On my way from Scottsbluff, Nebraska to Rapid City, South Dakota, I took a stop at Wind Cave National Park, a national park a little north of Hot Springs, South Dakota. Ever since booking this segment of my road trip, I’ve been particularly looking forward to Wind Cave, as this would be the first time I would be spelunking—I regularly hike upwards onto mountains, but never downwards into the earth.
At the time of my visit to Wind Cave, it had only been one week into spring, so it was still considered off-season for tourism, and not all the ranger-guided tours were available. One of the tours that were available was the Fairgrounds Tour, rated by the National Park Service as “strenuous,” which is the one I selected.
The Fairgrounds Tour is a one-and-a-half hour walk through a large portion of the cave, allowing visitors to see many different aspects of the cave system. As of today, it is also the longest tour during which you are allowed to take photographs; the more difficult and involved Candlelight Tour and Wild Cave Tour both prohibit phones and cameras for safety reasons.
Self-guided tours are not permitted, and for good reason—Wind Cave is the densest cave system in the world, meaning it has the greatest passage volume per cubic mile, offering many opportunities to get lost and die alone without GPS or cellular signal.
Prior to the beginning of our tour, the ranger showed us a map that had extremely complex lines drawn in multiple different colors on top of each other (with the shade of color representing the vertical axis) and packed in a small space. At first, I thought that the map covered a large area and potentially even extended as far as the nearby Black Hills National Forest, but I later learned that the scale of the entire map was only one mile from one edge to the other.
We entered Wind Cave via elevator out of a special room. When we first went a few hundred feet underground, it was clearly extremely windy—the atmospheric pressure changes causes extreme wind in Wind Cave—but once we actually entered the cave, we couldn’t feel the wind anymore.
I took a lot of photos during the tour, but note that I took them in camera raw format and heavily edited and enhanced them prior to posting them here. Wind Cave is extremely dim, which meant my camera had a lot of difficulty capturing clean, crisp images. (I took some photos with my camera’s flash on, but that didn’t really help either, because then that would just overilluminate nearby cave structures and leave far-away rocks still dark; I ended up not posting any photos from flash photography.)
Wind Cave is apparently the place with the most boxwork in the world—approximately 95% of the world’s discovered boxwork is inside Wind Cave. According to the ranger, boxwork forms when cracks in soft rock are filled with a harder substance, and then the remainder of the soft rock erodes away, leaving behind the harder substance that takes a web-like shape.
Wind Cave has multiple different levels, and during this tour, we were able to see all of them. Water has extremely high erosive properties, and once we got to places where water did not have enough time to work on breaking down the rock, the cave was much smoother and had no boxwork.
We eventually made it to a resting point where the ranger told us about the history of the cave, and how the cave was originally used for mining, but was later converted into a tourist hotspot. While we were all safely seated, the ranger turned off the already-dim lights to demonstrate just how dark it is underground in a cave. She told us to hold our hand directly in front of our faces, which we obviously couldn’t see—there was literally no light, which meant that our eyes would never “adjust” to the darkness.
This area also had some nice frostwork. I tried to take a photo of it, and I captured a lot of cave popcorn, but I didn’t realize that the bulk of the frostwork was out-of-frame (except for a few growths at the far bottom). Again, keep in mind that everything was extremely dim, it was very difficult for me to see (considering I already have horrible eyesight and horrible night vision), and these photos are heavily enhanced in post-production.
As our time together came to an end, we started heading back to the elevator to return to the surface. On the way back, I snapped a bunch more photographs of everything interesting around me, including nice rock formations and a lot more boxwork.
Exploring Wind Cave was a great experience. As if I wasn’t already aware enough, seeing things like this reminds me just how vast and complex the world is, and gives me a reality check of how unimaginably tiny my life is compared to the scale of everything else happening. It also acted as a reminder not to get complacent about my safety and the fragility of life—nature doesn’t hold your hand and help you survive like modern-day civilization does, and it’s very easy to stumble into an unfortunate situation that kills you.
On my way from Wind Cave National Park to Rapid City, Google Maps decided to route me through 7-11 Road because it was the fastest way to my destination, without informing me that it was a dirt road. I was fine with it, though; my truck handled it just as well as a regular road, and I made a new friend along the way.