Wind Cave and the nearby Jewel Cave National Monument comprise the underground portion of the Black Hills/Badlands/Mt. Rushmore Grand Tour. The caves are in the Black Hills part, at the southern end of a meandering 45-mile scenic route on U.S. Highway 16 and South Dakota Highway 87. Airlines can take you as far as Rapid City Regional Airport. After that, cars, vans or tour buses are the preferred mode of travel.
Wind Cave National Park and adjoining Custer State Park join seamlessly at Custer's southern border. A drive along the main Wind Cave roads, South Dakota Highway 87 and U.S. Highway 385, rewards with sightings of grazing bison and squirmy prairie dogs, plus the occasional elk or pronghorn antelope.
Hikers can meander on 30 miles of hiking trails, struggling to the top of Rankin Ridge in the north, or strolling amid the soothing swish of prairie grass and groves of pine at lower elevations.
Only about 10 percent of those who pass through Wind Cave National Park visit the caves. Those who don't still are amply rewarded with prairie views that evoke the country's pre-pioneer days. But the underground display of weird and beautiful rock formations is well worth a stop.
Down below, guided cave tours leave every 20 minutes and vary in ambition from quarter-mile samplers on paved walkways to half-day explorations of difficult nooks and crannies. The more arduous itineraries require mounting up to 450 stairsteps. Visitors in wheelchairs or with other special needs may arrange short tours at the visitor center.
All cavers should wear low-heeled shoes that provide good traction on slippery passageways. No matter what the surface weather, the caves maintain a 53-degree temperature, so bring a jacket even on the hottest days.
WHERE TO STAY
Elk Mountain Campground provides 96 camping sites. It is open on a first-come, first-served basis from May through September for $10 a night. More lodging and camping facilities are available in nearby Custer State Park and the towns of Custer and Hot Springs.
Not many Black Hills travelers go out of their way to dine at The Wind Cave Bison Room in the visitor center, but this summer-only eatery does ease the hunger pangs. Otherwise, the park is refreshingly free of cafes, grocery stores or gas stations. Those amenities are widely available in nearby towns, where customers are instructed to park their guns at the door and belly up to the salad bar.
WHEN TO GO
The park is open all year, but the visitor center and the caves are closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and Jan. 1. Those who can avoid the summer Black Hills tourist crush should experience pleasant weather in late spring and early fall.
Wind Cave National Park, RR1, Box 190-WCNP, Hot Springs, S.D. 57747-9430; 605-745-4600; www.nps.gov/wica/.