Wind Cave National Park is an idyllic area which, despite its nomenclature, has as much to offer above ground as below. The park is located ten miles north of Hot Springs in western South Dakota. It was established as the seventh National Park by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, and was the first cave system to be designated.
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Wind Cave is the sixth longest cave system in the world, but the world’s densest maze cave. It consists of miles of interlocking and intersecting tunnels arranged in a three dimensional array. The cave has long been known to the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes, as well as other indigenous peoples. The area is sacred to the Lakota, as they believe it is where they ascended from the underworld upon the creation of the world. The cave has been known as the “hole that blew air.”
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In 1881, two brothers, Tom and Jesse Bingham heard what seemed to be a stream of air escaping from a ten inch by fourteen inch hole in the ground. When Tomm bent his head to investigate, his hat was blown from his head. In 1889, the South Dakota Mining Company endeavored to explore the cave, supposedly in search of valuable minerals. The hired Jesse McDonald to oversee mining claim, but no valuable minerals were forthcoming. McDonald had other ideas, however, and had soon recruited his family to explore the cave in preparation to opening it as a tourist attraction, and by 1892 it was open for business. Visitors are amazed at the lovely formations. Boxwork, frostwork, cave popcorn, moonmilk, and other natural artworks abound.
But the land above the cave systems is every bit as interesting. The park contains the largest natural mixed grass prairie still existing in the United States. And on that prairie lives one of only four remaining free-roaming and genetically pure bison herds in North America. But it doesn’t stop there. You can also find raccoon, mink, red foxes, ermines ferrets, river otters, badgers, pronghorn, cougars, coyotes, and the like. And, of course, that ubiquitous prairie dweller, the prairie dog. The area is well traversed by roads, so virtually all of the park is accessible. If you want to get out and walk, there are over thirty miles of hiking trails. The Elk Mountain campsite is open year round, with seventy-five sites for tents and recreational vehicles, but services are limited during the harsher winter months.
Information on this fabulous breathing cave system, and its above ground attractions is available online. Enjoy your visit!