10 Tips for Visiting Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota

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The 28,295 acres of Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota are home to the 7th longest cave in the world, and the 3rd longest cave in America. The cave was discovered by Jesse and Tom Bingham in the early 1880s and 21 Native American tribes associated with the Wind Cave.  President Theodore Roosevelt established Wind Cave as the 8th National Park in 1903, naming it after the barometric winds at the entrance to the cave. There are 156.3 miles of passageways in Wind Cave and 95% of the world’s boxwork hangs inside the cave, along with 12 species of bats (although we didn’t see any on our visit).

We spent a summer morning on 4th of July weekend exploring the park and taking a Natural Entrance Cave tour and loved it! The park is fairly isolated, with no dining options, so plan ahead and bring food. Here are our 10 tips if you’re planning a visit to Wind Cave National Park.

1. Get there early, especially during peak summer season. When we arrived at 6:10am, we were 4th in line and there were literally HUNDREDS (no exaggeration) of people in line at 7:45am. (It was 4th of July weekend) As of summer 2021, there were only 20 tours a day, each limited to 30-40 people depending on the tour.

2. Most people explore Wind Cave National Park by taking a guided cave tour. However, there are many activities including:

  • Eight hiking trails, varying in length from 1.5 miles to 9 miles.  The easiest is the Wind Cave Canyon trail, just under two miles one way.  Check here for more information on trails and descriptions.

  • A driving tour, which includes roadside signage and historical and geological information.

  • Camping at Elk Mountain Campground (less than a mile from the Visitor Center) which includes 75 sites and is open from April through October.

  • Picnicking 1/4 mile north of Visitor Center and throughout the grounds. Be sure to carry out what you carry in.

3. There are several rangers who live inside the park for the peak summer season. Year round, rangers offer several programs and activities, such as talks on wildlife, plants, geology, and cave surveying; and prairie hikes. There are special programs during winter months geared towards younger children- find the schedule here. Kids of all ages can complete a Junior Ranger booklet and activities to earn a Junior Ranger badge.  

4. Know which tour you want to take. There is a small fee for all tours and the America the Beautiful pass is not accepted, except for the handicap passes.

  • Garden of Eden Tour is considered the easiest tour, lasting one hour and including a mile of walking and 150 stairs. Guests enter and exit the cave via elevator.

  • Natural Entrance Tour is considered a moderate tour and the most popular. The tour lasts 75 minutes and covers about 2/3 of a mile and 300 stairs. It begins with the cave’s largest natural opening and ends with an elevator ride back up to the ground level.

  • Fairgrounds Tour is the most strenuous tour, lasting 90 minutes and including 2/3 of a mile and 450 stairs. It includes a visit to both the middle and upper levels of the cave. Guests do enter and exit the cave via elevator.

  • Candlelight Tour is offered during summer months. It is a two hour tour that includes a lot of bending, stooping, and climbing stairs and it is lit only by candle light. 

5. Know what to expect on the guided cave tour. It is steep and very slippery at parts. Most of the tours include climbing down stairs. Visitors should be comfortable in tight spaces and be able to duck frequently to avoid hitting their heads (it became almost a song for people to cry out “watch your head” one after another as we went through the cave). There is no place to sit down once you enter the cave. While there is electricity in the cave and areas are lit well enough for visitors to see, at one point the guide will usually turn off the light for a brief moment to give everyone a feel for true darkness. The guide will provide fair warning, but be prepared. If you have concerns about claustrophobia, or fear the dark, or have knee or back issues, I would not go on a cave tour.

6. Know what you can and cannot bring on cave tours: Definitely wear sneakers or closed toe shoes and a sweatshirt, and bring a camera. No backpacks, food, drinks, pets, or really anything additional is allowed. Rangers are strict about this policy and check each guest before leaving for a cave hike.

7. Spend time in the Visitor Center (open from 8am to 4:30pm, with extended hours during the summer) and explore the exhibits that showcase the history of the cave and area. The Visitor Center also has indoor restrooms, water bottle filling stations, and a gift shop. The park recommends NOT using your GPS for directions to the Visitor Center- check here for specific directions.

8. Logistics: There is one, long parking lot for plenty of cars and trailers and the parking lot is one way. Restrooms are available inside the Visitor Center and campgrounds. Portapotties are available outside the Visitor Center for off hours. There are no dining options inside the park. Water fountains are located in the Visitor Center. Souvenirs and bottled water are available for purchase in the gift shop inside the Visitor Center. The park recommends NOT using your GPS for directions to the Visitor Center- check here for specific directions.

9. Keep an eye out for the wildlife that call the park home. Bison, elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, and black footed ferrets can all be seen throughout the park. The best time to view wildlife is usually dawn and dusk and the easiest way to see them is to drive the Wildlife Loop Road and Needles Highway.  Look for burrows for prairie dogs and coyotes on and near hiking trails. Do not get too close to prairie towns as you’ll be attacked by flees.

10.  Pick another nearby area to explore for the day: Custard State Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial are all less than an hour from Wind Cave and would be a lot of fun to explore. We loved Mount Rushmore– read our tips about visiting here.

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10 Comments

  1. I take it you did not drive the back roads. No mention of the Bison Herd. Windcave Park is the best place to observe Prairie Dogs. IMHO

  2. This looks like such a great trip! Thanks for all the tips and helpful hints, we can’t wait to explore South Dakota!!

  3. This looks like such a great trip! Thanks for all the tips and helpful hints, we can’t wait to explore South Dakota!!

  4. This is a great review! I feel like I was there with your family and I loved all of the pictures! I am looking forward to visiting SD in the future and will add this to my list of places to visit!

  5. This is a great review! I feel like I was there with your family and I loved all of the pictures! I am looking forward to visiting SD in the future and will add this to my list of places to visit!

  6. This sounds so amazing – I would love to do a cave tour. I visited Mount Rushmore almost a decade ago and I had no idea Wind Cave was so close. Time to return to South Dakota! 🙂

  7. This sounds so amazing – I would love to do a cave tour. I visited Mount Rushmore almost a decade ago and I had no idea Wind Cave was so close. Time to return to South Dakota! 🙂

  8. I love visiting caves! These something so magical and otherworldly about being underground! Wind Cave National Park looks like an incredible place to visit. I’d love to see it in person one day. Thanks for the great guide!

  9. I love visiting caves! These something so magical and otherworldly about being underground! Wind Cave National Park looks like an incredible place to visit. I’d love to see it in person one day. Thanks for the great guide!

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