The Black HIlls of South Dakota are a very popular destination for vacationers and daytrippers from the central United States. Due to the beauty of the area, more tourists from the rest of the country and internationally have discovered western South Dakota.
That area contains several interesting geologic sites, forests, wilderness areas, national monuments, a state park, and even a national park. People sometimes think of Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse sculptures that are in the general vicinity.
There is one caveat for vacationers to the Black Hills. Close to a million motorcyclists converge on the Black Hills area each August for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. So plan your trip to either coincide with the event or schedule your vacation to avoid the crowds. It’s very difficult for casual tourists to obtain lodging and campsites for many miles surrounding the area in mid August because of the influx of bikers.
Once you’ve decided on a time of year to visit the Black Hills, make sure your itinerary includes Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave is one of the smallest parks in the National Park system. The cave and the surrounding area are well worth the time for anyone interested in geology or wildlife. Wind Cave and the adjacent Custer State Park, together are a game sanctuary for antelope, birds, bison, coyotes, deer and prairie dogs.
Wind Cave is more than just one cave. It’s one of the world’s largest cave systems. The name comes from the pronounced “breathing” of wind that blows in and out of the system. The breathing effect is caused by variances in atmospheric barometric pressure. Visitors to Wind Cave are accompanied by a park ranger who provides an educational guided tour of much of the cave system.
Wind Cave has been known by Native Americans of that area for hundreds of years. For some tribes, it is a sacred place in their culture.
In 1881, Wind Cave captured the interest of European-American explorers and developers. Folklore says that Jesse and Tom Bingham had heard about the cave from Indians. The whistling sound of air rushing from the cave helped them locate the small natural cave vent. The wind was so strong that it blew off Tom’s hat. About a week later, the Bingham’s returned to show off the phenomenon to their friends, the wind had changed directions, causing Tom’s hat to get sucked into the cave.
The first explorer to enter Wind Cave was Charlie Crary during the Autumn of 1881. He left a trail of twine to prevent him from getting lost in the dark underground recesses.
By the 1890s, a few miners had established claims at the cave. This included the South Dakota Mining Company, who hired J.D. McDonald to run the operation. The mines yielded nothing of value. However, McDonald figured that they could make a living by giving guided tours of the cave and selling formations from the cave ceilings and floors. The McDonald family filed a homestead claim and built a manmade entrance to the cave.
In 1891, the McDonald family formed a partnership with “Honest John” Stabler named the “Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company”. Their workers widened some passageways and built wooden staircases. There was a tourist hotel on the property and stage coaches carried tourists to the cave.
Legal problems erupted when Peter Folsom contested the mining claims on the properties. Folsom and Stabler allied themselves against the McDonald family in a fierce dispute.
The U.S. Interior Department entered the case in late 1899 and decided that no legal homesteading nor mining had taken place. Therefore, none of the people had legal claim to Wind Cave. In 1901, the federal government withdrew the cave and the surrounding land from homesteading.
Two years later, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the law creating Wind Cave National Park. It was the first National Park created to protect a cave. and the eighth one in the National Park System.
Now, in 2017 Wind Cave National Park covers 33,851 acres. Park managers, rangers, and researchers continue to study the complex ecosystem of the caves. Management work includes wildlife roundups and control of exotic plant species.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this quote from President Theodore Roosevelt: “Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west.”