To the west of the Badlands, tucked away near the southern end of the Black Hills, and just south of Custer State Park, is a little gem of a park called Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave National Park is home to one of the world’s longest caves (137+ miles of passageways), and was established as a National Park in 1903 by executive decree, courtesy of Teddy Roosevelt. At the time, the park consisted of just the cave, but later in 1912, bison enthusiasts were looking for a place to establish a herd, and so some of the excellent native prairie above the cave was added to the mix. The cave got its name, not surprisingly, because of the winds that blow either into or out of the cave, depending on the atmospheric pressure outside. (Science Lesson: All winds move from higher pressure to lower pressure).
The Lakota Sioux knew of the cave as a sacred place from which they emerged following the creation of the world. The first documented encounter with the cave by whites is less dramatic but more comical. It involved Tom Bingham’s hat being blown from his head as he peered into the cave sometime in the spring of 1881.
I must confess that I have never toured the cave, but I have been through the park several times, and it is truly one of the most scenic examples of the Great Plains you can find. The rolling, half forested terrain is as alluring as it gets, particularly in the morning or afternoon light.
As an aside, although I have never toured the cave, I have toured a number of other caves, and I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of caves: Caves that have been protected by a park system such as Wind Cave, and caves that are owned and operated by private companies. Caves protected by national or state parks are excellent examples of the forces of nature at work. The other kind, not so much. One example of the latter is the Ice Cave in southern Idaho. While the cave itself is pretty interesting (it stays below freezing even on the hottest summer days), the rest of the grounds are a shabby conglomeration of mismatched trinket shops, fake Indian artifacts, wild west cast-offs, and general tourist traps designed to generate a thrill, but usually evoking only a mild depression, but I digress.
As I was saying, the above ground portions of Wind Cave are fabulous and inspiring, and that’s what the National Park system is all about. If you can help it, don’t pass up an opportunity to go there . . . and hang on to your hat!