Wind Cave National Park, SD

Day 32 – July 10, 2016

Mileage – 80,532

Hiked – 1.0

Casper, WY

It has been a while since we boondocked at a Walmart and grocery provisions were running low.  So the first order of the day was to resupply.  Once again, a free camping location in a Walmart parking lot parted us with almost $250 – oh well our iPhone said the nearest Trader Joes was in Colorado!

After breakfast we head back on our trek across Wyoming.  As with many times on this trip we are fascinated by the vastness of our country.  So much of the land we pass through is wide open spaces void of a human presence save for the fences keeping things either in or out.

By the afternoon we have entered South Dakota and the Black Hills.  While the GPS is aimed at Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore we notice we will be passing a National Monument we recently learned about at another park – Jewel Cave.  We decide to stop and check it out.  Ranger Seth is very helpful, but unfortunately there are no more cave tours left for the day.  Seth suggests if we are interested we should arrive just ‪before 8 am tomorrow to secure tickets.  He describes the different tour options and when he talks about the vintage 1940’s tour by lantern light the girls are hooked.  Seth also provides the girls with Jewel Cave Jr. Ranger books and a newly issued Historic Preservation Jr. Ranger book.  Looks like the girls have some homework.  Finally Seth makes a suggestion we head down to Wind Cave national park, about 45 minutes south.  He explains Wind Cave tours don’t usually sell out as quickly and you can usually get a tour with about an hour lead-time.  We take Seth’s suggestion and head to Wind Cave.

Once at Wind Cave we are able to get tickets to ‪a 5:00 pm tour.  Jenney, having done a fair bit of Caving in her youth decides to skip this tour as well.  Kevin, Logan, and Teryn head into Wind Cave – one of the oldest, longest, and most complex cave systems in the world.  The main feature Wind Cave is known for is Boxwork, we see lots of this cave feature and we learn 95% of all the known Boxwork formations in the world are found within Wind Cave.  Our “Natural Entrance Tour” is only 2/3 of a mile long and lasts 1 1/4 hours but this short trip has given us a rich appreciation for the complexity of this cave – currently ranked the sixth-longest in the world with 140.47 miles (226.06 km) of explored cave passageways, and an average of four new miles of cave being discovered each year.

After the tour Logan and Teryn work on completing their Jr. Ranger program prior to the ‪7 pm closing of the visitor center.  ‪At 6:55 pm they are sworn in as Wind Cave Jr. Rangers.  One again we take the advice of our Secrets of the National Parks book and head out to explore Wind Caves scenic wildlife loop drive.  The timing of the day, dusk, is perfect and before we have traveled even 1/4 a mile we are treated with view of playful Prairie dogs – everywhere! We are all easily amused by their cuteness and antics.  As we continue our wildlife hunt we encounter amazing vistas, lots of deer and a lone bison.  The mostly gravel roads around the park are slow but we are in no hurry and most of the time we have the park to ourselves.

On the east side of Wind Cave we detoured into the Custer State Park Wildlife loop and we quickly encounter the parks famous feral “begging burros.”  These donkeys are descends from pack animals once used for treks to the Harney Peak summit.  They are very bold and will approach cars seeking food.  Logan and Teryn have a blast watching the burros, and a kind man gives them carrots to feed the burros from the window.  As we tried to pull away one small burro found our rear bumper was a great place to scratch an itch and was using us as scratching post.

As we continue on the Custer Wildlife loop the sun begins to fade just as we come upon a herd of bison.  Some of the large males are so close to the RV we could touch them, however with fading light taking decent pictures was hard so we spend our time watching the herd complete with many baby bison.

As we head out of the park we were treated with two more animal encounters: the first, a mother and her two baby deer; the second, a few pronghorn and several babies.  With the sun fully behind the hills we venture back to a USFS campground we past just outside Jewel Cave.  With fingers crossed we roll into the campground around ‪10 pm and are relieved to find an open spot.  We settled in for the evening exhausted from a day of driving, caving, and wildlife viewing.