Exploring the Park by Car
Wind Cave National Park is not just about a cave. The rolling prairies of western South Dakota run smack into the ponderosa pine forests of the Black Hills in the park, and its roadways provide access to some of the best wildlife-viewing opportunities in the region. Bison, pronghorn, elk, and other wildlife abound in this rugged preserve, and you'll be able to see many of them as you drive down through Custer State Park on S. Dak. 87 to Wind Cave. The combination of Wind Cave National Park and the adjoining Custer State Park presents a most attractive introduction to the Black Hills. Several scenic roadways lead through the Black Hills to Wind Cave. Roadside sightseers will find the Wildlife Loop Road, Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway particularly enjoyable. All of these are in Custer State Park, just north of Wind Cave National Park.
Warning: Tunnels on Iron Mountain Road (U.S. 16A) are 12 feet, 2 inches high and 13 feet, 2 inches wide. Tunnels on the Needles Highway/Sylvan Lake Road (S. Dak. 87) are as low as 10 feet, 7 inches and as narrow as 8 feet, 4 inches.
Park rangers provide a number of talks and programs at Wind Cave. Topics range from local wildlife, plants, and geology to area history and spelunking and cave surveying. Campfire programs are conducted most evenings during the summer. There is a 2-hour ranger-guided prairie hike daily in the morning during the summer. Check with the visitor center for times and locations.
More than 30 miles of trails crisscross the park's backcountry. Several can be combined to create round-trip hikes, or you may want to leave the trails and hike a ridgeline, explore a canyon, or trek across an open prairie bordered by ponderosa pine. Backcountry camping is permitted in the northwestern portion of the park with a free permit, available at the visitor center or either of the Centennial trail heads.
Park handouts also provide information on more than a half-dozen other trails, ranging from 1.4 miles to 8.6 miles.
Centennial Trail -- Wind Cave provides the southern terminus for the 110-mile-long Centennial Trail, built in honor of South Dakota's centennial in 1989. The trail leads through the heart of the Black Hills before ending at Bear Butte State Park near Sturgis. A 6-mile section of the Centennial Trail is in the park, where it crosses the prairie, climbs the foothills and forested ridges, and also provides access to the wetter, riparian habitat of Beaver Creek. 6 miles one-way. Moderate. Access: Along S. Dak. 87, 3/4 mile north of its intersection with U.S. 385.
Elk Mountain Nature Trail -- This interpretive trail explores an ecotone, or meeting zone, where prairie and forest converge. Booklets are available at the trail head. .5 mile one-way. Easy. Access: Elk Mountain Campground.
Rankin Ridge Nature Trail -- This loop trail leads to the highest point in the park and is one of Wind Cave's most popular. You can stop at the lookout tower (closed to public access), about halfway around the loop. Booklets are available at the trail head. .75 mile RT. Moderate. Access: Rankin Ridge parking lot.