Family Fun in the Dakotas, Part 3: Wind Cave National Park and Custer, SD

This is my third post about our family's visit to the Dakotas. I recommend reading the first and second trip posts before this one. Because I blog about educational travel, I was given admission tickets, media rates, discounts, and other benefits for some of the places we visited during our travels. Other places we went are free for everyone and we paid full price for the rest. This has no bearing on my reviews. If you see any gaps in my narrative, it is because I didn't love that particular attraction, restaurant, or hotel enough to recommend it, regardless of how much I paid or didn't pay.


Wind Cave National Park and Custer, SD

After Custer State Park, we drove the short distance south to Wind Cave National Park. This park is unique in that it protects two completely different environments: the prairie grasslands and forested hillsides that are home to many plants and animals, and one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. 

We started our visit, appropriately, at the Visitor Center. 

This is a squeeze box. As the name implies, you squeeze through it in order to judge whether you will fit in some of the cave passages during the more advanced tours. The box is 10.5" tall and just under three feet wide. I watched a bunch of people try to wiggle through. The width was not an issue for anyone, but 10.5" is TIGHT. Kids of various sizes went through it without issue. I saw one skinny man make it through with an inch or two to spare. Then I watched two moms, about my size, give it a try. One made it (barely) and one did not, despite her best efforts. None of the three of us tried, as we were taking the fully-accessible Natural Entrance tour with no squeezing required. 

We headed outside for a ranger talk, where we learned all about the natural entrance to the cave and what causes the wind at Wind Cave. We also learned the Lakota Emergence Story and the early history of cave exploration

The ranger also picked chokecherries for us to try. I liked them. They reminded me of a more astringent version of pomegranates. 

We headed out on the Prairie View Trail for a hike... 

... but it was really hot. Trevor and I opted to wait in the shade rather than completing the last portion of the trail.

When Steve returned, he said we'd made the right decision. There was no shade on the rest of the trail and, while beautiful, it was uncomfortably hot. 

The temperature was 95°F; much better than the previous day, but still oppressive, particularly while hiking. And yet, the first thing we did after hiking was to go to the car and get our jackets! Why? Because our cave tour was about to begin. The cave stays a constant 54°F. 

Our tour into the cave started through a man-made entrance, which opened into the middle level of Wind Cave. We went down a bunch of steps right away. In total, there are 300 steps - all down - over the course of the 2/3 mile tour. There was plenty of light to see the well-marked steps. 

This is what the path looked like most of the time. Quite roomy. Some people had to duck occasionally, but at 5'2", I was able to walk fully upright the entire time. 

Here I am in one of the larger rooms. That's my jacket slung over my shoulder. Normally, I would be freezing cold in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt in 54° temperatures, but I was perfectly comfortable without my jacket for the entire hour underground. That shows how overheated I must have been before starting the tour. 

The pace was slow (2/3 MPH), so we had lots of time to admire the interesting formations. They include boxwork, frostwork, and cave popcorn

Our ranger guide did the expected thing of bringing us all into a room then turning off the lights so we could experience total darkness. She warned us about it and it was fine. 

About 10 minutes later, the lights went out unexpectedly while we were walking. I was at the front of the pack, right behind the ranger, so I knew she had not turned the lights off that time. She had us stop where we were and wait. After about 20 seconds, the lights came back on for 1 second before going back out for 5 seconds and then coming back on. That, the ranger told us, was a message to her to call up to the surface for more information. We walked for a few minutes before we reached one of the dozen or so phones hidden in the caves. She made the phone call and learned that there was a massive thunderstorm, with lightning hitting right where we would be exiting the cave. She was to call again when we reached the end to see if it was safe to emerge from underground. 

When we got to the end where the elevators would take us to the surface, there was another tour in front of us. They’d been held due to the lightning, but had just received the all-clear. Once they all made it to the surface, it was our turn. 

Emerging from the cave was so weird. An hour or so earlier, it was 95° and sunny, with barely a cloud in the sky. Now it was 75° and overcast and there were puddles everywhere. We missed the storm entirely. Despite all the traveling I've done, I shouldn't be surprised by rapidly-changing weather conditions, but I am. We just don't have weather like that here in California. 

We left Wind Cave and drove to the city of Custer, just west of Custer State Park. We'd heard great things about the Purple Pie Place, so that's where we had dinner. 

They're most famous for their chicken pot pie and their fruits pies, so that's what we had. Yum! We shared a slice of bumbleberry and a slice of rhubarb. Can you guess which was my favorite?

The next day was one of our busiest on the trip, so we headed to bed early. Tomorrow I'll tell you everything that we did. 

1 comment:

  1. Ahh..I enjoy caves. First time I heard of chokecherries...interesting.


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