Wind Cave, One of the lesser-known National Parks in the USA, is a gem to visit any time of year. Since the cave itself is the biggest draw (and rightfully so), the surface of the park is often passed over by many visitors. However, our family knows that the flora and fauna of this “secret” park is worth many hours, even days, of exploring throughout the year.
We have the genuine privilege of living within 9 hours of about ten National Park Service sites, including Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Devil’s Tower, Mount Rushmore, and both Jewel and Wind Caves. The closest of these to us (a mere 15 minute drive door-to-door) is the amazing, but very underrated, Wind Cave National Park. In summer, it is a breeze to drive through this park (aside from the Visitor’s Center parking lot) but in winter truly the only traffic is from those commuting for local work. In addition, it is one of the few National Parks that do not require a park pass to access the property. We figure that they make up for that fee in the sheer amount of cave tours they perform every day throughout the summer. Therefore, those of us who prefer to stay above ground receive an incredible, solitary treat unparalleled by almost any other National Park.
We decided to take our new Starcraft RV out for a winter spin last weekend, and thought that two nights at Elk Mountain Campground in Wind Cave was the perfect trial run. First, it was so close to home that we could run back if we needed anything (like more warm blankets). Second, it was a very short drive on roads that were predicted to be snow-covered for the duration of the weekend. To summarize, the campout itself was great – we stayed nice and warm thanks to batteries and propane, we cooked out over the campfire that our son lit with flint and steel, and of course, treated ourselves to s’mores. And the very best part: we had the campground to ourselves! Of course, the zero-degree temps and snow all weekend might have had something to do with that.
We put up camp on Friday night just before dinner, so it was already dark the first evening. The county plow came through the loop just after midnight, clearing the three or so inches of snow for us. So, Saturday morning we had no troubles making our way up to the Visitor’s Center, where we lined up the 10:00 Natural Entrance Tour. Surprisingly, we had seven other people join us for that tour. The ranger at the desk told us that Thursday and Friday that week they had not held one tour! We enjoyed the company of the folks that walked through Wind Cave with us, and reveled in the boxwork and popcorn formations that this tour highlighted.
The real treat was later in the afternoon, when we drove Highway 385 the entire length of the park. With the new-fallen snow the views were breath-taking and very picturesque. Even our sons enjoyed looking out at the scenery instead of down at their tablets for once! As for wildlife, because of the harsh weather the animals were as hunkered down as we wanted to be, so we call it our “coyote day” as we saw five different coyotes that afternoon from the south end all the way to where Wind Cave joins up with Custer State Park.
We even had the opportunity to catch sight of one coyote as he crossed the road, and while we turned around down the way to return for a better view, he left us a nice pile of scat in the middle of the highway, as if to say, “My spot. Now be on your way!” Tom was able to do a little tracking and get some great track and scat footage for our next video release of the Into Their World series (on YouTube, coming Feb. 1).
Saturday night was campfire cooking, s’mores, and glow sticks in the camper, then we all hit the sack pretty hard. As we got up on Sunday and headed out to home just before lunch, a very, very large bison bull presented himself to us just before we exited the park. We noticed that he really didn’t mind us too much, as he was busy licking the highway salt off the road, which is common for many animals like deer, elk, and bison in the winter. That gave us ample opportunity to pull up close, camper in tow, and get some close and personal shots of him. As we sat photographing him we once again chuckled at how amazing it was we could take up the entire highway, SUV and camper, for more than five minutes, without worrying about approaching traffic. It really is that desolate in the winter!
If you’re looking for a really incredible winter National Parks “tour” for your family, we recommend starting out in the Badlands for a couple of days (our next camp-out in March 2016), moving over to Wind Cave/Jewel Cave/Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills, swinging through Devil’s Tower near Sundance, Wyoming, and heading out west about eight hours to Yellowstone or Grand Tetons for a finale you will never forget!