Next morning dawned overcast. It was our final morning at Wind Cave National Park, and we intended to get one more short hike in before continuing on our adventures.
We were still trepidatious about the changing weather. It was Tuesday, September 9, and the forecast for the Black Hills the next day was possible snow, while in North Dakota, our ultimate destination, the temperatures were forecasted to drop precipitously.
It was Monday afternoon, September 8, and we’d already explored two caves, but the day wasn’t over. We arrived back at our campsite at Elk Mountain Campground just before 4pm, which still gave us plenty of time for an above ground hike at Wind Cave before the sun set at 7:19pm.
The hike we chose was the Lookout Point/Centennial Trail Loop, a four-mile loop that began not too far from the campground up the park road and wound through prairie, forest, and riparian areas.
Eastern Kingbird. Image: Sean M. Santos
Image: Sean M. Santos
In 1913, ten years after the park was established, American Bison were reintroduced to Wind Cave National Park. In establishing the park in 1903, the intent of Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt was to protect the marvelous boxwork formations of the cave, but as an ancillary benefit, the park protected thousands of acres of mixed grass prairie in the foothills of the Black Hills. This habitat would be ripe for an ambitious bison reintroduction program that would culminate at Wind Cave.
The truly vital importance of the Wind Cave herd was recognized and reinforced only in recent decades as increasingly sophisticated genetic tests have confirmed that the herd is one of the last remaining genetically pure herds on public lands in North America. Most other herds have a certain percentage of genetic material from interbreeding with cattle. Even the herd at Custer State Park, adjacent to Wind Cave along its northern border, is not free of genetic material from cattle. The other pure herds are found at Yellowstone National Park, the Henry Mountains in Utah (reintroduced from the Yellowstone herd), and Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.
After we’d breakfasted on Monday morning, September 8, we drove the short distance from Elk Mountain Campground to the Wind Cave National Park visitor center. We were hoping to take the 9am Natural Entrance Tour, but we were too close to its starting time. Ranger Andrew sold us the final two tickets for the 9:45am tour. He informed us that there would be a group of middle schoolers on the tour with us, but it should be fine, since there had been others from the same large group on tours the day before without any problems.
As we waited the forty-five minutes for our tour, we watched the twenty-minute park introductory film and explored the exhibitions in the CCC-era visitor center. We also stopped by the bookstore.
Wind Cave National Park is possibly the most important little-known park in the entire system. It became the seventh National Park in 1903 when Congress passed legislation, subsequently signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, to protect a small, but beautiful cave in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. (Starting here with Wind Cave, all five park units we’d visit would have some connection or indebtedness to Roosevelt.) It was the first National Park to protect a cave, and it also happened to protect an important transition zone between the mixed grass prairie of the South Dakota plains and the Ponderosa Pine forests of the Black Hills.
The quiet importance of the park would grow. What had been assumed to be a small cave is now known to be the fourth longest and among the oldest in the world. On the surface, a reintroduction program for the American Bison, begun in 1913, has yielded one of the most important, purest herds in the United States. It is a herd vital to reintroduction programs across the prairie.
Yet even many of those who have visited the Badlands or Mount Rushmore haven’t necessarily heard of this unassuming, intensely beautiful park. Perhaps that’s for the best.
Prairie Sunflowers, Cedar Pass area, Badlands National Park
With the exception of a lovely long weekend in Florida in March with my parents, by Labor Day 2014 Sean and I had not taken a real vacation in 2014. This was due both to the whims and vagaries of his firm and that the summer months are busy at Openlands. (For comparison, by Labor Day 2013, we’d already visited the Virgin Islands, California, and Florida and had driven around the whole of Lake Michigan.) It was past time for a vacation. It was time to sleep in a tent.
We decided upon a trip to the Dakotas (and Wyoming). We’d hit three parks: Badlands, Wind Cave, and Theodore Roosevelt, plus three monuments.