Wind Cave National Park: Listen to the Caves Breathe!

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Wind Cave National Park features over 150 miles of caving. It’s safe to say it has something for everyone. Whether you are a family looking for a fun-filled vacation, nature explorers, or college classes needing an exciting field trip, Wind Cave National Park has it all.

This is the most visited and loved spot in South Dakota. A trip to the Wind Cave National Park is more than just a simple day trip. It’s an experience from beginning to end.

Learn about the rich history of this national park and all it offers for your next visit today. This article describes the park, the canyon, and the cave tours to help you plan your next trip.

About Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is a national park in western South Dakota located 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of the community of Hot Springs. It’s President Theodore Roosevelt’s sixth national park, established on January 3, 1903, and the world’s first cave to become a national park.

The cave is noted for its box work, calcite formations, and frostwork. Wind Cave has around 95 percent of the world’s documented box work formations. The cave is the world’s densest cave system, with the highest tunnel volume per cubic mile. Wind Cave is the world’s sixth longest cave, measuring 154.2 miles (248.16 kilometers).

An image of the pattern of the well-known boxwork ceiling at Wind Caves National Park.

How the Wind Caves Breathe

The park’s passages are said to “breathe” because air constantly flows into and out of them, balancing the atmospheric pressure of the cave with the outside air. When the external pressure exceeds the internal pressure, air flows into the cave, raising the pressure to equal the external pressure.

Whenever the air pressure within the cave is higher than the air pressure outside, air flows out, reducing the air pressure within the cave.  A vast cave with just a few small entrances, such as Wind Cave, will “breathe” more clearly than a small cave with several enormous ones.


An image shows a herd of bison that can be found at Wind Cave National Park.

Western South Dakota environment features fast weather changes coupled with quick barometer shifts. If there had been a fast-moving storm on the day the Bingham brothers discovered the cave, atmospheric pressure would have dropped quickly. This allows the cave’s higher-pressure air to surge out all available entrances, likely causing the naming of this cave.

Wind Cave National Park preserves a diversified ecosystem that includes species of plants and animals from both the east and west. cayotes elk, bison, raccoons, skunks, ermines, black-footed, badgers, cougars, bobcats, minks, red foxes, whooping crane, pronghorn, and prairie dogs are among the wildlife that lives in this park.

The Wind bison herd is one of just four free-roaming yet genetically pure herds on North American public properties.

The other three are the Yellowstone Park bison herds, the Henry Mountains bison breed in Utah, and Elk Island herds in Alberta.

An image of a Ponderosa Pine tree, which is found at Wind Cave National Park.

Several highways go through the park, along with 30 miles (48 km) of surface hiking paths. In 2018, the park received an estimated 656,397 visits. In 2015, more than 109,000 individuals visited the cave. This was the most since 1968, when cave excursions were restricted to 40 people apiece.

The Wind Cave visitor center has three exhibit rooms dedicated to the geology of the caves and early cave history, the park’s animals and natural history, and the Civilian Conservation Corps work in the area.

Elk Mountain Campground is about 1.25 miles (2.0 kilometers) from the visitor center and is nestled in a ponderosa pine woodland. The campsite includes 75 tent and RV sites and is open year-round, with campfire programs available.

Wind Cave Canyon

Wind Cave Canyon is a popular destination for canyoneering enthusiasts in the Black Hills. Thousands of travelers visit Wind Cave National Park to see the famed cave at the bottom of the canyon. Many people also take the opportunity to trek one or several paths.

This canyon system is approximately 10 miles long. The head begins on the south slope of the Twin Sisters Range, the mouth near the junction of Beaver Creek. Wind Cave Canyon is intersected by several tiny side canyons, the most notable of which are Cottonwood Creek, Prairie Dog Canyon, and Negro Canyon.

Elk Mountain, as well as Elk Knob, lies on the south side of the canyon.

An image of Elk Mountain from a distance.

The canyon floor lowers approximately 900 feet, with no consistent stream flow along the whole stretch of the canyon.

Stream flow comes from a massive spring in a canyon bend and returns underground inside a quarter-mile of the spring. Flash floods have left some fantastic debris in the canyon, giving hikers a reason to pay heed to weather conditions. Heavy rain runoff can and does produce dangerous conditions on the canyon floor.

Wind Cave Canyon has grassy and forested slopes and limestone and sandstone cliffs that range in height from less than 100 feet to 400 feet in some spots. Caves can be discovered in several areas around the canyon, with Wind Cave being among the most notable.

While ponderosa pine is the most frequent tree in the area, there are also aspen, birch, cottonwood, oak, and ash trees. Buffalo is the most frequently encountered massive animal in the canyon. Visitors to the canyon may see elk, pronghorn, deer, cougars, and coyotes.

A wide range of snakes live within and around the canyon. Wind Cave National Park issues warnings about rattlesnakes in particular.

How To Get There

Wind Cave Canyon is commonly reached through Highway 385, which goes through Wind Cave National Park. The Wind Cave Canyon Trailhead is roughly 10 miles north of Hot Springs and the Wind Cave National Park Convention Center is approximately 1 mile south and west of the Wind Cave Canyon Trailhead, or around 9 miles north of the Hot Springs.

Forest service roads 373 and 373.1D provide access to an ancient road that follows the route of the top canyon close to the Wind Cave National Park boundary, just beyond the national park boundaries.

This road is blocked by motorized vehicles, but forms an excellent hiking trail and allows access to the park’s eastern side.


Prairie Vista Trail

A 1-mile loop walk travels through the picnic area a short distance north of the Visitors Center, partly on the canyon floor and partly across the neighboring prairie.

Wind Cave Canyon Trail

This 1.8-mile (one-way) trail takes you to the park’s eastern boundary. However, it’s not accessible to drive on besides for the national park’s department vehicles. This is the canyon’s most scenic and popular hiking trail. The track has a good combination of shade and sun. At the trailhead, there are warnings about rattlesnakes, poison ivy, ticks, and aggressive buffalo.

Wind Cave Tours

The park offers five cave tours during the summer (a total of 30 per day) and one tour for the remainder of the year. Adventurous cavers should consider signing up for either one of these limited 10-person tours, which will take them away from crowds.

An image shows the stairway leading upward into the Wind Caves, with artificial lighting illuminating the background.

The Garden of Eden Tour

This 1-hour tour takes visitors past representative cave elements as they enter and exit Wind Cave via elevator. It’s the park’s least demanding tour, with 150 stairs to climb.

Natural Entrance Tour

This moderately strenuous 75-minute tour has 300 stairs (most of which are down), beginning at the cave’s walk-in entrance and ending with an elevator. It leads visitors through the cave’s center, with an abundance of “boxwork”, slender blades of calcite that project out from the cave’s ceilings and walls in a honeycomb pattern.

Fairgrounds Tour

This contains some of the most oversized rooms in the cave’s constructed portion. Many cave structures, including boxwork, are visible to participants. This 90-minute moderately complex tour includes 450 steps.

Candlelight Tour

This is among the most requested tours, particularly for children aged eight and up. Tour participants take a candle bucket and enjoy the cave by candlelight as they trek through a less developed, unlit cave region. You need shoes with nonslip soles; leave your sandals at home (or at the hotel)!

This challenging 2-hour tour covers 1 mile of the rocky path and is limited to 10 individuals (minimum age is 8). Reservations, which must be made one month before the tour, are highly encouraged.

An image shows the extremely long and sharp stalactites found at Wind Cave National Park.

Wild Cave Tour

Wind Cave can also be explored outside of the established trails. Visitors are introduced to fundamental, safe caving techniques during this 4-hour experience. Because most of the tour is spent crawling, you should wear old clothes and gloves. Long pants, long-sleeved shirts, lace-up boots, and shoes featuring nonslip soles are required.

The park provides hard helmets, lighting, and kneepads. Don’t bring jewelry, watches, or other valuables to be safe.

This excursion has a maximum of 10 individuals and a minimum age of 16. 16 and 17 year olds will require signed consent paperwork from a parent or guardian. Reservations are necessary one month in advance of the excursion.

Tours For People With Disabilities

People with limited mobility can tour the visitor center and the cave. Call ahead or ask about a memorable trip at the customer service counter. Wheelchairs can access several portions of the cave. Special services are subject to fees.


Given the geographic location, it may surprise you that Wind Cave National Park is a World Heritage Site. However, once you experience it, it will make sense.

This unique and diverse area is regarded as one of the world’s top caves for good reason. The multitude of rare and unusual cave formations and iconic boxwork are iconic. These impressive formations make for an unforgettable experience, but first, you must get there.

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