Long road trips allow you to discover places of beauty you never would’ve discovered had you not been passing through. On my most recent trip, I found myself roaming around numerous national and state parks. Each were gorgeous, but in order to separate them in my mind, I searched for the unique aspects and scenes I would never forget.
When visiting the Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, I didn’t need to search for a defining factor—the cave itself was thrilling, memorable and entirely distinct.
Above the Cave
The landscape of the small park is definitely beautiful, with wild sunflowers and purple wildflowers growing alongside rolling waves of prairie grass. Prairie dogs pop their heads out of earthen mounds, squeaking loudly to each other and ducking back inside as people approach. Further from the road, herds of buffalo roam. But it’s what’s underground that makes this park so spectacular.
Below the prairie grass and wildlife sits one of the largest cave complexes in the world. So far, over 140 miles of cave passages have been discovered under only a square mile of land—making it the seventh longest cave in the world and the third in the United States. Portions of the passages are over 300 million years old; they were home to underground fresh water lakes that released sulfuric acid as calcite was produced. The acid ate away at the limestone, dissolving the rock to form the first cave walls.
The water sat within the cave, eroding it over time, rather than carving them with flowing rivers. Since then, the water has drained from the cave, and now sits 500 feet below it. Water from the surface still drips through, changing the structure of the passageways over long periods of time.
Unlike caves where stalactites and stalagmites are the main features, the Wind Cave has a rather unique feature called boxwork. Formed when the minerals eroded the walls, it was named by early cave explorers who thought the formations resembled their post office boxes back home. At least 95% of all the boxwork in the world is found here in South Dakota, making it a really unique experience to share with children who probably won’t see it elsewhere.
Other prominent features include frostwork—sharp, fragile growths of calcite—and popcorn—rounded calcite deposits that resemble the movie theater snack.
Exploring Wind Cave With Kids
Although staff and volunteers have mapped 143 miles of passages, only a little over a mile is accessible to the public. All trips into the cave are ranger-led, but there are quite a few to choose from. The Garden of Eden and Natural Entrance tours are the easiest, with the Fairgrounds tour being slightly more strenuous with more stairs to climb. For a more unique experience, there is a Candlelight tour that allows guests to wander the cave by candles, seeing it how the original explorers did. (There is also a four-hour Wild Cave tour set away from the cave’s developed walking trails for older teens and adults, but children under 16 are not allowed.)
We went on the Natural Entrance tour, which passes by the only natural entrance to the cave—a small hole in the side of a hill. Depending on the atmospheric pressure of both inside and outside the cave, the wind blows in or out of the hole, which is how it got its name. While original explorers shimmied down the hole, tours head down a sealed elevator shaft.
Once inside, you start down the stairs. Make sure your children are prepared with non-slip shoes and a light jacket—water drips from the cave’s ceiling onto the stairs and the year-round 53-degree temperature makes the walk a bit cool. As we walked, our tour guide pointed out the boxwork, frostwork and popcorn on the cave’s walls and ceilings, explaining the process of the their—and the cave’s—formation. Every so often we would stop in a room like the Cathedral with massive rock formations along the walls. Even while walking through the stairways, its possible to snap photos and spot many different features and formations.
Toward the end of the tour, the guide stops you in a large room where he tells the story of Alvin McDonald, a teen that moved to the area in the 1890s. He explored the cave almost every day, using a candle to light his path and rolling a piece of string out behind him to find his way back. He kept a journal of his time in the cave, including maps of the passageways and names of the rooms he discovered. Serving as the first tour guide of Wind Cave, he would take visitors down to show them around—including women, huge dresses and all! Some of McDonald’s tours would last as long as 16 hours and a few times he even lost visitors and had to go back and find them.
To demonstrate what exploration of Wind Cave was like for McDonald, the guide switches the dim lights off and lights the room with a candle. Between the moment when the lights disappear and the candle is lit, we could see nothing at all. Once the small flame illuminated the room, the shadows it cast gave it an eerie glow. It was so exciting to the kids to see how the room looked by candlelight.
The rangers do a great job of making sure kids are having a good time, asking them questions along the way about what they would name certain rooms and how long they think they could make it with just a string to lead them back before getting too scared.
Our trip to Wind Cave was extremely memorable. Its fascinating history, natural beauty and atmosphere of adventure will appeal to kids of all ages and parents will have just as much fun.