Midwest Road Trips

The Caves of South Dakota–Kid-friendly Underground Adventure

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, Badlands for kids
Wind Cave National Park offers more than a cave, along the scenic drive the buffalo graze. Photo Credit: South Dakota Department of Tourism

The Black Hills of South Dakota offers two caves within 31 miles of each other, centered around the town of Custer. Cave tours are ideal for school-age kids who can explore without much assistance. Caves offer a peek into an underground world where exploration and discoveries still happen daily. Here’s how to explore South Dakota caves with kids.

Wind Cave National Park

At a Glance 

Year Established: 1903
Located: South Dakota
Size: over 10,500 acres
Top Features: Wind Cave boxwork, bison herd, native prairie 

 

Wind Cave National Park is named after the barometric winds at the entrance of the cave that can predict the weather. With hiking, camping and a herd of bison, Wind Cave National Park is more than a cave.

Top Features of Wind Cave

  • The cave’s boxwork, popcorn and frostwork
  • Animals at Wind Cave
  • Scenic Drives 

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Caves fascinate my son and he can’t wait to take a wild cave tour when he’s old enough. Credit: Catherine Parker

Cave Tours at Wind Cave National Park

With over 100 miles of passageways, portions of Wind Cave still remain uncharted and only 5-percent has been discovered. The boxwork, popcorn and frostwork, cave formations, in Wind Cave are exceptional for all visitors and especially cave enthusiasts. 

Wind Cave National Park offers three basic tours, Natural Entrance Tour, Fairgrounds Tour and the Garden of Eden Tour. I’ve taken the Fairgrounds Tour and Natural Entrance Tour.

The Fairgrounds TourThis is the most strenuous tour and lasts an hour-and-a-half and includes 450 steps. For this tour we rode the elevator down and back up afterwards. My kids, 13, 12 and 8, loved the tour. All ages are welcome as long as they can walk the entire .6-mile route.

The Natural Entrance Tour—This tour includes 300 steps, mostly down, and lasts an hour and 15 minutes and covers a .6-mile route. I entered the cave through a man-made entrance next to the original and rode the elevator out. I enjoyed walking down into the cave as the first explorers did, it added to the feeling of adventure.

The Garden of Eden Tour—This is the least strenuous tour and recommended for younger children and visitors with health or mobility concerns. This tour uses the elevator to enter and leave the tour. It includes 150 steps covers .3 miles during the one-hour long.

Tickets for cave tours are sold first-come, first-serve the day of the tour. Admission for Natural Entrance and Fairground tours: adults 17 and older is $12, kids 6 to 16 is $6 and kids under 5 are free. The Garden of Eden admission for adults 17 and older is $10, kids 6 to 16 is $5 and kids under 5 are free.

The Candlelight Tour and the Wild Cave Tour are available at Wind Cave National Park. Advance reservations are required for both tours. Consult the NPS site for most up-to-date information on tour availability.

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Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, Badlands for kids,
Wind Cave’s original entrance looks like an animal’s home instead of one the world’s longest caves. Credit: Catherine Parker

Scenic Drives in Wind Cave 

Explore the native grassland prairies at Wind Cave National Park. It’s the protected largest area in the U.S. With herds of bison, pronghorn and prairie dog towns, my kids love driving through the park. Take Highway 87 as an alternative route to-or-from Custer, South Dakota, for a scenic drive.

Wind Cave Geology Driving Tour—A 20-mile (32 km) scenic drive with pull outs to learn about the area’s geology. 

Hiking in Wind Cave 

Find 30 miles of hiking through Wind Cave National Park. 

Prairie Vista Trail—A 1.0-mile (1.6 km) pet-friendly round-trip loop trail. 

Elk Mountain Campground Trail—A 1.0-mile (1.6 km) pet-friendly round-trip loop trail. 

Rankin Ridge—A 1.0-mile (1.6 km) round-trip hike loop trail.

Wind Cave Canyon—A 1.8-mile ( 2.9 km) is a former gravel road. 

Wildlife Viewing in Wind Cave National Park

Find lots of animals within the park though dawn and dusk are the best wildlife viewing times. The Park Rangers can also point out areas that offer the best chance at seeing wildlife.

  • Bison
  • Elk
  • Pronghorn
  • Prairie dogs
  • Black footed ferret

Horse-back riding is permitted in Wind Cave National Park. Permits can be picked up at the visitor center.

Picnicking at Wind Cave

Find a Picnic Area close to the visitor center with seven tables along with a couple of charcoal grills. 

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Wind Cave National Park,
Box Work in Wind Cave. Credit: Catherine Parker

Camping at Wind Cave National Park

Elk Mountain Campground 
  • Year round
  • First-come, first-served 
  • 62 sites, RVs at 48 sites
  • Potable water (Summer only)  with flush toilets (summer only) and vault toilets

History of Wind Cave 

It was discovered by the Bingham Brothers in 1881 when the wind of the cave blew off their hats. Due to the vastness of Wind Cave, it has its own air pressure system that’s always trying to equal the air pressure on the surface.

In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation creating Wind Cave National Park, the seventh national park in the National Park System and the first cave protected as a national park. In 1913, bison from the New York Zoological Gardens are sent to Wind Cave to reestablish bison to the region. 

Civilian Conservation Corps

A group of young men arrived at Wind Cave National Park in 1934. Part of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Program, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked on conservation projects across the U.S. 

During their tenure, the men of the CCC dug the 208-foot elevator shaft, constructed concrete stairs, built a fence to contain the animals. They also added lighting to the cave and replaced the stairs at the natural entrance. 

Where’s Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is located 58 miles south of Rapid City, South Dakota, that has a regional airport with commercial flights. The park is 10 miles north of Hot Springs, South Dakota, along U.S. Highway 385 N. It’s free to enter though cave tours require tickets. The park is open everyday, all day. 

Where’s Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park, located 58 miles south of Rapid City, South Dakota, offers a regional airport with commercial flights. The park is 10 miles north of Hot Springs, South Dakota, along U.S. Highway 385 N.

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Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota,
Inside of Jewel Cave National Monument, visitors climb up and down 732 steps along metal scaffolding. Credit: Catherine Parker

Jewel Cave National Monument

At a Glance 

Year Established: 1908
Located: South Dakota
Size: over 1,200 acres
Top Features: The sparkling calcite

 

Local prospectors discovered Jewel Cave in 1900 after blasting dynamite to enlarge the entrance and discovered a cavern covered with calcite crystals.

Top Feature of Jewel Cave

  • Exploring a calcite-covered cave

Jewel Cave Visitor Center

All cave tours depart from the Jewel Cave Visitor Center. Purchase tour tickets, grab maps, pick up Junior Ranger booklets. Find an interpretive area in the visitor center too.

Open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. late April to late September. Open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for the rest of the year. Restrooms are located in the visitor center and none are located in the cave itself. 

Cave Tours at Jewel Cave National Monument

Note—The elevators at Jewel Cave National Monument are being renovated and are out of service until June 2021. 

Jewel Cave National Monument offers two basic tours, the Scenic Tour and the Discovery Tour. We didn’t make to the Jewel Cave Visitor Center in time to get tickets for the Scenic Tour and took the Discovery Tour instead.

The Scenic Tour—The most popular and strenuous since visitors will have to navigate 732 steps up-and-down on metal scaffolding. Since kids must navigate the stairs, it’s advised than kids be at least six years old. Kids can’t be carried during the Scenic Tour.

The Discovery Talk—Get an introduction to Jewel Cave without navigating 700+ steps. just 15 steps. A park ranger explains the types of calcite that give Jewel Cave its name and how the cave was formed. 

Historic Lantern Tour—Offered in the summer only, this tour uses lanterns and it’s similar to a cave tour of the 1930s. This tour includes 600 steps.

Wild Caving Tour—Offered in the summer only, this tour lasts 3 to 4 hours. Participants must to 16-years-old and navigate small spaces. 

Hiking at Jewel Cave National Monument

Find three self-guided hiking trails. 

A Walk on the Roof Trail—A .25-mile (.4 km) round trip trail at the Visitor Center.

Canyons Trail—A 3.5-mile (5.6 km) loop trail from the Visitor Center through Lithograph Canyon and the Historic Area. 

Hell Canyon Trail—A 5.5-mile (8.8 km) trail traversing Hell Canyon.

Historic Area of Jewel Cave 

See a cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1935. It was used as the first park headquarters. The Historic Entrance is down a stone step path. 

Also find a picnic tables at the Historic Area. Open in the summer only. 

Wildflowers at Jewel Cave National Monument

Find any number of the 393 plant species. The Visitor Center, Historic Area and along the trails are the best places to see wildflowers from late Spring until Fall.

Animals of Jewel Cave

Explore the topside of Jewel Cave and look for animals. Dawn and dusk are the best time for animal viewing. 

  • Bats—Nine different species
  • Big horn sheep
  • Mule deer
  • Elk
  • Mountain lion
  • Coyote
  • Bobcat
  • Gray fox
  • Long-tailed weasel

Where to Eat at Jewel Cave

Jewel Cave National Monument doesn’t feature a lodge with dining and lodging. This monument is a day-use park only. Find two picnic areas at Jewel Cave—one near the visitor center and the other at the historic area. 

History of Jewel Cave 

Local prospectors discovered Jewel Cave in 1900 after blasting dynamite to enlarge the entrance and discovered a cavern covered with calcite crystals. Proclaimed a national monument in 1908, the cave is the third largest mapped cave in the world.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived in 1935. They built a three-room cabin and trails with steps for the cave entrance. 

Where’s Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument is located 53 miles southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota. The park is 13 miles west of Custer, South Dakota along South Dakota Highway 16.

Jewel Cave Visitor Center is open every day from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., mid-March to the end of November and closed on Thanksgiving Day, December 25. It’s free to enter and contains restrooms and a gift shop.

Jewel Cave National Monument is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day until Labor Day with reduced hours during the rest of the year. It is a day-use only NPS site. 

Kids at Wind Cave and Jewel Cave

Earn a Junior Ranger Badge at Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. Cave tours aren’t required to earn a Junior Ranger Badge but kids need to attend a ranger program.

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Bats and White-Nose Syndrome

If you plan on visiting either cave in South Dakota, you can not wear any clothing, this includes shoes, that have been in another cave due to White-Nose Syndrome. A ranger will stop all cave visitors at both locations and ask.

White-Nose Syndrome kills hibernating bat colonies across the U.S. and Canada. A fungus that thrives in low temperatures and high humidity that’s killed 6 million bats since it’s discovery in 2006.

Know Before You Go

  • Don’t try to visit both caves on the same day in the summer, tickets sell out for the day’s tours in the morning.
  • Tickets are sold first-come, first-serve.
  • Take a jacket for the cave tours, the average temperature in both caves is around 50F. 
  • Backpacks and purses are prohibited on cave tours, leave them in your car.
  • Strollers are prohibited in Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. 
  • Walkways are dimly-lit and can be slippery, wear appropriate shoes. 
Disclosure

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Add Wind Cave or Jewel Cave to your South Dakota itinerary when you visit the Black Hills. Got all the details for visiting, like cave tour descriptions, hiking, picnicking and camping. What to do at Wind Cave National Park | What to do to at Jewel Cave National Monument | Where to go in South Dakota #NationalParks #SouthDakota
credit: Catherine Parker

Add Wind Cave or Jewel Cave to your South Dakota itinerary when you visit the Black Hills. Got all the details for visiting, like cave tour descriptions, hiking, picnicking and camping. What to do at Wind Cave National Park | What to do to at Jewel Cave National Monument | Where to go in South Dakota #NationalParks #SouthDakota

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