Tag Archive | cave tour

Wind Cave NP History

There are very few cave systems managed by the National Park Service, and Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota enjoys bragging rights as not only the first cave to be designated as a National Park within the United States, but it is also the first in the entire world!

Me posing with the Entrance Sign

Wind Cave has been known for centuries by the Native Americans, especially the Lakota, who consider it a sacred place. The Lakota believe that the cave’s entrance is the site where their people first emerged from the underworld after the creation of the world.

Despite its being known, it is not believed that any humans entered the cave until after 1881 when Tom and Jesse Bingham first noticed the wind rushing out of the entrance of the cave – it was forceful enough to blow the hat off of Tom’s head when he peered into the hole.  The wind blowing out of Wind Cave is a result of the large cave system combined with the small entrance opening; as the air pressure seeks to equalize both inside and outside of the cave, air blows either into or out of the cave, depending on the air pressure outside.

The natural entrance to Wind Cave

After Tom and Jesse “discovered” the cave, the South Dakota Mining Company did some exploring to determine whether there was valuable ore at the site (there wasn’t), and hired Jesse McDonald to oversee their claim.  It was Jesse’s family that was instrumental in the development of the cave as a tourist attraction.  His son Alvin began entering the cave with a candle and a long spool of string, and mapping out the many paths and caverns in the cave.  The family started offering tours for $1 (that’s a lot of money at the turn of the last century!), which involved quite a bit of crawling through small passages.  But even back in the day, people got greedy, and a dispute over cave profits led to court, and the government ruled that no one had an ownership claim in the cave and withdrew the land from homesteading.

Further cave exploration in the 1960s led to much of the knowledge we have about Wind Cave today.  Currently 123.09 miles (according to the NPS’s Wind Cave website) of the cave system have been explored, with a few miles more being explored each year.  It is the sixth longest cave system in the world.  There are several large rooms within the cave, as well as tiny passageways that are much too small for a person to fit through.  The cave has six known lakes, about 500 feet beneath the surface.  There is a belief among scholars that the Wind Cave network actually connects with the network of passages in Jewel Cave nearby, and that the two cave systems are actually one, even larger cave.  However, to date, there has not been confirmation of this theory, although it makes sense because both caves are known to be very large, and the two are only about 5 surface miles apart.

Wind Cave is known for its boxwork and frostwork. Boxwork is made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern. They intersect one another at various angles, forming “boxes” on all cave surfaces.  Approximately 95% of the boxwork in the world’s known caves is in Wind Cave.  Frostwork is intricate, needle-like growths on the cave – it is unknown how it forms, but evaporation is thought to play a role since it occurs in areas of Wind Cave where there is more air movement.

Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation creating Wind Cave National Park on January 9, 1903. Currently Wind Cave National Park has 33,851 acres, with bison, pronghorn, coyotes, deer, elk, prairie dogs, and the endangered black-footed ferret (which were reintroduced to the park in 2007).

The above-ground view at Wind Cave

My mom and I visited Wind Cave National Park in August 2016, and toured the cave while we were there.  I will post about it next!

A Real Cave Tour!

I was finally going to tour the Oregon Caves!  But first a few safety precautions.  Not for us… For the bats!  You see, bats that live east of the Rocky Mountains are being decimated by White Nose Syndrome.  Infection with the fungus causes bats to rouse too frequently from hibernation and they starve to death through excessive activity.  The symptoms include loss of body fat, unusual winter behavior (including flying), damage and scarring of the wing membranes, and death.  Sadly, affected areas have experienced declines in the bat population of over 90%.

Luckily, White Nose Syndrome has not yet made its way to the bats at The Oregon Caves, so the tour guides take precautions.  You cannot bring any shoes or clothing that have entered a cave where the fungus is known to exist.  We checked out and got our tokens, indicating we had passed the safety check.

Then it was time!  The tour lasts about 90 minutes and travels about 1 mile through the cave.  We entered the cave at the entrance where Elijah Davidson first entered in 1874.  It was surprising how quickly the light goes away.  The cave is equipped with electric lights, but our Ranger turned them off to let us experience the total darkness.

A stream runs through the cave; so you could hear the sound of water.  Once the lights were back on, we were guided along a series of narrow passageways and metal staircases.  The Ranger showed us the dingy brown color of the marble along the route, discolored over a hundred years by the oils in so many hands; high up on the walls the marble was bright white.

Flowstone that shows how white the marble at the Oregon Caves used to be

Flowstone that shows how white the marble at the Oregon Caves used to be

We saw the different formations, stalactites and stalagmites, soda straws, popcorn, bacon, moonmilk, columns, draperies (also called curtains) and flowstone.  The draperies in one room reminded me of those meringue cookies that you can buy at the store.

Draperies in the Oregon Caves

Draperies in the Oregon Caves

We also saw where early tourists signed their names on the marble; the writing is clearly visible but is now encased in a clear stone layer, as new marble is forming over top.  Although geological changes occur extremely slowly, this is one time where change is clearly evident.  We also saw where stalactites and stalagmites were broken off and carted away by people eager for a souvenir.

Century Old Graffiti at the Oregon Caves

Century Old Graffiti at the Oregon Caves

Columns, Stalactites and Stalagmites in the Oregon Caves

Columns, Stalactites and Stalagmites in the Oregon Caves

Our Ranger also did a great job of showing us how the tour has changed over time.  We were walking on smooth surfaces lit by electric lights, with metal catwalks and metal staircases.  But in the early days of Oregon Cave tours, tourists did not have the luxury of today’s infrastructure.  They did their tours with lanterns and wooden ladders, which became very slippery from water dripping in caves.  Our Ranger pointed out where the original tour route was, and sections where visitors had to hold onto handholds in the wall, and creep along narrow ledges.  I’m not nearly that adventurous.

We also got to hear stories about life in the caves.  Fossil bones from several species have been found, including a jaguar that is estimated to be between 20,000 and 40,000 years old and a grizzly bear that is over 50,000 years old.  Other fossils include the rare mountain beaver and a blue grouse.  The tour took us by the grizzly bear bones, which are encased in a viewing box at the end of the tour – still in the same place where they were found.

The whole tour was fascinating, seeing all the different rooms and passages, and it didn’t feel like 90 minutes had gone by when we finished the tour.  The cave is pretty cold though, staying a relatively constant 44 degrees, so it was nice to get back out into the 80 degree sunshine!

And after the tour we went to get some lunch at the Oregon Caves Chateau!