The Black Hills of South Dakota is full of treasure!!! Not just the treasure that was sought after by gold miners, but treasures of pre-historic times, Native American culture, beautiful landscapes, caves, and that’s just to name a few.
After leaving our camp spot of 6 days at Sheridan Lake where we had visited Jewel Cave, the historic town of Deadwood, Mt. Rushmore, and the all inspiring scenery of Custer State Park, we moved on. However we only moved about 45 minutes down the road to Elk Mountain Campground in Wind Cave National Park. We are still a short distance from many attractions, and Wind Cave is at the southern border of Custer State Park.
On our first day at Wind Cave National Park after setting up the trailer we went to check out the visitor center. Here we learned a fascinating history of how the cave became known to others in 1881, which is of course way after the Native Americans knew about it. To the Native Americans this place was sacred, and they believe their ancestors immerged from the cave after the creator prepared the land for them. No sign has ever been found that the Native Americans ever went into the cave themselves, as they thought of the small hole in the ground to be where the spirit world was.
Two brothers rediscovered the Cave in 1881, and afterwards a mining claim was put on it. The mining company owning the claim had a family homestead at the small entrance to the cave in order to explore its passages for gold. Alvin McDonald the 16-year old son of the homesteading family was to be known as the one to explore the most of its passage ways via candlelight before more modern equipment would come along many years later. However much to the mining companies dismay he was finding no gold, and was really using much of the time in the cave to map out its many passages.
This was when it would start to become more of a tourist park then anything, and Alvin started giving tours of the cave. Tourists would stay in nearby Hotsprings, South Dakota, and would come by horse drawn carriage to explore the caves with Alvin, and his brother and sister as tour guides. Alvin later died at the age of 20 after going to Chicago to the Worlds Fair to promote Wind Cave and catching typhoid fever while there. He is now buried not far from the entrance to Wind Cave.
Wind Cave National Park was established in 1903, to protect the natural wonder and to stop a highly contested court battle between the original families that claimed ownership. The park itself is home to one of four bison herds on public land, and prairie dog towns as far as the eye can see. It encompasses 28,295 acres, with the actually cave system being inside of one square mile. Wind Cave is known as the most complex cave system in the world as 143 miles of cavern have been explored in the small foot print of that one square mile, making it the 6th largest cave system in the world. Experts believe that 5% of the cave system has been explored, and at this time a new cave near by is being explored called Persistence Cave and could possibly tie into the same cave system. The neat part about Persistence cave is that they are finding lots of animal fossils.
I did a short hour long tour of the cave that went into the Natural Entrance. The cave system can also be entered via an elevator system, however the elevator was broken while I was there. Therefore the tours were more abbreviated, and at a reduced price. I would be willing to come back to do the longer tours on another trip. The cave is full of Box Work, a type of formation that is only found in a couple other caves. It is estimated that Wind Cave holds 95% of the worlds Box Work formations, and you can see where in the past before the park was protected that people removed part of the Box Work for commercial sale to tourist.
After our first night of camping in the park, the temperatures dropped down to single digits over night. We woke up to a couple of frozen water lines, but with bumping up the furnace and the mercury heading up outside it eventually let loose with no issues. This is part of the struggles while living in a moderately winter prepared trailer, if we want running water then we can winterize every time the temps get cold. This is also another big plus for having the composting toilet; if the water does freeze we still have a usable toilet.
The next stop from our new base camp was the town of Hot Springs, South Dakota. We went there for the Mammoth Site, which is a paleontological dig site, that is indoors and a museum. Why is a dig site indoors? The building covers a prehistoric sinkhole with an obvious boundary of the outline of the warm water pond. With it being indoors the dig site has been able to be temperature, and humidity controlled over the last 40 years of digging. Unearthed in 1974 during the development of a new housing area in Hot Springs were Mammoth bones from 26,000 years ago. Not just Mammoth Bones, LOTS and LOTS of Mammoth Bones. It was quickly realized just how important this site was just from the concentration near the surface and it was determined that the area was a large sinkhole filled with warm water that the Mammoth had fallen into.
In total so far they know that they have a minimum of 61 mammoths counted in the sinkhole, along with llamas, camels, antelope, prairie dogs, and the short faced giant bear. With the way the hole was filled in over time with sediment, it means that all these animals roamed the lands together. Possibly due to the popularity of the movie Ice Age, when I think of mammoth I only think of the Wooly Mammoth. However this sinkhole is filled with Columbian Mammoth and only two Wooly Mammoth. However did you know that the Columbian Mammoth was huge compared to the Wooly Mammoth??? And the African Elephant of today is much more closely related to the Columbian Mammoth? The other Mammoth that is not found here is the Pygmy Mammoth that is only found on the Channel Islands, and it too was a direct descendant of the Columbian Mammoth, however with evolution it grew smaller due to food supplies and the small area it lived in.
Going to the Mammoth Site was well worth the effort, and is a first class facility. Major digging is only done during the summer months, as it takes the rest of the year to catalog the findings and preserve the fossils. Years ago they did a core sample down 60 feet and found fossils that deep, currently after 40 years they are only down a little over 20 feet. At what point they quit cataloging the smaller bones, and go full bore to the bottom I don’t know, I doubt within my lifetime. However the explorer in me wants to know what’s at the bottom, which would have been the first animals to fall in to the sinkhole. Possibly something we have never found before???
We did end up staying at Wind Cave National Park for 4 nights, one of which was to buy time after a snowstorm hit us.
Next Stop: Badlands National Park, South Dakota