Article Overview: Things to Do Wind Cave National Park
If you’re looking for the best things to do in Wind Cave National Park you’ve come to the right place. In 2021 we partnered with the South Dakota Tourism Department to travel to Wind Cave and bring a portion of it’s beauty to screens all over the world.
Situated where the Northern Great Plains meet the Black Hills, Wind Cave National Park spans more than 33,000 acres of spectacular views and subterranean wonders.
Iconic wildlife, teeming forests, rolling hills, and one of the largest and most fascinating caves in the world. Wind Cave truly is more than meets the eye.
In this article I’ll go over:
- Things to Do in Wind Cave National Park
- Best Places to See in Wind Cave
- The Cave Tours
- Must See Sites in Wind Cave
Wind Cave is probably one of the most underrated national parks in the country. Often overlooked and overshadowed by the more popular Mount Rushmore, Black Hills, Badlands, and even Custer State Park, Wind Cave offers a chance to slip away from the crowds and enjoy spectacular scenery above and below ground.
Watch the Award-Winning Wind Cave National Park Video
WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK is the culmination of several weeks spent filming in the park. Situated where the Northern Great Plains meet the Black Hills, Wind Cave National Park spans more than 33,000 acres of spectacular views and subterranean wonders.
Journey with us as we explore life above and below ground in one of the most scenic corners of the United States.
We partnered with our friends at Travel South Dakota to capture the beauty of Wind Cave and bring it to screens all over the world. Be sure to check out Travel South Dakota’s website for up to date information on travel restrictions and plenty of inspiration for your next trip!
Things to Do Wind Cave National Park
1. Explore the Cave
Of course no trip to Wind Cave National Park is complete without participating in a tour of its underground wonders.
The park offers 3 different tours of the cave ranging between an hour and an hour and a half long. Two of the tours are considered moderately difficult and one is considered strenuous. We did all three and found them all pretty easy and leisurely.
It’s important to note that to explore the cave you have to sign up for a tour, which includes a modest additional fee (usually in the neighborhood of $15 for adults and considerably less for kids). Some tours can be reserved online ahead of time at recreation.gov. Fortunately for those who can’t plan their trip several months in advance, half of all tour tickets are held in reserve for same-day sales. You’ll need to arrive very early in the morning to get in line to ensure sure you get one of those tickets.
As I’m sure you probably know, National Park Service rangers and tour guides are the absolute best in the business and make exploring the cave safe and fun for everyone.
Be sure to check the park’s website for the latest information on fees, cave closures, and tour operations as closures are not infrequent and neither are changes to the tour schedules.
NOTE: It’s very easy to bump your head in several areas throughout the cave tours so be very vigilant and wear a hat to protect yourself from scrapes!
2. Natural Entrance Tour
- Distance: 2/3 mile
- Total Stairs: 300
- Time: 1 hour & 15 minutes
- Difficulty: Easy (Though the park rates this moderate)
Of all the tours in Wind Cave, this was our favorite. This tour takes viewers down through the original entrance to the cave. You’ll learn about how it was discovered and explored in the early days.
This tour offers plenty of opportunities to see the cave’s famous “boxwork” along with other fascinating features.
3. Garden of Eden Tour
- Distance: 1/3 mile
- Total Stairs: 150
- Time: 1 hour
- Difficulty: Easy (Though the park rates this moderate)
This is the shortest and easiest tour offered by the park making it perfect for those who have a tight schedule or more limited mobility.
You’ll still have plenty of opportunities to see the cave’s famous boxwork as well as to learn about the history of the cave and what makes it so fascinating.
4. Fairgrounds Tour
- Distance: 2/3 mile
- Total Stairs: 450
- Time: 1 hour & 30 minutes
- Difficulty: Moderate (Though the park rates this strenuous)
The longest and most comprehensive tour of Wind Cave is the Fairgrounds Tour. Though the park rates it as strenuous due to the sheer number of stairs and amount of stooping required we found its difficulty to be closer to moderate by our estimation. All the same you may want to leave Grandma and Grandpa at the Visitor Center for this one because it is a lot of stairs.
In the Fairgrounds Tour you’ll get to delve deep into this subterranean wonder and really get a feel for the vast network of tunnels and caverns that comprise Wind Cave.
5. See the Bison
It’s hard not to see bison on a trip to Wind Cave, but getting an opportunity to view these majestic mammals from safe distance is one that should not be missed.
Bison can be viewed in most open areas of the park so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding them.
NOTE: It’s important for your safety and theirs that you keep at least 25 feet away from animals (especially bison) at all times. Also bison can damage your vehicle if you present an obstacle to them so don’t attempt to drive up next to them.
6. Hike Rankin Ridge
Rankin Ridge is the perfect hike for visitors who want spectacular views without all the fuss of a long hike. Atop the ridge you’ll come upon a fire tower (which is closed to the public) and an interpretive sign with information on the land features surrounding you.
Distance: 1 mile
Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
This is probably my favorite hike in Wind Cave as it packs a lot of punch in a short easy walk. Along the way you ascend through a forest of ponderosa pines and boulders before the views open up to the rolling hills of the prairie.
From the top you can see Badlands National Park in the distance as well as the notable land feature known as Buffalo Gap.
7. Drive Wind Cave Geology Tour
Far from the florescently-lit classroom sounding name, the Geology Tour is a 20 mile gravel road that winds through the heart of the park.
Along the way you’ll see interpretive signs and various rock formations that tell the history of the park. Of course you’ll also be treated to beautiful views of the surrounding area and ample opportunities to see wildlife including bison.
The drive takes anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour and is a great way to get off the beaten path and drink in the scenery of this unique area without having to embark on an arduous hike.
Driving the Wind Cave Geology Tour
- Distance: 20 miles
- Services: None
- Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
- Road: Gravel – suitable to all cars
8. Hike Boland Ridge Trail
This strenuous 5 mile out-and-back trail offers panoramic views of the Black Hills and rolling plains in the distance.
- Distance: 5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 800 feet
- Time: 2-3 hours
- Difficulty: Strenuous
May, June, and September are the best times of the year to hike Boland Ridge when temperatures are generally mild and more forgiving. If you do decide to make the trek in the summer make sure to avoid the heat of the day and bring plenty of water.
Boland Ridge also affords great opportunities to spot the park’s elusive elk early in the morning or in the evening around sunset.
9. Camp Out Under the Stars
To truly immerse yourself in the park we always recommend camping out. There are two options for camping in Wind Cave National Park, Elk Mountain Campground and backcountry camping.
Elk Mountain Campground
- Total Sites: 62
- RV Sites: 42
- Reservations: First-come-first-served
- Fee: $24
- Amenities: Bathrooms, trash, year-round firewood sales, and seasonal potable water
For those not looking to schlep all their gear into the backountry we recommend getting a site at Elk Mountain Campground. This 62-site campground offers sites on a first-come-first-served basis, which is great because all the sites won’t already be booked months in advance.
Make sure to get there early to snag a site and remember that you’ll need cash to pay for your site (the campsite fee is $24).
The campground is open year round and is seasonally discounted to $12.
10. See the Prairie Dogs
A family favorite, prairie dogs are endlessly fun to watch as they go about digging, yipping, and frolicking amidst the waving prairie grass.
Prairie dog towns can be seen throughout Wind Cave National Park. Cold Brook Canyon, Sanctuary Trail, and the base of Rankin Ridge are good areas to see them, but countless open areas of the park are buzzing with dog towns.
NOTE: Though they are very cute, don’t approach or attempt to feed the prairie dogs. Enjoy watching them go about their business from a safe and respectful distance.
11. Look and Listen for Elk
A lot of people don’t know that Wind Cave is home to an elk population numbering in the hundreds thank to a resoundingly successful reintroduction effort began in the early 1900’s.
The best places to spot the park’s elusive elk are Elk Mountain Campground and Boland Ridge. Early morning and late evening around sunset are the best times to spot elk in the park. Cold Brook Canyon is another place where they can sometimes be sighted.
September and October are the best times of year to see and hear elk bugling in the park as the rutting season is in full swing.
12. Go Stargazing
Wind Cave, while not a designated dark sky park, is still a fantastic place to see unobstructed views of the vast night sky.
There are many great places throughout the park to soak in the night sky including Elk Mountain and NPS 5.
13. Go Bird Watching
Wind Cave is home to a vast array of more than 100 species of birds year-round with many more visiting seasonally during migrations.
Probably the most common bird you’ll see and hear is the western meadowlark with its cheery song seemingly emanating from the tall grasses of the prairie.
The park is also home to both eastern and mountain bluebirds which are often spotted along roads and fences.
Various woodpeckers can be seen in the ponderosa pine forests and a number of hawks are commonly sighted soaring overhead.
14. Drive NPS 5
One of the most scenic things to do in Wind Cave National Park is cruising down NPS 5. This largely unpaved road takes you through some of the most beautiful parts of the park.
Along the route you’ll be treated to herds of bison, scenic overlooks, possibly some elk, prairie dogs, and some of the best pronghorn viewing areas.
15. See the Place Where Wind Cave Was Discovered
Another one to add to your list of things to do in Wind Cave National Park is seeing the opening where the cave was first discovered. The story the rangers tell about this opening is that the Bingham brothers happened upon this hole one day after hearing a strange whistling noise emitting from it.
When the brothers approached the hole one of their hats was blown off by the air (or wind) coming out of it.
The Lakota attribute this opening as the site where their people first emerged and their origins story is documented by the National Park Service at the opening.
16. Hike (or drive) to Lookout Point
Saving one of the best things to do in Wind Cave National Park for last! Lookout Point is one of the best overlooks in Wind Cave offering some of the nicest views of the park. From this lookout you’ll see rolling ridges and grassy meadows mixed with pine forests.
You can drive right up to the parking lot for this point and walk out to it in about 10 or 20 steps.
Map of Wind Cave National Park
Summary of Things to Do in Wind Cave National Park
- Cave Tours
- Natural Entrance Tour
- Fairgrounds Tour
- Garden of Eden Tour
- Rankin Ridge
- Wind Cave Geology Tour
- Boland Ridge Trail
- Prairie Dogs
- NPS 5
- See the Natural Entrance
- Lookout Point
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Why Trust Us About Things to Do in Wind Cave National Park?
I’m Jim Pattiz and along with my brother Will, we make up the filmmaking duo known as the Pattiz Brothers.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We’ve spent our entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues.
Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
And a bonus! Tips for Visiting a National Park Responsibly
Permit Systems and Reservations
Check to see if the national park you’re visiting has a permit or reservation system in place before visiting. As parks become increasingly crowded more has to be done to safeguard them which means controlling the hundreds of millions of people who visit these places each year.
Popular national parks with reservation systems of some kind include Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Arches, Acadia, Denali, and more.
Want Less Crowds? Try a National Forest!
Try visiting a national forest while you’re on your trip to avoid the crowds. There are 155 national forests in America, many of which are equally as beautiful as the national parks they neighbor and only see a fraction of the visitors.
For example, try the Flathead National Forest next to Glacier National Park, the Bridger-Teton next to Grand Teton, and the Dixie which borders nearly all of the Utah National Parks.
Practice Safety, Seriously
National parks are amazing but wild places so it is essential to practice basic safety while visiting them. Every year people die while vacationing in national parks. This is easily avoided by:
- Sticking to trails
- Checking the weather before going out on a hike
- Maintaining a safe distance between wildlife which means at least 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators
- Avoid ledges with steep drop offs