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Come for the Cave Tour, Stay for the Trails: 5 Best Hikes in Wind Cave National Park

View from the Boland Ridge TrailView from the Boland Ridge Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)
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While most visitors drive through Wind Cave National Park to visit the cave, hiking one of the many designated trails can be just as awe-inspiring and enjoyable as the traditional cave tour. Here are five hikes to do next time you visit this beautiful park.

Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota was the seventh designated National Park in the United States and the first cave designated as a National Park in the world. The cave is known for its extensive boxwork calcite cave formations, but the land above is impressive too.

There are over 30 miles of trails, and the open hike policy means you can hike anywhere! Not only can you hike off-trail, but several of the hiking trails connect, so you can make the hike as long or as short as you would like.

Visitors should expect to enjoy the bison (from a distance!), prairie dogs, pronghorn, bull elk, black-footed ferret, mule deer, and coyote. This park is perfect for bird watching too, especially in the canyons.

Bison in the prairie
Bison in the prairie; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

There are northern flicker woodpeckers, western meadowlarks, wild turkeys, sharp-tailed grouse, red-tailed hawks, owls, and more. There are also a variety of snakes like the Garter snake, milk snake, yellow-bellied racer, and bullsnake. Be aware of the venomous prairie rattlesnake, which has a triangular head, as opposed to the oval-headed bullsnake.

The prairie provides an ideal home for all sorts of wildlife, and you will most likely see or hear some along with your hikes. The land is wide open, so wear a hat and sunscreen and bring a map and plenty of water!

5 Hikes to Do in Wind Cave National Park

1. Rankin Ridge Trail

View from Rankin Ridge Trail
View from Rankin Ridge Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

This trail is perfect for someone looking for a loop hike on the shorter side. Wind Cave National Park isn’t known for its high elevation, but hiking Rankin Ridge brings you to the highest elevation point in the park where you get a beautiful view of the prairie from above.

Begin by walking uphill through a forest, and then up some stone stairs until you reach a historic fire tower, which is no longer open to the public. Enjoy the view and then continue on the loop back downhill toward the parking lot.

  • Trailhead: Rankin Ridge Nature Trail road, off Highway 87
  • Total hiking distance: 1 mi./1.6 km loop
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation gain: 239 ft., 73 m
  • Highlights: Viewing the prairie from above and a historic fire tower

2. Cold Brook Canyon Trail

View of Cold Brook Canyon Walls
View of Cold Brook Canyon Walls; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

This trail begins by steeply dropping down a hill and then evens out for the remainder of the hike. The high canyon walls will be on your left-hand side and the lower canyon walls on the far right.

The trail leads you through tall grasses and plenty of prairie dog towns. The trail ends at a gate on the western border of the park, so return the way you came. A bison sighting is quite frequent here, too.

  • Trailhead: A small parking lot south of the visitor center along Highway 385
  • Total Hiking Distance: 2.8 mi./4.5 km out and back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation gain: 200 ft., 61 m
  • Highlights: Hiking by high canyon walls and prairie dog towns

3. East Bison Flats Trail

View from East Bison Flats Trail
View from East Bison Flats Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

If you want to experience the rolling hills of the prairie with more wildlife than people, this hiking trail will be perfect.

There is a path to follow, but follow the wooden posts in the tall grasses to help you stay on track. You can also stray off the trail if you need to reroute due to bison on the path or if you want to see more. The prairie is wide open, so make sure you bring sun protection and enough water for the whole hike.

  • Trailhead: A pull-off on Highway 385 near the southern border of this park. You can also access it from the Wind Cave Canyon Trailhead.
  • Total hiking distance: 7.4 mi./12 km out and back
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation gain: 1,463 ft., 446 m
  • Highlights: Rolling hills and a high chance of seeing bison

4. Centennial Trail – Lookout Point Loop

A bison under a tree on the Centennial Trail-Lookout Point Trail
A bison under a tree on the Centennial Trail-Lookout Point Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

This trail in the park is a part of the 111-mile long-distance hiking trail, all in South Dakota. It goes through Custer State Park, Black Elk Wilderness, and the Black Hills National Forest and ends in Bear Butte State Park.

These 6 miles in Wind Cave are the most southern part of the long trail. Connect this trail with Lookout Point Trail to make it a 4.5-mile, 7.2km loop hike. It also connects with the Highline Creek Trail and Sanctuary Trail for an additional loop.

Image of two prairie dogs
Two prairie dogs; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

There are plenty of prairie dog towns along the hiking trail, and prairie dogs communicate with their community by squeaking, so you’ll probably hear them before you see them!

  • Trailhead: There will be a pull-off on Highway 87 and NPS road 5; it’s also the Lookout Point Trailhead
  • Total hiking distance: 12 mi./9.7 km out and back
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation gain: 685 ft., 209 m
  • Highlights: Hiking a section of a long trail and enjoying all of the prairie dog towns

5. Boland Ridge Trail

Image of a pronghorn on the way to Boland Ridge Trail
Photo of a pronghorn on the way to Boland Ridge Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

If you want some solitude, this is the hike to do. The trail begins in the far eastern part of the park, and you’ll need to drive an unpaved road to reach the trailhead.

It’s another great hike to enjoy the prairie and spot wildlife without anyone else around. The trail ends abruptly at a sign saying “End of Trail” so it’s really about enjoying the experience of hiking up and down through the prairie.

  • Trailhead: A small parking area off NPS road 6
  • Total hiking distance: 5.2 mi./8.4 km out and back
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation gain: 816 ft., 249 m
  • Highlights: Hiking the most secluded trail in the park and a high chance of wildlife sightings

Wind Cave National Park: More to Offer

If you are planning a visit to Wind Cave National Park, definitely go enjoy the traditional guided cave tour. But if you also love hiking, grab a park map at the visitor center and enjoy the many trails, too! These are just a few of our favorites.

This park has much more to offer than people realize, and there is plenty to see if you give it more time. Learn more about the park at NPS.gov. 

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