Wind Cave National Park, located near Hot Springs, South Dakota, was the first cave in the world to receive National Park status. To date, more than 128 miles have been mapped at Wind Cave, designating it the third longest cave in the United States and the fourth longest in the world. Wind Cave is a spelunker’s delight, home to the world’s most extensive network of honeycomb-shaped calcite formations called boxwork, revered for its rare, needle-shaped formations called frostwork.
Known for centuries by the Lakota Sioux as “the hole that blows air,” the site was officially discovered by Tom and Jesse Bingham in 1881, when Jesse heard wind rushing from the cave’s opening, and the force of the wind blew the hat from Tom’s head. When the Binghams returned to the site with others, the atmospheric pressure had shifted, sucking Tom’s hat into the hole.
News of the cave’s discovery reached miners, and several mining claims were filed. J.D. McDonald led the most significant claim, filed by the South Dakota Mining Company in 1890. The mining venture did not yield gold, but J.D. and his family were not deterred, recognizing that the cave could bring them riches as a tourist site. The McDonalds filed a homestead claim on the cave’s entrance, and J.D.’s son, Alvin, began mapping the cave and offering tours. The family also began to remove and sell cave formations.
In 1891, the McDonalds formed a partnership with John Stabler. The partnership, dubbed the Wonder Wind Cave Improvement Company, further developed the site by adding staircases to the cave, widening cave passages, and building a hotel near the entrance.
In 1893, Alvin McDonald died at the age of 20 after contracting typhoid fever. Following Alvin’s death, the Wonder Wind Cave Improvement Company began to crumble. The McDonalds accused Stabler of withholding funds, and began to demand more money. In the meantime, the mining claim had been taken over by Peter Folsom, and Folsom and Stabler united in an effort to prove that the McDonalds had no claim on the site. A bitter legal battle for claim to the site ensued, and in 1899 the Department of the Interior determined that since the site had not been mined or homesteaded, neither party had legal claim to the site. In 1903, President Roosevelt established Wind Cave as the eighth member of the U.S. National Park system.
Today, visitors to Wind Cave can participate in a number of cave tours. The least strenuous tour, The Garden of Eden Cave Tour, is ¼ mile long and contains 150 steps. Special cave tours are available for visitors with limited mobility.
Outside the cave, visitors can enjoy exhibits in the Visitor’s Center, or can hike the site’s 30 miles of trails. The courses range in length from one mile to 8.6 miles, round trip. Wind Cave, established as a reintroduction site for bison, pronghorn, and elk in 1911, now has thriving herds roaming its 28,295 acres of protected mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine. Mule deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs can also be seen at the site.
Travelers to Wind Cave can camp at Elk Mountain Campground, located one mile from the Visitor’s Center, or may find lodging in nearby communities. While at Wind Cave, travelers are certain to enjoy visiting Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, or Badlands National Park, each of which is less than two hours away by car.
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