2016-10-04. Wind Cave NP and Mammoth Site
Yesterday, we drove the 65 miles to Wind Cave National Park, the fifth oldest park in the national park system. Have any of you heard of this park? We certainly hadn’t and if it had not been so close, we would probably still be ignorant of this national treasure. This park was established before the national park service was born and was the first park created to protect and showcase a cave. Yes, Mammoth and Carlsbad are more well-known and spectacular by virtue of their size and cave formations but Wind Cave is wonderful in its own way. It is the fifth longest cave in the world with145 miles of discovered paths snaking under the Black Hills on three different levels but taking up only one square mile of land above ground. To be considered a path, the opening must be at least 10 inches wide so that a very small person can fit through. The history of the cave’s discovery and exploration is interesting but what makes this cave unique is its “boxwork” formations that cover the ceilings and passageways looking like irregular honeycombed segments. These formations are only found in caves in the Black Hills such as the nearby and larger Jewel Cave and were not the product of the forces of water. There are no stalagmites or stalactites here but, in addition to the boxwork formations, delicate frostwork and cave popcorn can be seen in the upper level. We toured the middle level with a knowledgeable and interesting national park ranger. But, if you are claustrophic, this is not the cave for you. There are no soaring caverns or rooms but rather, a tight pathway created by the CCC in the 30’s. At one point, the ranger, Earl, demonstrated what Stygian blackness looks like by first, extinquishing the artificial lights and having only a candle lit to dispel the utter blackness. Then, with the snuffing of the candle, for the next five minutes, silent, total, blackness; only the mind’s imagining being lost in this maze.
Wind Cave’s natural entrance demonstrates how the cave got its name. You can walk right up to the small hole in the stone, site of the cave’s discovery, and feel the wind. The cave breathes! When the atmospheric pressure is high, the cave breathes in and those bats unfortunate enough to have sought shelter there, are trapped until the cave exhales with the arrival of a low pressure system. Bats do not live in the cave but we did see one trapped there by the high pressure system that brought a blue sky day. The native Americans believed that the entrance to Wind Cave was the location where man and the buffalo were expelled by the Gods living underground. Above the cave, vast mixed grass prairie interface with pine forests; the hillsides hosting mule deer, buffalo and prairie dogs with Elk visible in the distance, their bugling indicative of the breeding season. Bob tried to bugle but the only reaction he got was
The Elk Mountain Campground in the park, loop B, is where we stayed. There are no services here but who cares? It is a beautiful place with nice trails. We took Roadie walking on the nature trail high into the hills where we could see forever! At night, the stars sparkled from horizon to horizon with the Big Dipper resting on the top of a hill. It was so quiet and dark with no light or noise pollution – except for the generator. However, it was cold with temperatures in the 40’s and high winds too.
Hot Springs, South Dakota’s claim to fame is, of course, its hot springs, but if you are in the southern Black Hills, go there to visit the Mammoth Site. Apparently, in the 1970’s, a local developer started to bulldoze a hill in preparation for the construction of a housing development when the dozer uncovered bones of something no longer of this world. Thankfully, he had the grace and willingness to share the discovery and ultimately agreed to sell the land “in kind” to a non-profit that, in turn, preserved the site for exploration by palentologists. This hill turned out to be a very old “sink hole” into which fell woolly and Columbia mammoths along with the also extinct short faced bear, camelopes and other pre-historic animals. Today, parts of more than 60 mammoth skeletons have been found and you can visit the site to see the painstaking process of uncovering the treasures here. Great tour, awesome place!