On the surface Wind Cave National Park looks a lot like the surrounding areas of South Dakota. Rolling hills and plains blanket a landscape filled with various plants and wildlife, but the real treasure of this park lies beneath the surface.
With over 140 miles (225 km) of explored passageways, Wind Cave is the sixth-longest known cave system. On top of that, the thin and intricate tunnels also make it the most dense and the most complex cave in the world.
Compared to the main areas of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, the paths here are much tighter. Even the short Natural Entrance Tour requires quite a bit of ducking, crouching, and squeezing to get through.
This subterranean labyrinth is most famous for being home to about 95% of all known boxwork cave formations on earth. These paper-thin and intersecting veins of calcite adorn many of the ceilings and walls of the cave. The calcite formed in fine fractures in the surrounding limestone and dolomite, and this softer rock was later dissolved by naturally-forming sulfuric acid. This left the resistant fins of calcite intact, hanging delicately from the surrounding surfaces. They’re essentially “negatives” of the cracks that once existed in the rock.
If that wasn’t enough, many of the cave walls also display beautiful red and yellow coloration formed from the oxidation of metallic sulfide minerals:
Back on the surface, the 53 square miles (137 square km) of this national park protects the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States. This environment provides a safe haven for American bison (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Bison bison)…
…pronghorn (Artiodactyla: Antilocapridae: Antilocapra americana)…
…and black-tailed prairie dogs (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Cynomys ludovicianus):
Although rarely seen in the wild, a preserved specimen of the endangered black-footed ferret (Carnivora: Mustelidae: Mustela nigripes) can be found in the visitor center:
The prairie also hosts various wildflowers including curlycup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa, Asteraceae)…
…and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa, Lamiaceae):
In areas with more moisture, various trees including cottonwoods, pines, and aspens can also be seen:
Wind Cave National Park is a fascinating and beautiful place, both below and above the surface. The unique caverns, expansive prairies, attractive wildflowers, and photogenic mammals make this an excellent location to visit.