One of the benefits of working in the tourism area in the Black Hills is the V.I.P. pass that we receive. The pass is for Visitor Industry Partners (VIP) and allows us free or reduced admission for many of the attractions in the area. This way when a visitor asks “what else is there to do”, we can tell them about the other attractions from our own experience. It’s a very smart marketing idea, and we plan on taking full advantage of our pass on our days off.
Our first stop was to Wind Cave National Park. The park offers five different cave tours in the summer. As part of the VIP pass, we received a complimentary Natural Entrance Tour (normally $12.00 per adult), which is the one tour available year round. Admission to the park is free, and they do have a campground.
Wind Cave covers over 29,000 acres, with 70 percent natural prairie grassland and 30 percent forest. It is home to many species of animals, including a growing herd of bison. But the main attraction are the cave tours. The cave was first discovered in 1881 by two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, who were out hunting deer. When they heard a loud whistling noise, they followed the sound and discovered a hole in the ground that was blowing air so strong it knocked Jesse’s hat off. The original entrance to the cave is no longer used, as it has a 90 degree turn right when you enter. As such, there is no evidence that bats or animals have entered the cave, because it would be a difficult entry way. At a constant 58 degrees the cave is also too warm for bats to live because they need colder temperatures to hibernate. Dan’s Mom would be happy to know there are no bats in the cave!
This is the original entrance to the cave.
The wind, which gave the cave its name, is created by the difference in barometric pressures inside and outside the cave. On the day we visited, the wind was blowing in to the cave, as demonstrated by this Park Ranger’s red piece of tape.
winds blowing in
The Bingham’s told others in town about their discovery, but there is no evidence they explored the cave further. In 1890, 16-year-old Alvin McDonald began exploring the cave, using candles and string (so he could find his way back out). He kept a diary of his daily explorations, which the Park Service has, and uses to document the history of the cave. The McDonald family blasted open passages to the cave and offered tours for a fee, along with selling specimens from the cave. In 1893, Alvin traveled to Chicago to display specimens at the Columbian Exposition, and to market the cave for tourism. Alvin came down with typhoid fever at the Exposition, and passed away in December, at the very young age of 20.
A land dispute erupted between the McDonald family and a mining company (there was no gold found in the cave), and eventually the government stepped in and took control of the cave. In January of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established Wind Cave as the seventh National Park (and the first cave), forever protecting the park for future generations.
Studies of the barometric pressure of the cave have estimated that only a small percent of the cave has been discovered. The Park Service is continuing to explore the cave, and it has been “growing” as they continue to find new passages. Right now, there are 141 known miles of the cave, all covering just one square mile of surface area. (ponder that math fact…!)
Wind Cave is famous for formations of Popcorn, Frostwork and Boxwork. Ninety-five percent of all the known Boxwork in caves around the world is found at Wind Cave. On our tour, we saw a lot of Boxwork, and a little Popcorn and Frostwork. The Popcorn and Frostwork is more prevalent in other parts of the cave that can be seen on other tours. Stalagmite and Stalactites are not common in the cave, as it is considered to be a dry cave. The visitor’s center has excellent specimens of the Popcorn and Frostwork, so the following are photographs of the specimens.
Popcorn is formed when small deposits of Calcium Carbonite seep through the limestone.
This is the Popcorn that we saw on part of our Natural Entrance Tour:
Popcorn in the cave
Water seeps through the porous rock, evaporates, and leaves behind aragonite crystals, called Frostwork.
We saw one area that had a little frostwork:
frostwork inside the cave
The Natural Entrance Tour that we took is about 90 minutes in length, and has about 450 stairs to negotiate. It was a rather easy tour to navigate, and we did not feel too enclosed. We would recommend this tour as it was very informative. There was a part in our tour where the Park Ranger turned off all the lights, and lit a candle, so we could see what the early explorers were dealing with. For those so adventurous, they do offer one tour that is strictly by candlelight, so you can experience what touring the cave was like when it was first discovered. They also offer a very strenuous four-hour tour which involves a lot of crawling through narrow passages, so you do need to meet certain “width” restrictions!
The Natural Cave Entrance tour has some narrow passages….
watch your head!
But also some large rooms where everyone can fit, and the rangers will spend several minutes talking about the history of the cave.
wide open rooms
Boxwork is what this cave is known for, and we saw many examples on the ceiling of the cave. Boxwork is a honeycomb formation of thin calcite fins that protrude from the walls and ceilings of the cave. The Park Ranger explained that when they were first exploring the cave, using candles, the Boxwork initially looked like giant spider webs. That is what is documented in the diaries they have of the early cave explorers.
Photographs of caves are not the best way to see a cave. We definitely would recommend a visit to Wind Cave (remember…no bats!)
inside wind cave
Quote of the Day: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek. Fear of the unknown is our greatest fear. Many of us would enter a tiger’s lair before we would enter a dark cave. While caution is a useful instinct, we lose many opportunities and much of the adventure of life if we fail to support the curious explorer within us.” – Joseph Campbell