Trip Recap: Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota (March 2015)
Wind Cave National Park is one of the most underrated parks in the US. The opportunity to see wildlife here, even from the comfort (and safety) of your vehicle, is virtually unparalleled. We enjoyed a cave tour and did a short 2-day trek through the northwest area of this park.
About Wind Cave National Park
The best-known feature of Wind Cave National Park is, well, Wind Cave. It is one of the world’s largest and most complex cave systems.
The great things about this park are the opportunities to not only see the cave, but also to experience the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife up at the surface. Bison, elk, and pronghorn are all commonly sighted in the rolling hills of Wind Cave National Park. Prairie dogs are found almost everywhere in the park, as well as mule deer, coyotes, and many other species.
Limited by time, we were only able to do a 2-day, single night backpacking trip through wind cave (although we did camp at the Elk Mountain campground the night before).
Unlike the Badlands, Wind Cave does have established trails throughout its wilderness. However, the trails here are actually not used often, and very few visitors take the time and effort to backpack the area. We started off at the northwest corner of the park, near the Lookout Tower, and hiked southeast along the Sanctuary Trail.
Bison and prairie dogs were literally everywhere in this park, giving us some great opportunities to make use of the telephoto lens on the DSLR.
At one point, on our way to the trailhead, we were stopped in the middle of the road by a herd of bison. One of these bison approached our vehicle and actually began licking the back bumper. Apparently it tasted good.
We saw two different pairs of male bison fighting one another before even getting to the trailhead.
After packing our bags and leaving the trailhead, we saw several pronghorns grazing in a valley below us. The trail was well marked and easy to follow (although we always recommend bringing a compass and map, if not a GPS too). The unique ecosystem here features a mix of both western and eastern species, and most of the forest in this area was covered with ponderosa pine.
After travelling through several prairie dog colonies, we began looking for a place to camp.
We had heard it was going to be a clear night, so we wanted a good view of the stars. Normally, we don’t camp on high peaks due to the risk of lightning and high winds. However, this particular night was an exception because we were sure of the weather and found what we believed to be a perfect site.
At about 5,000ft, it was one of the best views from any campsite we have ever had. In all directions, the landscape stretched as far as the eye could see, and the Black Hills provided the only interruption to the prairie wilderness around us.
At dusk, we began hearing the distinct and majestic calls of several elk. Using the telephoto lens, an ultra-high ISO speed, and the zoom feature on the touch screen of the DSLR, we were able to photograph several areas of the landscape and pick out where the elk were grazing.
As soon as the sun set, we stopped hearing the elk and were surprised by the loud howls, yips, and barks of at least three groups of coyotes that literally surrounded our campsite. At first, we didn’t think they were very close. After all, the rolling hills and undulating landscape can play tricks on you with sounds and distances. But, after one particularly vocal coyote began calling less than 100 yards from us, we realized we were actually sharing the same hill. The coyotes called on and off throughout most of the night, which provided us with a wild background chorus as we kicked back and watched more stars than either of us had ever seen emerge from the complete blackness of the night sky.
There is no light pollution here, and there was no moon on this night. Saturn and Venus actually provided the most light out of anything in the sky. Looking at these planets, which normally appear as bright stars, actually ruined your night-adjusted eyes.
The Milky Way was clearly visible, and we didn’t spot a single cloud anywhere in the sky all night.
We set our alarm to wake up just as the sun was rising, and unzipped the tent and vestibule to capture this image of the sun rising over the prairie and Black Hills.
We decided to take a short day hike to explore the area we camped, and quickly realized why the coyotes had been so intent on this area. A dead bison (we’ll spare the you picture) was half-eaten about halfway up the hillside less than 150 yards from our tent. It appeared that the coyotes had been feeding on the carcass for several days, and I’m sure they weren’t thrilled about us visiting their dinner table. We packed up and followed the same trail out as when we came in, and passed through the same vocal prairie dog colonies as the day before.
It’s always a bittersweet hike on the last day, because we know we’re leaving, and with our ambition to backpack all 58 National Parks, it is unlikely we’ll return to the same park twice, at least for many years.
At this point, after backpacking the Badlands, visiting Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, touring Wind Cave, and camping at Elk Mountain, we were both exhausted. The combination of travelling by car and backpacking – including packing, unpacking, repacking, planning, routing, and doing it all over again several times is much more tiring than simple backpacking for a week. But we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore the wilderness of South Dakota and we would go back any time.
For more information on Wind Cave National Park, or to plan your own trip, click here.