After a couple of nights in Badlands, it was time to move on to Wind Caves, South Dakota’s other, perhaps lesser known, national park. Wind Caves, a 2.5-3 hour drive from Badlands, is an underground cave system so vast that there are likely still hundreds of miles of undiscovered cave yet to be explored. Today the cave has more than 130 miles of explored passageways, but experts believe only five percent of the cave has been discovered. That’s a mind boggling (and I must say, a little scary) amount of cave wilderness.
Visiting Wind Caves and seeing it in all its glory means going underground on a ranger-lead cave tour. There are a couple of tour options that leave regularly throughout the day, but we opted to call ahead and book one of the specialty tours, which were recommended in my national parks handbook. I wavered between two tours for quite some time: the Candlelight Tour and the Wild Cave Tour. The latter requires a lot of crawling, squeezing through tight spots (the smallest is 10 inches tall!) and lasts four hours. While intriguing, my claustrophobia got the better of me, and I opted for the less demanding two-hour candlelight tour. On this tour, each participant is issued a real candle in a metal bucket that serves as the sole light source during the tour, the idea being that guests can see the cave as the early explorers did. At one point we all blew out our candles, and it was the darkest dark I’ve ever experienced. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. The guide told stories of people who had gotten lost in the cave, and in those conditions it’s a wonder they ever got out.
We had a good time at Wind Caves, but all you really need is a half-day. Check out the visitor center and take a cave tour, whether booked or not. While we were there it didn’t seem like tour lines were long, but I’ve heard that waits can get lengthy on busy summer days. There are some hikes to do above ground as well, if you wish to make a longer day of it.
After Wind Caves it was on to Custer, South Dakota, a small town where we had booked a night at the Bavarian Inn, an eccentric little hotel just up the road from the main drag. My husband and I were both looking forward to warm showers, and we desperately needed to do laundry, so we spent a couple of hours in the late afternoon/early evening cleaning and organizing before enjoying a tasty dinner at Sage Creek Grille in town. A welcome change from camp food!
The next day we got an early start that began with checking out Custer State Park, a recommendation from my uncle, who had visited the area the week before. The park is lovely and definitely worth the time. Route 87, which runs through the park, is a scenic drive that offers some great views and winds through some incredible rock formations. We could have easily stayed and explored longer, but we had some other destinations on our agenda that day.
Next up was Mount Rushmore. There’s not much to say about this, to be honest. It was cool to see, and I’m glad we made the stop, but it doesn’t require an extensive amount of time. The visitor center does offer some interesting exhibits, though, so that’s worth a spin. One thing to note about the monument is that it attracts huge crowds – be ready to brave the masses!
Our final destination of the day was Devils Tower in Wyoming, which meant moving on to a new state. Adios Dakotas! I enjoyed checking you out and greatly appreciated your lack of mosquitos, but it was time to see something new. Devils Tower National Monument can be spotted from miles away, rising ominously out of the dirt. I must say, seeing it in person was cooler than I expected. It’s an incredibly interesting formation whose presence dominates the landscape. Some brave souls climb the monument, but that takes significant experience and skill, neither of which we had. So, we were limited to a 2.8-mile hike around the formation. Fine by me! It was nice to get out and get a few different views of the tower along the way.
For accommodations that evening, we booked a night in a tipi, a true American West experience. The property is located a few minutes from Devils Tower, and boasts some great views of the monument. The proprietor, Juliana Byrd, gave us a friendly welcome and showed us all we needed to know about tipi life. The structure offered more space than our tent and was a fun change. The only downside was that it was impossible to keep all the bugs out due to gaps between the walls and floor. Luckily, they weren’t the biting kind, and despite initial fears, their presence was truly not a problem. All in all, it was an interesting, unique accommodation that I’m happy to have experienced.