Located near the Badlands of South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park is one of the lesser known of the 60 National Parks in the United States. With an attendance of 619,000 in 2017, it has significantly fewer visitors than its more well-known National Park Service neighbors. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, only 45 minutes to the north, gets nearly 4 times as many visitors (well over 2 million!) and Badlands National Park, about 90 minutes to the east, gets nearly 1 million.
So why do so few people make their way to the area but fail to make the trip to Wind Cave, a park that’s been around for 115 years? Perhaps it’s the fear of being in an enclosed space. Perhaps it’s just far away enough to be considered “too out of the way.” Or it could be something different. But in any case, if you happen to be traveling to southwest South Dakota, do yourself a favor and check out this unique park and all it has to offer. You’ll be surprised-there are great things to experience both above and below ground that you won’t want to miss!
Here are some tips on how to plan your trip to Wind Cave National Park.
Wind Cave National Park, including what to do, what to pack and useful links are covered in our 20+ page itinerary for Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt and Wind Cave National Parks.
By far the most popular activity in Wind Cave National Park is taking one of the cave tours. Wind Cave is home to the densest cave system in the world. Amazingly enough, even though American Indians knew about the cave long before Charlie Crary entered it in 1881, only approximately 2% of the cave has been explored! Lucky for us visitors, this provides more than enough to spend a few hours exploring on one of the guided tours.
To get tickets for a tour, most of them are first-come, first-served. Tickets are available at the Visitor Center. On the busiest months of the year (summer), you’ll want to get in line early to make sure you get the tour that you want at the time you want. We recommend getting in line by 7:30 AM to be sure, especially on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which are the busiest days of the week.
Make sure you are dressed properly, with sturdy shoes (sneakers or hiking shoes are preferred) and a light jacket, as the cave is always hovers around 53 degrees.
There are a variety of cave tours, with the full-suite of tours being offered in the summertime (only selected tours are offered year-round). The tour options include:
First-come, first-served cave tours:
- Fairgrounds Cave Tour: This guided, 90-minute tour includes the most diverse cave formations and is the most strenuous of the tours, with over 450 stairs. The tour starts and ends by taking an elevator over 200 feet down. The elevator shaft was finished in 1934, but don’t worry, the elevators were both upgraded in the late 90’s. Learn about this wonderful tour here.
- Natural Entrance Cave Tour: This guided, 75-minute tour is moderately strenuous, starts at an entrance at ground level and descends down into the cave. Tours end with an elevator ride up to the top. Details on this popular tour can be found here.
- Garden of Eden Tour: The least strenuous of the tours, this one-hour tour does require visitors to climb some stairs, but it is relatively easy. More information can be found here.
Tours where reservations are accepted (and recommended):
- Candlelight Cave Tour: This strenuous tour lasts 2 hours and allows visitors to carry a candle situated in a metal bucket. This tour is especially interesting and fun for those who like to feel as if they are explorers. More information can be found here.
- Wild Cave Tour: On this 4-hour tour, visitors spend most of their time crawling around and getting dirty. It is a unique experience for those 16 years or older. More information can be found here.
Reservations can be made up to a month in advance by calling (605) 745-4600.
Hiking in Wind Cave National Park? Yes! For those who have some time and want to explore this park above ground there are several hiking trails worth checking out. They include:
- The Wind Cave Canyon Trail is an easy 3.8-mile trail that travels to the eastern border of the park. This includes hiking in some woods and plenty of opportunities to see wildlife.
- The Lookout Point Trail is a moderate 4.4-mile hike that has views of hills, flat plains and plenty of wildlife. Keep your eye out for rattlesnakes and poison ivy in the summertime.
- The Rankin Ridge Nature Trail is a moderate 1-mile hike. This interpretive trail has spectacular views fat the top and is highly recommended.
- The Prairie Vista Trail is an easy 1-mile hike near the visitor center.
FURTHER INFORMATION ON WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Wind Cave National Park, including what to do, what to pack, details on the information included in this blog and much more are covered in our 20+ page itinerary for Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt and Wind Cave National Parks.
- Neighboring Custer State Park is a terrific place to visit and was highlighted in detail in our blog, 6 Reasons Why You’ll Fall in Love with Custer State Park.
- If you are heading to Mount Rushmore, there is a bunch to do nearby, which we cover in our blog, What to Do Nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
- Be sure to check out nearby Jewel Cave National Monument.
- Less than 90 minutes away is Badlands National Park, covered in our blogs Just Go to Badlands National Park and Just Go to Badlands National Park – Hiking the Notch Trail. Also, to the south in Nebraska is Agate Fossil Beds National Monument-make sure you stop in on the way to or from Wind Cave!
WHERE TO STAY IN AND AROUND WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK
- There is only one campground in Wind Cave National Park, the Elk Mountain Campground. Reservations are not accepted. There are 10 campgrounds near Wind Cave National Park in nearby Custer State Park, and you can look here for more information on camping in Custer.
- There is no other lodging in Wind Cave National Park, but again, Custer has plenty of lodging options, both in the state park and in the neighboring town. Rapid City, even though it’s about 60 minutes away, also has plenty of options.
Make sure you get reservations early if possible, as events in and around Rapid City can take up the lodging all around the vicinity.
WHEN TO GO AND WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU GET TO WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK
The best airport to fly into when visiting the area is Rapid City, South Dakota.
Wind Cave is open year-round, with about two-thirds of the visitors coming between the months of June and September. Summertime temperatures do get to an average high of 81 in July, but nights cool down to the mid 50’s during the same month. In winter, expect snowy and cold weather.
OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION ON WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK
- The Switchback Kids covered Wind Cave, as well as other things to do in the area in their blog: Perfect 7 Days in South Dakota.
- American Field Trip found out that South Dakota wasn’t boring after all in their blog: Rushmore and Wind Cave National Park.
- The Black Hills Travel Blog has some amazing photos in their blog: Caves are Perfect for Winter.
- Brandon Kopp covers Wind Cave in detail in his blog: Wind Cave National Park.
- If you head south to Hot Springs, SD, make sure that you stop by Mornin’ Sunshine Coffee House & Catering. The coffee is great and the breakfast selections are outstanding. We visited here twice during our stay!