62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and drove off. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
Pennington is back on the road and is committed to following CDC guidelines to keep themselves and others safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. She visits new parks and adheres closely to best safety practices.
It was cool and calm when I got to Wind Cave in South Dakota. A sunset light kissed the grassy slopes. I parked my van in a picnic area near the park's visitor center and strolled down a short gravel path into a shallow gorge. At the end of my short walk, I carefully held my palm over a gaping hole in an otherwise solid rock wall. As if from ancient magic, a cool breeze blew from the rocky ground and danced between my fingertips – the famous wind of the wind cave.
Long before a gust knocked Jesse Bingham's hat off while hunting here in 1881 and caused him and his brother to stumble upon this vast cave system, the natural opening of the cave was considered a sacred place for the Lakota. It is the place where they believe they emerged from the earth, a legend that has been passed on for centuries. Today the place is known to modern Lakota as Maka Oniye or "breathing earth", a portal to the spirit world.
Usually, park visitors can see the system by taking the elevator into the caves or walking through the natural entrance with a ranger. Unfortunately, it has been closed since July 2019 due to elevator issues so this little historic opening was all I could see of the park's eponymous caves. In my immediate future, there would be no thatched boxwork mineral deposits or delicate stalactites. As an imaginative traveler, I took the closure as a challenge to explore the unsung wonders of this national park – particularly the 30-mile-long hiking trails through one of the largest remaining mixed-grass prairie ecosystems in the country.
The next day, I set an alarm and started early to hike the Lookout Point / Centennial Trail Loop, a 7 km hike through rolling green hills, prairie dog towns, Ponderosa pine forests, and rugged creek canyons. As a California hiker who was not used to big game on the trail, I was very concerned about the prospect of bison encounters. I'd never seen one in the wild and had only a vague idea of what to do if I came across bison jam on the way.
As with most things in life, Mother Nature tends to allay our fears with a hearty dose of immersion therapy. Just ten minutes after starting the hike, I turned a corner and found a 2,000-pound bull casually grazing in the middle of the trail. I stopped and started laughing. Of course that's the first thing I see today, I thought.
I took a deep breath, carefully scanned the ground for prairie dog holes, and tiptoed around the blurred animal as gracefully as possible in a wide semicircle. I felt invincible.
After my death-defying encounter with an Ice Age mammal, the rest of the hike was a breeze. I dodged thick poison ivy as I drove downhill through the woods, hopping over the lush shoreline around Highland Creek, passing craggy, rust-colored limestone cliffs, and smiling all the way back to my van.
Yosemite's thousand-foot cliffs or the rocky alpine peaks of the glacier might not have been seen that day, but sometimes an unfamiliar hike doesn't need the usual fanfare to make you feel accomplished. Sometimes a welcome surprise is enough.
(Photo: National Park Service)
62 parks Traveler Wind Cave Info
Size: 33,847 acres
Place: Southwest South Dakota
Created in: 1903 (national park)
Best for: Caving, night sky watching, hiking, scenic prairie drives
When to go: Spring (23 to 67 degrees), summer (49 to 84 degrees), and autumn (23 to 75 degrees) provide the right weather for roaming the park's wide paths and prairies. Winter (13 to 41 degrees) is cold and snow sometimes forces park streets to close. The temperature of the cave system remains constant at 54 degrees all year round.
Where to sleep: The Wind Cave is a short drive from Hot Springs, South Dakota. For those who don't want to camp in the park's only campground, the Dollar Inn Hot Springs is a great, affordable option full of clean rooms. Breakfast is included.
Mini adventure: Hike the 1 mile (1.6 km) Prairie Vista Trail and check out the natural opening of the Wind Cave. Along the way, learn about the history of the Lakota and experience the amazing biodiversity of a prairie landscape with mixed grass.
Mega adventure: Go caving. As soon as the elevators are back in operation (a reopening date has not yet been set), the park will again offer its famous cave tours. The most adventurous is the four-hour Wild Cave Tour, where visitors crawl through narrow passageways and explore the undeveloped areas.
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Main photo: Emily Pennington
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