Wind Cave National Park

May 27, 2008 - 9:05pm — GettingOutside
Cool image of reflection and someone spelunking in the Wind Cave
There is much more to be discovered within the limits of Wind Cave National Park than just a cave. Here you'll find yourself with so much to do, there's no way you will be ready to leave when your trip ends. Don't worry, there's always next year!

One of the world's longest and most complex caves and 28,295 acres of mixed-grass prairie, ponderosa pine forest and associated wildlife are the main features of Wind Cave National Park. The cave itself is known for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs. The park's mixed-grass prairie is one of the few remaining and is home to native wildlife such as bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs.

Wind Cave has always been a world class natural resource. However, it was not until explorers first entered, and then continued to push further underground, that the significance of Wind Cave began to be realized. This area was set aside as a National Park in 1903, making it the nation's seventh! Its praire region home to some of the country's most beautiful flowers.







Above you see the Blue Flax Flower, the Southern Shooting Star, and to the right, the Star Lily.

When most people think about the importance of Wind Cave they tend to dwell on boxwork and the cave's vast length, but these flowers sure are nice too.

Over many years of exploration and mapping, Wind Cave has grown to be one of the world's largest known caves. Currently over 132.05 miles [212.51 km] of passages have been mapped in Wind Cave. This places Wind Cave as the third longest cave in the United States and fourth longest cave in the world. As people explore the cave, they learn more about the geology and formation of the cave, and about how it became the world-class resource that it is today. (all images courtesy of NPS)

The Cave's Formation and Geologic Past

Laying the Foundation

Wind Cave is formed in the Madison Limestone formation. Locally, the Madison formation is called Pahasapa Limestone. (Pahasapa is the Lakota word for "Black Hills.") This limestone was deposited in a warm shallow sea about 350 million years ago and is composed mostly of fragments of calcium carbonate seashells. Coinciding with the accumulation of limestone, bodies of gypsum (calcium sulfate) crystallized from the seawater when arid conditions caused evaporation. The gypsum formed irregular shaped masses within the limestone.

The gypsum masses were unstable. The size of these masses increased and decreased as they absorbed and expelled water. This caused fracturing to occur with the gypsum and in the surrounding limestone. Like thick toothpaste, some gypsum squeezed into these cracks and crystallized. At a later time, water rich in carbonate ions converted all of the gypsum to calcite (calcium carbonate). This set the stage for the cave and boxwork to form.
The Cave Develops

Since acid-rich water dissolves limestone, a chemical change in the groundwater had to occur for the cave to form. The oceans receded allowing fresh water into the region. As gypsum was converted to calcite, sulfur was chemically freed to form either sulfuric or sulfurous acid. These acids dissolved the 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. These “paleofills” are visible in higher levels of the cave, near the Garden of Eden and Fairgrounds rooms.
A Complex Cave

Seas continued to advance and retreat over the area for the next 240 million years.  Deposition of sediment alternated with erosion.  Development of the cave was probably slow until the most recent Black Hills uplift, occuring between 40 and 60 million years ago.  This opened more fractures in the limestone allowing more cave to form.  The waters that made the cave probably sat in the limestone for long periods of time.  Water did not flow through the cave like a river.  The water had plenty of time to dissolve passageways along the many small cracks, thus developing the complex maze-like pattern.


Slow moving water was also important in exposing boxwork. At the edges of the former gypsum masses where expansion had formed cracks, limestone was dissolved. This dissolving of the surrounding limestone left the previously deposited crack fillings standing in relief. These exposed crystal fins are called boxwork.

Above you see an example of "Boxwork" - courtesy of NPS -

Where is all the Water Now?

Geologists believe that 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. Slow seepage of water produces frostwork and popcorn on cave walls and ceilings. Formations that need more water such as flowstone or dripstone deposits (stalactites and stalagmites), are rare in Wind Cave and are limited by the dry climate and semi-permeable clay beds above the cave.

A Very Unusual Cave

Portions of Wind Cave are over 300 million years old, making it one of the oldest in the world. Besides extreme age, other features make Wind Cave unique. The cave is large and extremely complex. The 132 miles of known cave (as of 2009) fit under just one square mile of land. The boxwork is rare and found in few other caves. Wind Cave has undergone many geological changes and the processes continue. Geologists have many questions yet to answer before we can fully understand the rich, incredible world below our feet.

Geologic Formations

The Landscape

The landscape of Wind Cave National Park is formed by the rock types, their structure, and how they were weathered and eroded. Gently tilting layers of sedimentary rocks lie under most of the park.

The Oldest Rocks

The oldest rocks are exposed in the northwest part of the park. These are schists and pegmatites. The schists are metamorphic rocks which formed under heat and intense pressure during an early episode of mountain building, about 2 billion years ago. They have almost parallel bands, or foliation, caused by the growth of mica crystals under pressure.

Pegmatites are made of large crystals of glassy-gray quartz, pink feldspar, silvery micas, and shiny black tourmaline. Pegmatite is an igneous rock, similar to granite. It hardened from magma and hot fluids. In places, the pegmatite intruded into the schists. This proves the pegmatite is younger than the schists, but still very old at 1.7 billion years. The emplacement of the pegmatite probably occurred during another mountain building event.

Sedimentary Rocks

To the southeast of the igneous and metamorphic rocks, progressively younger layers of sedimentary rocks are at the surface. They span a time from the origin of abundant sea life, about 600 million years ago, to the end of the age of dinosaurs, about 60 million years ago. During these years, seas advanced and retreated over this region many times. Periods of deposition of sediments alternated with periods of erosion. About 65 million years ago forces within the earth produced another period of mountain building, raising the "modern" Black Hills.
Shaping the Landscape

Since that uplift, weathering, erosion and minor uplifting have been shaping the Black Hills. Sediments produced by the erosion filled some valleys within the park and spilled outside the Hills to the east, forming the layers now visible at Badlands National Park. Rocks more resistant to weathering and erosion, like pegmatite, limestone, and sandstone, form ridges or plateaus. Weaker rocks, like schists and shales, form valleys. Examples of limestone, sandstone and shale are visible in Beaver Creek Canyon, Wind Cave Canyon, and Red Valley. Schists and pegmatites are visible along State Route 87.

She looks very worried she might bump her head!

Protection and Modern History (the CCC's involvement)

The Wind Cave area has been protected since 1903, when it became our seventh oldest national park. Regarded as sacred by American Indians, cave exploration did not begin until 1881, when the entrance was noticed by two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham. They heard a loud whistling noise, which led them to a small hole in the ground, the cave's only natural opening.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill creating the Civilian Conservation Corps on March 31, 1933 only 3 weeks after his inauguration. The plan was to put 500,000 unemployed youths to work in forests, parks, and range lands.
Rather than establishing a new division, Roosevelt used existing departments to run the program. The Army ran the camps, the Department of Labor recruited the enrollees, and the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture planned the work and gave on-site supervision. The cooperation among the government agencies was amazing. Only 35 days passed between Roosevelt's proposal of the program and the enrollment of the first recruit.
This was a depression era program designed to provide young men between the ages of 18 and 25 with work and, at the same time, "regain lost forest land". The initial call was for 250,000 men. They had to come from families on relief, be unemployed, and unmarried. Their enrollment period was 6 months, but could be extended to up to 4 years if they had a supervisory job. Veterans and "local experienced men" were recruited as supervisors for the work crews.
The enrollees were paid $30.00 per month, or $1.00 per day plus room and board. $22.50 to $25.00 of their pay was sent home to their families. The wages were low, but the program was designed to get the unemployed young men off the streets and into productive work.
Initially the men were sent to Army camps for physical training and then to CCC camps. Generally the enrollees built the camps in which they lived. The camp at Wind Cave, camp 2754 (NP-l), was organized July 9, 1934. It was the only NPS camp in the state. The actual construction of the camp (located where the seasonal housing area presently is) started August 2, 1934 and was completed October 6, 1934. Though originally established as a "drought relief" camp, it became a "regular" camp in April of 1935. Most of the enrollees in the camp were from South Dakota.

Edward D. Freeland was Park Superintendent while the CCC was here. Howard Sherman was the clerk and Estes Suter was the wildlife ranger.

The Park had many projects which afforded excellent training opportunities for the enrollees. Inside the cave they helped sink a 208 foot elevator shaft, installed concrete steps, an indirect lighting system, repaired the cave trail and began a cave survey. On the surface they sloped banks for park roads, built a fence around the park to contain the wildlife, built fire trails, dug and constructed concrete reservoirs, erected or remodeled park buildings, landscaped the Headquarters area and occasionally fought forest fires.

A side camp consisting of 25 men was established at Jewel Cave in 1935. The projects there were similar to the ones at Wind Cave. 25 men worked there. They constructed a log cabin for park personnel, completed a new surface trail from the highway to the cave, constructed a water system to provide water to the ranger station, improved the cave trail, and began a survey of the cave.
The camp had an education department where the enrollees could take academic or vocational classes. Through the music classes, the Wind Cave Quartet was organized. This singing group became well known through the Hills. The camp also had a variety of sports teams. The baseball team won the South Dakota CCC Championship in the years 1935 and 1936.

Leslie Jenson, governor of South Dakota, wrote the following about the Wind Cave Camp: "The Wind Cave CCC Camp is the outstanding camp in the entire Hills from the standpoint of permanent and visible work accomplished that will forever inure to the benefit of the general public and the National Park Service."

A CCC camp was established in Badlands National Park in 1939, under the direction of Wind Cave. By 1941 most of the men from Wind Cave had been transferred there and the buildings that had housed the men were torn down. The camp at Wind Cave was completely closed in 1942. The work done before by the members of the CCC made possible all the activities we can enjoy here now:

Things to Do at Wind Cave Now

  • (Of course) Guided Tours of the Caves, Forests and Prairies
  • Hiking and Walking
  • Jogging or Running
  • Bicycling
  • Nature Viewing
  • Horseback Riding
  • Backcountry Camping
  • Among many, many others

The Visitor Center open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Days. The Visitor Center contains three exhibit rooms featuring cave exploration, cave formations, early cave history, the Civilian Conservation Corps, park wildlife, and resource management. An 18-minute movie; Wind Cave: One Park, Two Worlds; is shown throughout the day.

Cave Tours are offered daily throughout the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. The cave temperature is 53 degrees at all times of the year. A jacket or sweater and good walking shoes are recommended.

All cave tours leave from the visitor center. Stop in at the visitor center for information, cave tours, exhibits, slide and video programs, maps, books, backcountry permits, Golden Age and Golden Access Passports, and Parks Passes. The visitor center and the cave are accessible to people with disabilities, please inquire at the visitor center.

Wind Cave National Park
protects two very different worlds; one deep within the earth, the other a sunlit world of many resources. Exploring any of the 30 miles of hiking trails, one of the three nature trails, or just hiking cross-country gives visitors the opportunity to experience the amazing prairie and forest worlds of the park.

Living within the park are many different types of animals. Driving the park roads or hiking the trails provides the opportunity to see bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn or many of the different birds living here.

Elk Mountain Campground is located among rolling hills, prairie and ponderosa pine forest.  While camping visitors have a unique opportunity to view the plants and animals of the southern Black Hills. The campground is open all year.

Directions to Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is located 6 miles north of Hot Springs, SD. The Visitor Center is 11 miles north of Hot Springs on U.S. Route 385.

For visitors traveling on I-90: At Rapid City, SD, exit onto U.S. Route 79 south. Follow Route 79 south approximately 50 miles to U.S. Route 385. Turn right onto U.S. Route 385 North, which will take you through Hot Springs and into Wind Cave National Park. Follow signs to the visitor center for cave tours and general park information.

Visitors can also reach the park by following Route 16 west out of Rapid City onto U.S. Route 385 south. The Park is about 20 miles south of Custer, SD.

Visitors traveling from Nebraska can follow U.S. Route 385 north to the park.

Visitors may also travel through Custer State Park on State Road 36 and 87. These winding roads are slower than other routes, but provide visitors with scenic views of the Black Hills, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park.

Public Transportation - No public transportation serves the park.

Plane - Nearest commerical airport is in Rapid City, SD.


Wind Cave National Park Hot Springs, SD, 57747
United States
Phone: 605-745-4600
43° 34' 47.9748" N, 103° 28' 4.314" W
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