Monday, September 12, 2016

Wind Cave National Park, SD

So as of now, I've crossed off two tremendous National Parks properties off of my adventure bucket list: Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Devils Tower National Monument

After hiking around at our country's crazy-cool first ever National Monument, I hopped in the station wagon and headed into the Black Hills National Forest, crossing over from the Wyoming border into neighboring South Dakota. Remind me next time I'm out in this part of the country or if I'm ever looking for trip ideas, to return and spend a week at this 1.2 million acre, 110 mile long national forest. It's dreamy thanks to deep canyons, mountain passes, quiet lakes and an endless, thick covering of ponderosa pines and spruces trees. I have to return here soon. The third destination on my itinerary was some 128 miles, two-hour drive away, in Hot Springs, SD- Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave is surprising and intriguing. I can't remember the last National Park property I was at, where I was so intrigued and craving more information and chances to explore. I arrived at the impressive and quiet camp ground late at night, close to 9pm. Coyotes were howling in the distance and the owls joined in. 

Temperatures dropped that night into the low 60s/high 50s and I sat out in my camping chair gazing up at the sky's dazzling display of stars. Tired from a long day of hiking and driving, I slept in the back of the wagon, the LED Christmas lights strung across the ceiling allowed me to journal a bit and knock out a few chapters of Cheryl Strayed's "Wild."

My alarm went off at 7am, and cooked up a quick breakfast while a neighboring traveler (also from Wisconsin) with a pick-up truck camper shared travel stories. He also was attempting to rack up the miles, driving around to check out as many National Parks as possible. Today's plan was to buy tickets for a candle light tour of Wind Cave's massive cave system. I was beyond excited. I've done a few caving trips in Wisconsin, but nothing to this grand extent. Unfortunate disclaimer- per park rules you can't bring a camera into the caves but the pictures I would have taken wouldn't have even come close to portraying this cave system.

Here, look at this map of it: (click and enlarge it, and wow yourself)

There are more than 142 miles of known, discovered and mapped-out passages in Wind Cave's system. 142 miles...142 MILES! THAT is insane! Our ranger who guided us through the 2hr tour, via candlelight only, shared how some distant caves you have to crawl for up to nine-hours to reach. Some have two-foot high ceilings, while others have 25ft roofs and can be up to a mile long. We were standing around 200ft below ground in a jaw-dropping gallery of boxwork. You have to click this link to get a glimpse at this natural phenomenon that looks like crisp, gold honeycombs. Wind Cave's cave network is filled with this (and super neat frostwork and popcorn). In some places we crawled down drops in the floor and squeeze between tight passages. I'd shine my candle bucket up and see a dark roof, with no answer of how high that ceiling above is....I'd twist to the right, looking over my shoulder as my candle's glow revealed a an entrance to a cave passage that I could only see a few precious feet into. Where does the rest of that dark tunnel go? If I explore it for hours will it take me to one of the cave network's cold, underground lakes some 500 below the surface. It was like an addiction, I just wanted to explore more, and more, and more. Again, stare at that map of the cave network. Upon returning to the visitor center, I stood in front of a wall-size version of it for probably half-and-hour. Downstairs there's a bunch of interpretative displays for the eager mind. Take some time to read-up on the history of how this place came to be. It's fascinating. Maybe this should be my next outdoor-hobby to get into: caving. Oh, and experts are still crawling through Wind Cave's network of underground mysteries to continue mapping it. Fun fact- right now, Wind Cave is the third longest system of caves in the U.S. and sixth in the world. 95% of the world's known boxwork formations are here at Wind Cave National Park.

There are many different varieties of ranger-guided cave tours you can do at Wind Cave National Park. Tickets can be purchased at the park headquarters and get 'em early! Pick your flavor:
  • Garden of Eden Tour [1hr, easy, walking, $10]
  • Natural Entrance Tour [1.25hrs, moderate, walking, see how cave was discovered, $12]
  • Fairgrounds Tour [1.5hrs, strenuous, walking with lots of stairs $12]
  • Candlelight Tour [2hrs, strenuous, off-trail travel, historically authentic, by candlelight, $12]
  • Wild Cave tour [4hrs, very strenuous, off-trail travel, crawling, $30]
You know what else is the best surprise about Wind Cave National Park? The hiking. 30 miles of it. It is an incredible surprise. Of course, make the caves a priority, but if time allows you have to set foot on some of the many wilderness hiking trails within the park's 33,851 acres. Look at the map, and head north on 87 and hit the 1 mile Rankin Ridge trail, which takes you along the rocky Rankin Ridge to the highest point in the park at 5,013ft. The views up top are expansive and you'll see east over the Black Hills National Forest and Limestone Canyon and Curley Canyon down below. Continue your legendary hiking by starting at the Centennial Trail trailhead parking lot and head down the Lookout Point Trail. I followed this trail which takes you deep into Prairie Dog Canyon and mirrors both Highland and Beaver Creeks. It's so beautiful in this area and I constantly had my head on a swivel to take-in this diverse environment. You'll definitely see some bison (or buffalo) and maybe some elk and antelope too. Take a stroll deeper into this area and follow the creek towards the Limestone Canyon to see the cliffs. Just pure nature serenity, the kind you lust for. I combined parts of the Lookout Point, Highland Creek and Centennial Trails for a solid 4+ mile hike. Wind Cave National Park is stunning and filled with surprises around every single corner, above and below ground. Make the trip and explore everything this park has to offer. I loved this park. Way to go Wind Cave, for providing me with a huge adrenaline rush. You're the very best.