Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Wind Cave actually Breathes

August 1, 2014
Allen Ranch
Hot Springs, South Dakota



We have the solution for this 93 degree day in South Dakota. 

We’re going to drive 10 miles up US 345 and visit Wind Cave.

We have been in this area before when we were coming back from Glacier National Park in 2011 after I had broken my ankle.  We had planned stops at Jewel Cave, Custer State Park, Wind Cave and Bad Lands National Park.  We did all of them but I was either in a wheel chair or on crutches so it was a short not very satisfying visit.

Due to the change in plans explained in yesterday’s hyper drive post, I didn’t know we’d be stopping here this time or I would have factored in more time to redo more of those.   With the heat what it is here in South Dakota in August, the Badlands wouldn’t have made the cut but Jewel Cave might have.



We’re going where it’s about 54 degrees nearly all the time.


With one full day here in Hot Springs, we head out 10 miles north to Wind Cave.  I love the very simple older building of the visitors center with its cute windows.

When we go inside, we find that with our Old Folks National Park pass we can get half off the $12 cave tour prices.  GREAT!

Except I’ve left mine back in Winnona and she won’t fudge even a little.  Well that’s worth a return trip and it’s only 8:30 in the morning so I jump back in the car leaving David to enjoy the Visitor Center information on the cave, buzz back to Hot Springs and return with my pass in plenty of time to make the next Fairgrounds tour.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.



Wind Cave National Park is really sort of two parks in one. 

The above ground part encompasses 33,851 acres of mostly mixed-grass prairie and Ponderosa pine forest which are home to native wildlife such as bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes and prairie dog towns. There are 30 miles of marked hiking trails ranging in length from 1.4 miles to 8.6 miles.  There are also 3 Nature Trails with informational signs or booklets.

The park also has a first come first served no hook ups campground a mile north of the visitor center.  We drove through and found a variety of sizes of campsites, some more level than others.  There are a few side of the road pull throughs that would handle big rigs.  The campground does have restrooms with water and flush toilets, no showers.  During the summer, park rangers present campfire programs at the small amphitheater.

In season fee is $18 or $9 for holders of the Old folks pass. Before June and after August everyone pays $9.  I loved the campground in the quiet of the park lands and wished I had thought to check it out.  Although after driving 344 miles, I wanted to make sure we had a site so I’m not sure I would have been comfortable waiting to find out if we could walk in.   We were told generally the campground does not fill but that doesn’t mean the sites big enough for Winnona would be available.   We wish we had several days to spend here in order to try some of the trails but a less hot time of year would be much better for that.  I suspect wildlife viewing in the early morning and evenings would be great. I also imagine the dark night skies would be amazing.



That’s what’s above ground.   What’s below is a very cool cave.  

And I don’t just mean the temperature.

Wind Cave is currently the 6th longest cave in the world with 142 miles of explored passages. It is the third longest in the US behind Mammoth and Jewel. Yet the surface area above the cave is only about 1 square mile.  It is famous for a rare formation composed of thin calcite fins known as boxwork.  Currently 95% of the world’s known boxwork resides within the vastness of Wind Cave.

Portions of Wind Cave are believed to be over 300 million years old, making it one of the oldest known caves in the world.  It was made a National Park by Theodore Roosevelt on January 3, 1903 and was the first National Park protecting a cave. 

The cave is still being actively explored and more passageways are added each year to its mapped total.  One of the informational signs says they believe only 5% of the cave has been mapped at this point.  Lots of exploring still to be done here. 

There are 5 tours offered from a 1 hour 1/4 mile tour to a 4 hours crawl around for 1/2 mile tour.  We decide not to take the shortest or the longest ones but that leaves 3 in the middle.  We choose two of those, the Fairgrounds and the Natural Entrance.  Assuming the Candlelight tour is an evening tour we leave it for another day.   We think we won’t be here all day long and don’t want to have to come back for what will be a third trip.


The Fairgrounds tour covers only 1/2 mile but takes 90 minutes. 


Guess we will be going very slowly.  The cave actually has three levels of “rooms” and this tour visits the upper and middle levels.  Boxwork, for which the cave is world reknown, is abundant along the trail in the middle level.  It is described as the most strenuous walking tour as there are 450 stairs along the route with one flight of 90 steps up.  I have to say that we didn’t know this ahead of time and when I read it I was shocked.  I did not think this was anything more than a stroll in the park so to speak and don’t remember 90 steps up at all.  Guess that tells you how fascinating this cave is.




The tour starts at the elevator building constructed by guess who in the 1930’s.  That they actually put in an elevator in the 30’s really surprises me.   Our guide Lillie meets us just outside to show us on the cave map where we will be going and then we head inside.  The elevator takes only 10 people at a time so she makes 3 trips leaving the previous group in the air lock before the door to the cave. 




The passageways in the cave are narrow and many times to the great advantage of short folks.  The light is dim to protect the formations from algae forming.

As you know caves are dark as in D-A-R-K.  During both the tours we take today the guide has everyone turn off their cameras and then she turns off the lights.  You cannot see anything, not one thing.  You cannot see even waving your hand in front of your face after your eyes have had a chance to adjust to the darkness, which they don’t and never would.  This is really really dark. 

The lights provided in the cave now are LEDs which is good and that the lighting is very dim is also good unless you want to take pictures.  Even with a flash the pictures are just not all that great.  You simply must go and see this for yourself.




I admit to just loving little squeezy places.  No claustrophobia for me.




The cave is just gorgeous.  Room after room.  Passageway afterpassage way.





Unlike other caves known for their stalactites and stalagmites, Wind Cave is famous for its boxwork.  Boxwork is an uncommon type of mineral structure.  Park information tells us that “Boxwork is found in small amounts in other caves, but perhaps in no other cave in the world is boxwork so well-formed and abundant as in Wind Cave. Boxwork is made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern. The fins intersect one another at various angles, forming "boxes" on all cave surfaces.  Boxwork is largely confined to dolomite layers in the middle and lower levels of Wind Cave.”    Our tour is on the middle level and we are surrounded by beautiful boxwork.  It is just amazing.  So delicate.


It’s on the walls and ceilings.  It’s all around us, in nearly every room in different shades and colors.












Where do all those holes lead?


Pathways  lead off to the right and to the left. I want to follow them all.  There are holes that I know must lead to somewhere.  My curiosity is on high alert.






Some rooms have sharp edged formations, some are totally smooth.








Even though David wears a hat, he bangs his head on a “low ceiling” at one point in the cave.  There are a lot of those.




In one room our Ranger points out the initials still on the ceiling for over 100 years.  The letters are upside down. The story of these has to do with the history of the cave which is part of our next tour so just notice and hold this thought.






Boxwork isn’t the only type of gorgeous formation on this tour.

In one room there are 3 sets of benches all facing one wall.   When we sit down Lillie turns all the lights out.  It is DARK completely, totally dark.   She then turns on only lights that illuminate up a ledge in front of us which has stunning white delicate formations of what is known as popcorn and frostwork.








These small, knobby growths of calcite are called cave popcorn. Popcorn commonly forms in one of two ways in the cave: where water seeps uniformly out of the limestone wall and precipitates calcite; or, when water drips from the walls or ceilings of the cave and the water splashes on the floor or on ledges along the walls. This splashing action causes loss of carbon dioxide and the subsequent precipitation of calcite.




This close up shows the popcorn and the frostwork. Delicate needle-like growths of calcite or a related mineral, aragonite, are called frostwork.It is just amazing.  It looks like ice, hoarfrost.  Frostwork may grow on top of boxwork or cave popcorn like we see here. The origin of frostwork is controversial. In Wind Cave, it seems to concentrate in passages with above average airflow where, it is thought, evaporation plays a role in its formation.




The wonders of this planet never cease.  Everywhere we go just one astounding thing after another.  What a glorious glorious home we have.  How can we ever put the desire for money above her protection?


More beautiful boxwood.








Near the end of the tour we come into a room where Lillie shines lights on the ceiling and above us the entire thing is covered in what resemble spider webs.  They are the most delicate boxwork called honeycomb.   They look like lace.












These are among the fastest 90 minutes I’ve ever spent and I am SO reluctant to take the elevator back up to the surface BUT we’re taking another tour in just 45 minutes.   YES!!





We grab a snack from the car after the Fairgrounds Tour and look around a bit in the Visitor Center before our next tour begins at noon.



  This one titled The Natural Entrance Tour.  It is a half mile walk in 75 minutes and begins outside at the original spot where the cave was  rediscovered by Bingham brothers on horseback when they heard whistling noises coming out of this hole

I was very happy to see the Lakota story of this cave on the large sign at the entrance.  According to the sign, in the hearts of the Lakota, this cave is the the origin spot for their people.  Therefore like Bear Lodge (Devil’s Tower), it is a sacred spot to them.  I am very glad that we are able to go in and see the beauties of the cave but at the same time am sorry for the Lakota that they can no longer have their rituals here because it is now federal government property.



I think I might be able to climb in there but they won’t let me try. Darn!



Ranger Madison tells us that apparently people went in that hole to see the cave as it was several years before the property was bought by a mining company for mineral exploration and a larger entrance blown open.   Luckily the mining was unsuccessful. That historic entrance is the one we walk in today.  All other tours use the elevator to come and go.

But before we go inside, Madison explains the name Wind Cave.  The sound the brothers heard is the cave breathing.
We also heard the sound on our morning tour as Lillie opened the door from the lock space into the gave.  The cave was breathing out and we could hear the air rush into the room.   This afternoon Madison steps down by the hole with a ribbon which is promptly set to flapping in the wind coming out of the cave.  I am standing fairly directly in front of the hole but behind the rock wall.  I can feel the cool wind on my skin.




Scientists of course have explained the phenomenon of a cave that breathes.  The cave is equalizing the barometric pressure.  If there is low pressure outside and higher inside the cave the air will blow out.  If the pressure is higher outside, the cave will suck air in.   A scientific phenomenon or a sentient being?  Different cultures have different ways of experiencing the world we all  live in.

We enter into the building built over the larger entrance to create an air lock for the cave. The original huge wood door is still there as well as a large heavy wrought iron gate you can see just a piece of to the right in the door picture.  With so many people behind us, neither of us got a picture of the gate unfortunately since it was a really beautiful piece of work






Once we are all inside the air lock, the heavy door is opened and down the stairs we go.

The Natural Entrance tour journeys through a different section of the middle level of the cave than we were in this morning.  Most of the 300 stairs along the route are down and are at the beginning as we enter the cave.  We see more of the boxwork, the frostwork, the popcorn and the wonderful colors.  Some of the rocks have mica and they sparkle.   I was very happy for the railings so that I could look all around me including up and not have to watch my feet.














Remember the initials on the ceiling on the other tour? 


Both rangers tell us the story of their author. In 1890 when the South Dakota Mining Company established a mining claim at Wind Cave, they hired J.D. McDonald to mange it.  The mining was unsuccessful but McDonald realized they could make money by giving cave tours.  His son Alvin, only 16 years old at the time, was fascinated by the cave and according to a diary he kept, spent in excess of 150 hours a week inside exploring.  He systematically explored 8 to 10 miles of the cave with candlelight and rolled out string to mark his way out of the cave.  According to his diary, he carved secret initials in the rooms he had discovered.  More on this later.









Don’t you just know he’s thinking about going in there?



We do get to go through here. 






Notice the boxwork above this enticing entry way.


In some places I thought  the stone resembled petrified wood.



At one point, Ranger Madison gave a flashlight to a young girl and told her to lead us into the next room.  It was very dark but she went right ahead.  I’ve lightened this picture up so you can see where she was going.  It was not that light and my flash could not make what was in front of her look like anything but total blackness.








If you think I had a great time, you’d be right. 


When I came out I went right to the reservation desk to ask about the candle light tour but sadly there are only 2 per day, one at 10:30 and one at 1:30.  We could easily have rearranged our tours to take that one at either time if I hadn’t “assumed” it would be at night.   There’s another “next time”.






Instead of a candle light tour I had to console myself with lunch on the lawn and going through the two floors of exhibits on the cave and its history.  They were excellent and so informative explaining the various formations and the battle for ownership of the cave which ultimately resulted in it becoming federal property and being made a national park in 1903.

I love this model of a woman on an early cave tour with the bucket candle.   I can’t even imagine crawling around in a cave in this outfit but that’s apparently what they did.

There was a timeline all across one wall which was a very easy way to show the highlights of the park’s history.  Some of the things I learned were:

1917-Esther Brazell was probably the first woman ranger in the National Park Service which wasn’t started until 1916 over a dozen years after the creation of Wind Cave as a park

1946 – an 8 ton ceiling collapse occurred due to unnatural airflow through the walk in entrance.  Lots of things were tried.  The current plan is the air lock chambers.

1981 – a family member donated Alvin McDonald’s original diary to the park.   I get to see it and his great penmanship.   Such a lost art.

2003 – a 32 million year old fossil rhino skeleton was discovered in the park

2010 – new LED lighting was installed in the cave.


Unfortunately Alvin McDonald died December 15, 1893 at the age of 20 of Typhoid Fever. It is assumed that there are areas of Wind Cave he explored that no one else has since visited. Occasionally pieces of Alvin McDonald's string are discovered by survey teams in Wind Cave, and his signature letters are discovered written or carved into a wall or ceiling. As recently as August 2009, Alvin McDonald's signature was discovered carved into the ceiling of a room in the cave where it had been assumed no person had ever visited. The signature was dated July 1893, less than 6 months before his death, making it the latest known dated signature left by Alvin McDonald in Wind Cave.   What a mark this young man made in such a short time on this place he loved so totally.  He is buried just up the hill from the natural entrance hole to the cave.



I’ll end this post on a slightly cheerier note.  This was one of the funniest things I saw in the really terrific information displayed in the visitor center.   Apparently Lizzie had told Sam she wouldn’t marry him on this Earth.  So when he finally won her over, she didn’t have to break her vow.  They got married in the cave in 1896.




Boy was I wrong when I said we wouldn’t spend the entire day here.   Happily on our way back to the campsite,  we stop by the side of the road to watch the bison herd.  They look fabulous there on the plains under the big sky.  Hope you aren’t tiring of my fascination with them.  I love that so many of the parks in these plains states have wild herds.






I heard one of the rangers tell someone who asked where to find the bison that the rut was beginning.  I just love hearing them bellow.  Maybe he was warning off another suitor.  He stuck close to this gal and nuzzled her a few times.  Now if one of you bison experts writes and tells me this is his son, my theory is going to be totally shot.




  1. We really enjoyed Wind Cave, too. So different from other caves we've seen.

  2. Very nice blog on Wind Cave. We took the Fairgrounds tour last month while in SD and loved it. If you get a chance, take a candlelight tour. We took the one over in Jewel Cave. With the lantern as your only light source, the tour seems so much more like a true cave exploration, rather than just a tour.

  3. Have not been in a cave since high school. Being from earthquake country, it makes me a tad nervous to be underground. There are beautiful formations there, thanks for the tour!

  4. Thank you for the awesome cave tours as I haven't been to Wind Cave, yet. That boxwork is so delicate. I'd want to do all the tours. When leading cave tours I really liked the candlelight and crawling tours best. That Alvin was an adventurous, and handsome, young man.

  5. The caves look amazing!!! The boxwork makes me think of beautiful lace. Will never get tired of the Bison:o))

  6. That is an amazing cave system and interesting history of the exploration done by Alvin McDonald. He was either brave or nuts to go so deeply into those caves by himself.

    That is one big crack over the rangers head in one of the first pictures. When you said they had a collapse, I wondered more about it.

    You have a setting on your camera where I'll bet you could have taken pictures in the cave without using a flash. I took some in a mine here which was pretty dark. As long as there is a little light it will work. The setting can't be found in auto though. It gives you plus or minus light.

  7. Another amazing Sherry and David adventure! I'm happy for you that you found a great place to get a "second wind" after your marathon PDD drive! :cD

  8. I'll bet you're happy that things turned out that you couldn't stop near Sturgis.

  9. The whole Wind Cave Park is really neat. We had the dogs with us, so we signed up for the Natural Entrance tour, parked in the shade, then took them on a walk along some of the trails while waiting for the tour. We also checked out the campground and thought it looked nice. The tour, as you said was fascinating. Glad y stopped!ou

  10. It is amazing how each cave has it's own personality.

  11. I would find the 30 people more claustrophobic than the tight cave walls :-). Such a perfect "hike" on a hot day - I imagine the Lakota took advantage of the earth's air conditioned rooms before the land was owned. Had never heard of "boxwork" and loved all the information on it and the winds of the cave. When you get to Oregon/California plan a stop at the Lava Beds National Park just over the border in CA - you can explore several areas on your own, climbing through holes and tubes. You'll love it.

  12. Boxwork is quite pretty; Wind Cave is definitely different from other caves - quite a history! That is neat that they continue to find Alvin's string. Only 20 years old when he died, but, he went down in history. That is nice that his final resting place is near the cave. Too funny about Lizzie not marrying Sam "on this earth" - LOL. A wedding in a cave - now there's unique! :) Turned out to be a full day; sorry you missed the candlelight tour; still - you learned a lot from Lillie and Madision - that seems certain. Neat cave!

  13. Such unique cave formations! And quite beautiful. Your mention of the collapse of part of the cave ceiling in 1946 gave me pause, though…..

  14. no, no, no. . .I'm so never doing another cave tour after squeezing through a little tunnel at Mammoth Cave I told Dave. . .that's it. . .no more cave tours for me (well. . .except for Carlsbad. . .I'm going back there. . .but it's nice big open, lighted rooms.)

    I could feel a bit of a claustrophobic panic attack just looking at your pics. . .goodness. . .what a little bitty, dark,enclosed tunelly place. . .you are quite the explorer!

  15. oh boy, this is one place Steve would love to go. Those are great pictures in a dark cave! I could never get a decent one whenever I am in the dark. Those formations are really fascinating.
    Sherry, you are absolutely right, this is an amazing place we lived in and we are blessed that we are able to see all the beauty and fascinating sights.

  16. I've been to Mammoth Cave a number of times as well as Luray Caverns, and always loved going inside. I wouldn't do it now - I don't want to go into the earth but will just stay on the surface! I never heard of boxwork before but it certainly is beautiful.

  17. Never seen formations like that! The boxwood really looks like plant life rather than mineral formations. No bats? Alvin McDonald was hot! Too bad he died so young. He never got to do more exploration of the cave. It really is huge!

  18. Very nice pictures capturing the box lace. We love caves too and will go through them whenever we can. One of our favorites is still Kartchner Caverns in AZ. It's a living cave and therefore, warm inside. Never been in one like it. I don't think most would have claustrophobic feelings in there either. So interesting to think how much of the US is underground, and we may not even realize it.

  19. We toured Jewel Cave when in the area and took a short hike above ground too. We'll have to make a cave tour of this one a priority next time.

  20. Gives me the willies just looking at your pictures! not a cave kid... did a cavern once... somewhere in the East ... jeeeeez CRS ... had a natural organ ... Shenandoah Caverns? .... beautiful but nooooooo caves

  21. Just a little behind on my blog reading, hope to get Wind Cave next time we're in the area. Caves are one of our favorite places to tour. Our all time favorites are Cavern of Sonora in TX or Tuckalechee in TN and of course Carslbad.


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