Tag Archive | Wind Cave

West 2016: Wind Cave NP

Day 5: August 9, 2016

We had a lot planned for the fifth day of our road trip, so we got up, headed out early, grabbed some breakfast stuff and a picnic lunch at the grocery store, and made our way the few miles over to Wind Cave National Park.

Me posing with the Entrance Sign

We wound our way up to the top of the hill, headed into the Visitor’s Center, and purchased our tickets for The Fairgrounds Tour!  The Fairgrounds Tour is the most strenuous of the regular tours, and to be honest, I was a little surprised that I got my mom to agree to it (I may have “forgotten” to tell her exactly how many stairs there are…).  This 90 minute tour goes into both the upper and middle sections of the cave, and has 450 stairs along a 2/3 mile route.  The hardest part is a stairway – of course leading up! – with 89 steps.  At any rate, mom did fine… The tour guide walks really slow and there is a lot of stopping to look at different features of the cave.  Sadly though, being so far underground meant my FitBit didn’t record my steps…  So, now to the good part…

We headed down into the cave by elevator, 19 stories below the surface.  The tour begins in the middle section of the cave, and we were greeted by intricate boxwork in a honeycomb pattern in the first areas of the tour.  They don’t really know how boxwork forms, but one theory is that it is the result of intensely fractured limestone which gets filled in by calcite that is carried by groundwater.  Over time, the remaining limestone gets washed away, leaving the calcite boxes.  Boxwork is extremely fragile, so you aren’t allowed to touch it – the cave could literally break off in your hands.

Boxwork on the ceiling of Wind Cave

 

A closeup of the Boxwork

During our tour, we then moved into the upper section of the cave, which looks quite a bit different than the middle section.  There really isn’t much boxwork here – instead there is chert, which is like flint in that it is composed of silica, but it isn’t as grainy (but you don’t know that by touching, because remember, touching is not allowed…).

We also saw areas with lots of cave popcorn, which looks like fluffy puffs of popcorn – and is a more common feature of many caves.  We were also treated to the Fairgrounds Room, where there are benches in front of the Frostwork Ledge.  It gave us an up close and personal view of the frostwork in Wind Cave, which are crystal formations of calcium carbonate that are formed when water slowly seeps out of the walls of the cave and then evaporates.  The frostwork is beautiful!

Cave Popcorn

 

A closeup of the cave popcorn, with frostwork

In the Fairgrounds Room, our tour guide turned off the lights, so we could experience the absolute pitch blackness of the cave.  You can’t see a thing, and your eyes won’t get used to the darkness, because there is no light to pick up on.  Imagine trying to explore the cave with only candlelight!  The Fairgrounds Room was discovered in 1892, so explorers at that time really were making do with just a candle or a dim lantern.

The last portion of the cave tour is downhill once again, before ending back at the elevators for the ride back up!

Again on the surface, we went through the gift shop for postcards and my National Park Passport stamp.

I also took a short walk over to see the natural entrance to the cave, the one that was discovered by Tom and Jesse Bingham back in 1881.  They have built a little rock wall around it, but otherwise it is basically the same as it was 135 years ago – a small hole in the ground, giving away nothing about the wonders that lie beneath.

The natural entrance to Wind Cave

We had to get on our way, as we still had plenty that we wanted to do with our day, but what a fantastic visit!

Have you been to Wind Cave – what did you think?

Costs and Fees: No charge to visit Wind Cave National Park.  The Fairgrounds Tour is $12 per adult, and $6 for seniors.  Photos are allowed in the cave, even with flash, but be courteous and make sure you aren’t using your flash in people’s eyes…

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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!