experience and would love to go back for the longer “wild” caving tour one day.
Wind Cave National Park is also home to an expansive and beautiful aboveground ecotone, an area where two ecosystems meet. Here, prairie/grasslands meet ponderosa pine forest.
Ecotones are places where diverse wildlife flourishes, and Wind Cave NP is no exception. Bison were reintroduced to the park years ago, and now big herds thrive there, as does a large population of prairie dogs. Due to severe storms and our short time in the park, we spent only about two hours exploring the aboveground park via a self-guided driving tour and a short hike. In those two hours, we saw countless prairie dogs, a pair of adult coyotes with two pups, a herd of bison with numerous calves, lots of birds, and one huge bison lumbering toward us as we drove down the road. We stopped and waited while he casually switched lanes and walked around us, coming easily within six feet of the truck. He filled up the entire driver’s side window by a wide margin as he walked past; meanwhile, I stared in amazement while Jason sat still as a statue.
Although we managed to experience quite a lot in less than 24 hours, including camping inside the park, Wind Cave NP would be a great place to spend a few days. There are two distinct worlds to explore with multiple options for cave tours and a whole collection of established aboveground hiking trails, in addition to free-range exploration of the prairieland. It’s a must-do if you enjoy caving or are in the area, as it’s a short drive from Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Badlands NP, and a whole host of other South Dakota attractions.