Wind Cave National Park and Elk Mountain Campground

Located directly south of The Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore is Wind Cave National Park.

After you’ve toured enough caves and caverns, the smaller ones tend to look alike.  So I can see why some people might bypass Wind Cave on a trip through the area.  However, I recommend you stop here and if there is availability, that you camp overnight.  Wind Cave is the perfect place for a stop between the Black Hills and Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD.  It’s also a great activity on a hot day.

Remember the movie Independence Day? This weird saucer-shaped cloud was in the sky the entire day, seeming to follow me. Here I’m in Custer, SD which puts the “cloud” over the Black Hills.

I started my afternoon in Custer, SD and stopped for lunch at the Black Hills Burger and Bun Company.  You can read my review at the link, but in my opinion, BHB&B Co. along with the Purple Pie Place, are the two best places to eat in this touristy town.

RVs and Tourists abound in Custer, but it’s a good spot in the middle of the Black HIlls region for food, gas, and some trinket shopping.
One Tourist Trap worth stopping at is the Dakota Territory Trading Post.  Located on the east side of rt 385 as you enter town from the north, it’s loaded with old prospector gear and some authentic trinkets.  Worth a quick stop.

Now on to the Cave!

Entry to the cave is by visitor center tours.

Be advised; the only way you can go into the cave is by guided tour and they can fill up fast.  I arrived in early June about 2 pm and barely got on the last tour around 4:30 pm.  So, you might want to call ahead, or plan on staying at Elk Mountain so you can get a jump on everyone in the morning.  I can imagine that during busy times, you might not be able to get a same-day tour at all.

Speleothems or “Boxwork” is the defining characteristic of Wind Cave National Park. Although it can be found in small amounts elsewhere, Wind Cave is believed to have the largest collection.

Wind Cave is so named for the 70 MPH wind that comes out of the cave as the barometric pressure changes outside.  Essentially, the cave is “breathing” and if you get there as a storm is approaching (as I did), that wind is pretty amazing.  In fact, it can be so strong that you actually have to enter the cave through an airlock room!

Decent into the cave is by a staircase and how many stairs you encounter depends on the tour you pick.  I did the Fairgrounds Cave Tour which had 450 stairs.  It’s considered “strenuous” but it’s nothing like a strenuous trail rating.  I’m 50 lbs overweight and managed to keep up just fine.  A younger couple actually carried their kids on their shoulders (watch your head)!  If you have physical limitations, there are more moderate tours available, so check the schedule to make sure you can get the one you want.

Wind Cave is known among geologists and tourists alike, for its “boxwork” (aka speleothems) mineral formations.  The boxwork is revealed when the surrounding bedrock dissolves and unveils the harder calcite, which remains behind.

Where some caves like Carlsbad Caverns are wide and spacious, Wind Cave feels like you are descending through the world’s ass crack.  It’s narrow, damp, and lit only well enough to avoid walking into walls.  If you are VERY claustrophobic, it might bother you.  I’d freak out if I had to belly crawl through a 2-foot crevice, so I guess I’m moderately claustrophobic but Wind Cave didn’t bother me.  I only mention all of this because I’ve met people who avoid ALL caves because the tight spaces bother them.  This one is not bad.

If you look closely at the top of this photo, you’ll see a spot where the boxwork is missing.  It’s almost like someone removed it because someone DID!  Before the cave was a protected area, people would collect and sell the mineral formations.  I don’t speak about personal politics in this blog, but I’m generally not in favor of the government doing anything beyond guaranteeing personal rights.  However, the National Parks are one place where protection is needed to preserve these places for posterity.

Regular readers will know that I don’t post a LOT of photos from the national parks.  This is because I think it steals some of the wonder if you know everything you are going to see.  Today’s wide-angle action cameras do a pretty good job of making you feel like you are there and so when you get “there”, you feel like you’ve already been (two notable exceptions being Grand Canyon and Canyonlands, which nothing can prepare you for).  So I only gave you a couple of shots from inside the cave.

You can’t miss the entrance sign on your way in to the park visitor’s center.  To the left is the leading edge of the saucer cloud, following me.  This thunderhead gave impressive red and purple lightning at the end of the day.

If you want to camp near wind cave, there is really only one option and that’s Elk Mountain Campground.  It’s well maintained, but surprisingly compact given all the land surrounding it.  Sites are first-come-first-served so stop as soon as you see the sign (you can’t miss it) on your way in and pick out a spot.

Note: in the offseason the standard fee is reduced to $9 which makes this campground a pretty good deal. There are times I’d pay $9 just for a bathroom and running water!

Fees are paid at the signboard as you enter the campground.  There was also firewood available for purchase if that’s your thing.

Odyssey Camper Van
Odyssey Camper at Elk Mountain Campground

There are only 61 sites at Elk Mountain, so you are going to get to know your neighbor.  I went all the way to the park and was clear on 3 sides, but had a family about 35 feet away on the other.  However, if you always camp alone, you’ll miss out on meeting awesome people!

Accidentally shot when I set the camera on a picnic table, but you can see the washrooms off in the distance.

Compensating for the lack of space are toilet facilities with running water (no showers though).  They are clean and I did not detect any strange smells camping near them.

The alien ship reveals itself

Later, as the saucer closed in and then grew to 10,000 feet, I got to see the most amazing lightning show.  Of course, it’s hard to catch lightning with an iPhone.

It was hot and humid that night, but not too buggy. Still, I had the screens in so I could breathe. Here I’m using my sun blocking screens on the front windows, but the more breathable, standard ones on the sides. Ventilation is critical in a minivan camper.


I met a nice older couple in a pickup bed camper, who were lifelong travelers.  They said that for health reasons this was probably going to be their last trip.  That saddened me but it also reminded me how short life is and how important it is to do the things that make you happy.  The next morning while I was making coffee, they invited me over and cooked an awesome sausage and egg breakfast!

You meet the nicest people on the road.

Heading out the next morning for Leadville, CO I passed a family of buffalo. It’s funny but on my first trip through the Badlands and Black Hills, I didn’t see a buffalo for a week. Now I can’t STOP seeing them.  In the foreground is a prairie dog burrow.



I was reminded on my way out that forest fires are a very real danger in the Black Hills area.  It’s not something people from the midwest or eastern seaboard generally think about, but you have to be more careful with your fires as you travel west.  This one was caused by a cigarette tossed out the window.

A few years back, a man-caused forest fire cleared this ridge and most of the valley, of its timber.


Wind Cave National Park is probably not at the top of anyone’s must-visit list, but when combined with the Black Hills and Custer State Park, I think it’s worth an overnight.

Packed up and heading out for Leadville, CO, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, spring of 2018!


Thanks for reading!

–Darren at Odyssey Camper

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