Wind Cave National Park is a long and complex cave that is rich in boxwork formations. Above ground, bison and pronghorn are plentiful. The park sits an hour south of the Rapid City airport. The Wind Cave Visitor’s Center has exhibits on the Plains Indians and cave formation, as well as a movie.
All tours leave from the Visitor’s Center and are led by a ranger. Tickets are first-come, first-served, so come early. Several tour options are available. From moderate to more strenuous, they are the Garden of Eden tour, the Natural Entrance Tour, and the Fairgrounds Tour. These tours range from 1/3-mile, 150 steps, and 60 minutes to 2/3-mile, 450 steps, and 90 minutes. During summer, a Candlelight Cave Tour is offered where you get to carry a candle in a bucket like the early explorers. I highly recommend this 2-hour tour. If you want to explore the cave off the beaten path, sign up for the Wild Cave Tour. This is a 4-hour tour which requires reservations, proper attire, and a willingness to crawl through small openings for most of the trip.
Besides the rare boxwork formations that are hard to find anywhere else in the world, you’ll also see formations like popcorn, frostwork, and fossilized coral. There are some stalactities and stalagmites, although not as many as in other cave systems due to the climate. In some places, water sits in chambers. It truly is amazing being in a place that is, in some parts, over 300 million years old.
Outside of the cave are about a dozen trails. The easiest is the 1-mile Prairie Vista loop that begins near the Visitor’s Center. For good bird-watching, walk the 1.8-mile one-way Wind Cave Canyon Trail that leaves from a small parking lot just east of the Visitor’s Center. One mile south of the Visitor’s Center is Cold Brook Canyon, which takes you through a prairie dog town and the occasional prairie falcon. Just before the north park boundary is the Rankin Ridge Trail. This 1-mile trail grants you sweeping views from the highest part of the park. A few longer trails are also available.
Elk Mountain Campground is a first-come, first-served campground. However, there is lodging within the Black Hills. Staying in this area gives you close access to three other sites: Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world. Three tours are available. Discovery Talk is a short tour that visits one room. The Scenic Tour is a popular 80-minute tour along a paved trail that includes 723 steps over a half-mile. Finally, the Historic Lantern Tour is strenuous with low narrow passages. You’ll encounter 600 wooden ladder-style steps over a half-mile with the only light provided from the lantern you carry. You’ll see formations know as cave bacon, flowstone, popcorn, and frostwork, as well as various spar and gypsum examples.
Crazy Horse Memorial is just a 30-minute drive north of Wind Cave. This is the world’s largest mountain carving. However, it is still being worked on. Sometimes when you visit, they will be blasting rock. On premises is a good North American Indian museum. In the summer, there is a laser light show.
Mount Rushmore sits about an hour drive north of Wind Cave. The parking fee is high, but seeing the carved mountain gives you a sense of national pride at what can be accomplished. You can learn about Gutzon Borglum and the process of planning the immense project. There is a path around part of the mountain, giving you different photo angles. In the summer, there is an evening lighting ceremony.