Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park sees more than 650 thousand visitors per year

Wind Cave National Park is distinctive for its calcite fin formations called boxwork, a unique formation rarely found elsewhere, and needle-like growths called frostwork. The cave is one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. Above ground is a mixed-grass prairie with animals such as bison, black-footed ferrets, and prairie dogs, and ponderosa pine forests that are home to cougars and elk. The cave is culturally significant to the Lakota people as the site “from which Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery, sent the buffalo out into their hunting grounds.”


Filled with more boxwork than can be found in all other caves on Earth put together

It’s old, complex, and filled with more boxwork than is found in all other caves on Earth put together. Any one of these qualities would make Wind Cave unique. Together they make it a world-class cave. And each component is essential to understanding how the cave formed.

Laying the Foundation

A warm shallow sea covered the area about 350 million years ago. Fragments of seashells, made of calcium carbonate, built up over time on the seafloor and eventually became limestone. Bodies of gypsum, made of calcium sulfate, also formed during this time when arid conditions caused seawater to evaporate and the minerals to crystallize. The gypsum formed irregular shaped masses within the limestone. The resulting rock is known as the Madison Limestone formation, or locally as the Pahasapa (Black Hills) Limestone.

The gypsum masses were unstable. They grew and shrank as they absorbed and expelled water. This pressure fractured the gypsum and surrounding limestone. Like thick toothpaste, some gypsum squeezed into these cracks and crystallized in place. Later, water rich in carbonate ions converted all of the gypsum to calcite, or calcium carbonate. This set the stage for the cave and boxwork to form.

The First Passages Form

The oceans receded allowing fresh water into the region. This naturally acidic freshwater reacted with the bodies of gypsum. They were converted to calcite, creating sulfuric or sulfurous acid as a byproduct. These acids dissolved the surrounding limestone to form the first cave passageways approximately 320 million years ago.

After the first period of cave formation, seas again advanced over this area. About 300 million years ago, layers of red clay, sandstone, and limestone of the Minnelusa Formation were deposited above the Pahasapa Limestone. Some of this sediment washed into and filled early-formed cave passageways near the surface. These reddish “paleofills” are visible in higher levels of the cave, near the Garden of Eden and Fairgrounds rooms.

Time, Time, Time

Seas continued to advance and retreat over the area for the next 240 million years. Sediment alternately deposited and eroded from atop the cave. The cave probably developed slowly until the most recent Black Hills uplift between 40 and 60 million years ago. The uplift opened more fractures in the limestone, allowing more cave to form. Water did not flow through the cave like a river. Instead, the water probably sat in the limestone for long periods of time, slowly enlarging small cracks into larger passageways, creating Wind Cave’s complex maze-like pattern.

The Boxwork is Revealed

Slow moving water also exposed the boxwork. By dissolving limestone at the edges of the former gypsum masses where expansion had formed cracks, the previously deposited crack fillings now stood in relief. These exposed crystal fins are called boxwork.

Other cave formations, or speleothems, such as calcite rafts, cave popcorn, dogtooth spar, flowstone/dripstone, frostwork, gypsum features, and helictite bushes are also found in the cave.

The Cave Drains

Geologic studies suggest the water began slowly draining from the cave 40 to 50 million years ago. Today the water level is about 500 feet below the surface at an area named “the Lakes.” Water, however, is still changing the cave. Slowly seeping water produces frostwork and cave popcorn on cave walls and ceilings. Flowstone or dripstone deposits, such as stalactites and stalagmites, are rare in Wind Cave due to the dry climate and semi-permeable overlying rock that limits water infiltration.

The Present Cave

Portions of Wind Cave are over 300 million years old, making it one of the oldest in the world. The cave is also large and extremely complex, with 149 miles of known cave (as of 2019) sitting under just 1.25 square miles of land. The boxwork is rare and found in few other caves. Geologists have many questions yet to answer before fully understanding the complex world below our feet.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Native American History

There is a dense Native American History at Wind Cave National Park

The land within Wind Cave National Park has historical, cultural, and spiritual meanings to many American Indians. The park consults with twenty tribal governments on major projects and plans. Click on the names of the tribes to link to their official websites.

Apache Tribe of Oklahoma

Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Crow Creek Sioux Tribe

Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe

Fort Belknap Tribe

Fort Peck Tribe –

Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma

Lower Brule Sioux Tribe

Lower Sioux Indian Community

Northern Arapaho Tribe

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council

Oglala Sioux Tribal Council

Ponca Tribe of Nebraska

Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma

Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council

Santee Sioux Tribal Council

Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribal Council

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council

Three Affiliate Tribes Business Council

Yankton Sioux Tribe

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Park History

How Wind Cave became a National Park

Wind Cave is a culturally significant and sacred site to the Lakota and Cheyenne, and to many other tribes that traveled in and around the area that would become Wind Cave National Park. Word of the cave’s entrance spread among American Indians as well as among settlers who arrived later, but there is no evidence of anyone entering the cave until 1881. Listed here are some of the first individuals and families involved in the early exploration of Wind Cave.


Alvin F. McDonald
Alvin McDonald was one of the first systematic explorers of Wind Cave. He crawled through Wind Cave’s cramped passageways, writing his discoveries in a journal. He explored the cave from 1890 to 1893.
Alvin Frank McDonald was born in Franklin County, Iowa, and moved to Wind Cave in 1890. His father, Jesse D., had been hired in 1889 by the South Dakota Mining Company to oversee the company’s “mining claim”. It is not known if the mining company expected to find minerals of value in the cave or just planned on developing it for tours. The McDonald family decided to attempt to make a living from the cave by developing it with enlarged passageways and wooden ladders and steps with the hope of attracting travelers from nearby Hot Springs.

Alvin fell in love with the cave and in the few years he lived here he systematically explored about 8-10 miles (13-16k) of passageways. He kept a journal in which he described his exploration of the cave and the naming of the rooms and passageways. He explored the cave with candlelight and rolled out string to mark his way out of the cave. He shared his passion for the cave with visitors by becoming, in his own words, “the chief guide” at Wind Cave.

Alvin spent many hours almost every day for more than three years exploring and guiding within the cave. Once, after being out of the cave for two days due to an illness, he wrote in his journal, “am homesick for the cave”. Alvin quickly realized the complex nature of the cave and wrote in his journal, “have given up the idea of finding the end of Wind Cave”. He appreciated the beauty and natural features of the cave, but like others of his era, removed samples of cave formations to be sold to visitors. Alvin did have somewhat of an ethic, and would only remove samples from the cave in areas where he did not take visitors.

Alvin died of typhoid fever on December 15, 1893. It is believed he contracted the typhoid in Chicago during a visit, bearing samples of the cave, to the Columbian Exposition the previous summer. Some people speculate that continued exposure to the cool, damp air of the cave caused Alvin to yield to complications from the typhoid.

Alvin was buried near the entrance to the cave he loved so dearly. A bronze plaque on a stone marks his grave. The grave, accessible by a footpath and a short climb, is located on a hill above the natural entrance to Wind Cave, 200 yards (182m) north of the visitor center. Pictures of Alvin, mementos, and a copy of a portion of his Wind Cave journal are on display in the lower exhibit room of the visitor center.

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The best things to do in Wind Cave National Park

Candlelight Cave Tour
Elk Mountain Nature Trail
Wildlife Loop Road
Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

Photo courtesy of NPS


There is an abundant plant life in Wind Cave National Park

Imagine yourself surrounded by a sea of grass, softly illuminated by golden-tinged afternoon sunlight. A gentle breeze brings the sweet vanilla scent of the ponderosa pine. As your eyes scan the prairie, you discover not only its signature grasses, but a wide variety of delicate wildflowers. Creamy-white sego lilies, purple coneflowers, and golden-yellow sunflowers add intermittent splashes of color to the carpet of green and brown grasses. All these experiences and more can be yours when you take time to discover the “sunny side” of Wind Cave National Park.

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Animal Life

Wind Cave National Park has a diverse wildlife

The establishment of Wind Cave National Game Preserve in 1912 brought the reintroduction of bison, elk, and pronghorn to the park. That legacy of wildlife protection continues to this day with the recent reintroduction of the black-footed ferret. To find more information on the animal species found in the park, scroll down and click the links.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Hiking Trails

The best hikes in Wind Cave National Park

Over 30 miles of hiking trails meander through mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine forest. Mileages listed below are one-way unless otherwise noted. Go prepared:

Carry and drink plenty of water.
Check the weather forecast before starting and bring extra layers.
Large wildlife, including bison, elk, and mountain lions roam throughout the park. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Regulations require at least 25 yards from bison and elk at all times.
Topographic maps for each trail are available at the links below or can be purchased at the visitor center bookstore. Off-trail hiking is allowed and may be the best way to avoid large wildlife.

Easy Trails
Elk Mountain
Trailhead: Located in the Elk Mountain Campground, across from the amphitheater.
Pets: Leashed pets permitted.
Distance (round trip): 1 mile / 1.6 kilometer
Estimated Hiking Time: 1 hour
Description: The grassland and forest meet on this trail around the campground.

Prairie Vista
Trailhead: Begin this loop trail at the Visitor Center or at the picnic area, located 1000 feet north of the visitor center.
Pets: Leashed pets permitted. Start this trail from the picnic area, 1/4 mile north of the Visitor Center with a pet.
Distance (round trip): approximately 1 mile / 1.6 kilometer
Estimated hiking time: 30 minutes
Description: Stroll the prairie grasslands from the visitor center. Waysides provide information along the way.
Rankin Ridge
Trailhead: Follow Route 87 in the park, and look for signage leading towards Rankin Ridge Nature Trail. RVs and trailers are not permitted at trailhead; hikers may park at nearby pulloff and walk to trailhead (approx. 1200 feet to trailhead).
Pets: Not permitted.
Distance (round trip): approximately 1 mile/ 1.6 kilometer
Estimated hiking time: 45 minutes
Description: Gain spectacular views from the highest point in the park. This nature trail, like those above, is a loop great for families or those with little time to explore. Download the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail Guide or pick up a copy at the trailhead. (1 mile)
Wind Cave Canyon (#2)
Trailhead: Located along Route 385 just east of the visitor center. Look for the gravel parking area east of the road.
Pets: Not permited
Distance (one way): 1.8 miles / 2.9 kilometers. Note: this is an out-and-back trail.
Estimated hiking time: 3 hours
Description: This former road follows Wind Cave Canyon to the park boundary. Limestone cliffs provide nesting areas for cliff swallows, canyon wrens, and great horned owls. Look for Red-headed and Lewis’ woodpeckers among the snag trees of forested hillsides.

Moderate Trails
Cold Brook Canyon (#1)
Trailhead: Located along Route 385 approximately 1 mile south of the visitor center.
Pets: Not permitted.
Distance (one way): 1.4 miles / 3.5 kilometers. Note: this is an out-and-back trail.
Estimated hiking time: 2 hours
Description: This trail winds through Cold Brook Canyon to the park boundary. Along the way a ponderosa forest gives way to the open prairie and crosses a prairie dog town, a good place to see prairie falcons and other raptors
Lookout Point (#4)
Trailhead: Located along Route 87 north of the visitor center.
Pets: Not permitted
Distance (one way): 2.2 miles / 3.5 km. Note: this is an out-and-back trail.
Estimated hiking time: 3 hours
Description: Follow the rolling hills of the prairie across Lookout Point to Beaver Creek. A side trip up Lookout Point offers views of the American Elk Prescribed Fire from 2010. This trail can be combined with part of the Highland Creek and Centennial trails to make a 4.5-mile loop.

Strenuous Trails
Sanctuary (#5)
Trailhead: About one mile north of the Rankin Ridge fire tower turnoff.
Pets: Not permitted.
Distance (one way): 3.6 miles / 5.8 kilometers.
Estimated hiking time: 2.5 hours
Description: This trail follows the rolling hills of the prairie, crosses a large prairie dog town, and ends where it meets the Highland Creek Trail.
East Bison Flats (#3)
Trailhead: Located just north of the park’s southern boundary along Route 385.
Pets: Not permitted.
Distance (one way): 3.7 miles / 6 kilometers
Estimated hiking time: 2 hours
Description: Hike one-half mile down the Wind Cave Canyon Trail to reach the East Bison Flats Trail where a brief, steep climb leads to the rolling hills of the praririe. Panoramic views of the prairie, Buffalo Gap and the Black Hills await.
Centennial (#6/89)
Trailhead: this trail can be reached by Hwy 87 or NPS 5.
Pets: Not permitted
Distance (one way): 6 miles / 9.7 kilometers
Estimated hiking time: 4 hours
Description: This section is the southernmost part of a 111-mile trail through the Black Hills, ending at Bear Butte State Park. Here it crosses prairies, ponderosa forests, and winds along Beaver Creek.
Highland Creek (#7)
Trailhead: This trail can be reached by a 1-mile hike down the Wind Cave Canyon trail or from the northern trailhead on NPS 5.
Pets: Not permitted.
Distance (one way): 8.6 miles / 13.8 kilometers
Estimated hiking time: 5 hours
Description: This trail is the longest and most diverse trail in the park, crossing mixed-grass prairies, ponderosa pine forests, and riparian habitats of Highland Creek, Beaver Creek, and Wind Cave Canyon.
Boland Ridge (#8)
Trailhead: The trail begins at a small parking area on NPS 6, one mile north of the junction with NPS 5.
Pets: Not permitted
Distance (one way): 2.6 miles / 4.2 kilometers
Estimated hiking time: 2 hours
Description: A series of climbs offer panoramic views of the Black Hills, Red Valley, and the plains beyond. Elk are often seen from this trail.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

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