After leaving Devils Tower National Monument, I headed to Wind Cave National Park. My visit to Wind Cave was probably the rockiest out of all the parks I visited. I think it was a combination of hitting the tail end of my trip and knowing it’d be back to reality soon and technological difficulties (my Delorme inReach wasn’t cooperating and there was no cell reception *helpful tip: the Visitor Center has free wifi*).
Right now, I don’t think I can give an unbiased opinion of Wind Cave National Park. If I based it off of this visit, I’d say that it is low on my ranking of National Parks, but I believe that my mental state of not wanting to go home yet is influencing that opinion unfairly. Also during my visit I also had my first bad cave tour experience – which was not the National Park’s fault, but left a bad taste in my mouth.
When I arrived, I was not entirely sure if I wanted to spend the night at Wind Cave – Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, etc are all within a couple hour radius of Wind Cave – but, I went ahead and scoped out the campground when I arrived, just to see what it was like. Elk Mountain Campground is similar to Belle Fourche River Campground at Devils Tower National Monument in that very few of the campsites have tree coverage or any type of plant life. In my opinion however, the layout of Elk Mountain Campground is better because you don’t have to directly face your neighbor.
After scoping out the campground I went to the Visitor Center to learn about the cave tours and do my normal visitor center business: pick up a Junior Ranger Booklet, purchase postcards, stickers, and a patch. There were two cave tours available while I was at Wind Cave (more tours are available at other times of the year). The Natural Entrance Tour and the Garden of Eden Tour. I chose to do the Natural Entrance Tour because it was longer and I would get to see more of the cave. I also have a tendency to opt for the “harder” of the cave tour options – my logic on that is the difficulty will reduce the number of people on the tour and the number of children (nothing against children, I just have never thought it would be enjoyable to be stuck below ground with a bunch of them – turns out that guess was accurate). You cane read more about my Natural Entrance Tour adventure by clicking here.
After the tour I got a couple hiking trail recommendations from a Park Ranger. One of her favorites she said was Wind Cave Canyon Trail , an easy 3.6 mile round-trip hike that follows an old road through the canyon. The trail did not impress me (I also did not finish the trail, so maybe it got better?). It had very really scenic sections and in a couple places there are drainage ditches running along the old road with stagnant water in them. About a mile and a half into the trail I passed a couple headed towards the trail-head. They told me they had rounded a corner further up to find a bison standing on the trail. I’d already had the misfortune of a bad cave tour experience, I wasn’t about to chance an encounter with a one ton bull so I turned around. (I had learned that if a bison is by itself, it’s usually a mature male that weigh one ton or more. The females and calf stay in large groups.)
I had decided that I would camp at the Elk Mountain Campground, so I went ahead and picked out my campsite and filled out the envelope. After (of course) I put the envelope with money in it thru the slot I saw a nice little poster about Bobcats or Mountain Lions (I can’t remember which now) being active at night…great. I’m happy to report that I did not have to pee in the middle of the night and therefore did not run into any large felines.
I hung out at camp while I completed my Wind Cave NP Junior Ranger book. After turning in my book to an un-amused Park Ranger – she didn’t even have me do the Junior Ranger Pledge 😦 – I realized I still had a lot of time to kill before it got dark. I decided to try my luck on the Garden of Eden Tour, you can read about it here, but spoiler alert: everyone else on the tour was at least 30 years older than me and it was fabulous!
After the tour I went back to camp and ate dinner. My last freeze dried special of the trip! Woohoo! I had fun watching more people pull in and set up camp. There were quite a few people with trucks or jeeps pulling over-landing trailers with rooftop tents on them. I enjoy seeing everyone’s camping setups – there are so many options. Once it started getting dark and the coyotes/wolves started howling I decided it was time for bed.
I woke up early the next morning just as the sky was starting to get lighter. On my way back from the bathroom I ran into Joy and her husband. They were at the campsite across from me. They thought it was awesome that I was traveling by myself and we went thru the typical where have you been / where are you headed conversation. Turned out that their Airstream’s name is Annie too. They were super nice and invited me to tea, but I wanted to try to make it up to the Lookout Tower on Rankin Ridge Trail before the sun was completely up. The Park Ranger that came around the campground the night before to check on everyone had said it was a great spot to watch the sunrise. While I wish I had hung out and had tea with Joy and her husband to learn more about their travels, I was very glad I did the Rankin Ridge Trail. It was my favorite short hike of the trip. See more pictures of Rankin Ridge Trail here.
Next time I’m in South Dakota, I would like to visit Wind Cave National Park and try the Natural Entrance Tour again.