More Than Meets the Eye: Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Prior to 2015, my impression of South Dakota was informed largely by bits and pieces I’d gleaned from the Travel Channel and a well-meaning Nebraskan friend. Corn, windmills, and biker rallies figured pretty prominently into the picture, as did tractors on highways and grasslands on steroids. Let me amend that: only grasslands on steroids. To hear my Nebraskan friend tell it, South Dakota comprised nothing more than 75,000 square miles of telephone poles and the very occasional crow.

“You’ve read Little House on the Prairie, right?” she said. I nodded, and she tossed her hands up in a you see what I mean? gesture. I thought she might at least concede Mount Rushmore as a worthy stop, but I quickly learned my lesson: South Dakota/Nebraska rivalry is a glorious, deep-seeded thing. Planning three days in South Dakota could only be perceived as a personal affront. “Have fun watching grass grow,” she huffed.

Here’s what I didn’t dare tell her: we could’ve spent three weeks in South Dakota and only scratched the surface of all that this beautiful state has to offer.

From Rocky Mountain National Park, we headed north, spending a day in Badlands National Park before bearing west towards Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument. Already, we were enamored of the otherworldly terrain and wildlife of the Badlands, but before our three days were through, we’d come to love so much more about this underrated state. We were fortunate to stay at the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch, just ten minutes away from Mount Rushmore. We love in-park camping and had planned a week’s worth between Grand Teton and Yellowstone in the coming week, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I love a good KOA almost as much as the kids do. It’s the perfect camp/resort hybrid, and at $20/night for a tent-only site plus a $10 resort fee, this KOA measured head and shoulders above any commercial campground we’ve ever stayed at. But more on that later.

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Our home for two nights–Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch was one of our favorite KOAs ever!

Palmer Gulch turned out to be a convenient home base for exploring Wind Cave National Park, a short 40-minute drive away. Wind Cave doesn’t receive nearly the attention that Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Caves does, and that’s a shame–it’s a fascinating place to visit. On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Wind Cave as yet another example of the ubiquitous South Dakota grasslands my friend had warned us about, but this prairie harbors a secret world. Beneath the bison herds and prairie dogs peeking out from park burrows lies a 140-mile labyrinth of passageways that makes Wind Cave the sixth longest cave in the world. More significantly, Wind Cave houses 95% of the world’s known boxwork formations–thin calcite projections that form honeycomb patterns. 95%! True, I’d never heard of boxwork formations before visiting Wind Cave, but still. I know a significant thing when I hear it. 😀 

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Wind Cave National Park, 2015

Visitors may only enter the cave through a guided ranger tour, so we stopped at the Visitor Center to purchase tour tickets and Junior Ranger booklets. We opted for the 1.5 hour Fairgrounds Tour, which would allow us to explore both the upper and middle levels of the cave. NPS labels this tour as its most strenuous walking tour, but don’t let that deter you–participants navigate 450 stairs over two thirds of a mile in dimly lit conditions, but aside from the darkness, this tour is entirely doable for kids and adults of all ages. At $12 per adult and $6 per kid, the tour was reasonably priced, and we were excited to see what Wind Cave held in store for us.

A short elevator ride transported us from the Visitor Center into a dark and complicated maze of cave passageways. Outside, it was a blistering 100 degrees; here, beneath the surface, it was a cool 50–chilly enough to warrant a jacket. Moving from room to room, our ranger pointed out elaborate boxwork formations and illuminated iridescent frost formations with a flashlight. She warned us not to dawdle, and it soon became clear why: passageways forked into multiple passageways, which in turn divided into multiple passageways yet again–a mitotic explosion of cave confusion to the uninitiated like us. We ducked low boxwork ceilings in rooms barely large enough to accommodate a single body, only to turn the corner to enter gaping caverns where our voices echoed for what seemed like miles. It was an amazing study in contrasts. Our ranger ended the tour by extinguishing her flashlight to let us experience absolute darkness–the kind of darkness that made it impossible to see our outstretched hands not six inches from our faces. It was an incredible experience.

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Descending into the depths, Wind Cave Fairgrounds Tour
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Low boxwork ceilings meant frequent ducking and stooping
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Intricate boxwork in Wind Cave
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Maneuvering between narrow walls, glancing up at intricate formations
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Boxwork ceilings, iridescent frost formations as well
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Fairgrounds Cave Tour contains over 450 stairs, but it’s very manageable for families. Nothing sketchy or overly strenuous.

We ended our time in-park with a cursory nod to Wind Cave’s above-ground offerings, hiking 1-mile Prairie Vista Trail. Rolling plains, wallowing bison, and skittish prairie dogs set the stage for a hot but easy stroll through a sampling of the park’s bucolic setting. I would’ve loved to spend the rest of the day exploring Wind Cave’s hiking trails, but there was a KOA with resort amenities calling to the kids like Siren song. They’re good sports, always indulging my hiking and backpacking whims without complaint, so how could I begrudge them an afternoon of kid-approved fun? We drove back to our campsite and unleashed their boundless energy on Palmer Gulch.

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Prairie Vista Trail

Talk about amenities–this KOA was seriously decked out! Water slides, swimming pools, climbing walls, and a giant jumping pillow would’ve been ridiculous enough. But throw in a foam pools, life-sized chess, hayrides, horse rides, and bicycle rides, and you begin to understand why the kids couldn’t tear themselves away. They played hard all afternoon, finally collapsing at camp five hours later for dinner. We cooked our own meals, but this KOA even offers a pizza parlor, nightly barbecue buffet, and an ice cream shop for those who’d prefer to let someone else do the heavy lifting. For $20 a night, I can’t recommend Mount Rushmore KOA highly enough!

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Catching air–the kids loved this jump pillow!
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With all the activities that the KOA had to offer, it was a happy surprise to see them enjoying basketball together
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Our youngest had the best time riding around camp
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Slippery, soapy, foamy fun. Our youngest made fast friends with this little guy.
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Water slides, pools, and sprinklers provided relief from the triple digit heat
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Mini playground just feet from our campsite. The kids played here before every meal. The main amenities area had a much larger playground with sprinklers and a climbing wall.
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Hearty dinner for the famished fam

After dinner, we drove to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If we had any question about the kind of crowds this great American icon draws, we had only to survey the enormous size of the parking lot–far and away the largest of any NPS site we’ve ever visited–to know the answer. This is not the kind of monument that’s hidden behind some grand facade, either; it doesn’t require hours of hiking to get to. In fact, from the moment you step onto the grounds (and for many miles before), you can see Mount Rushmore. But the experience of visiting Mount Rushmore? So much more than that. Walking through the parade of flags, watching the presidents’ faces sharpen in focus with each passing step–it’s an intentional process that transforms and elevates the experience into something unforgettable.

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Entering Mount Rushmore National Memorial–turnstiles
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Parade of flags–each state is represented here
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Mount Rushmore crowds are huge, especially in the summer. I never thought I’d love a crowd, but it really added to the patriotic swell of the lighting ceremony.
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A little piece of Hawaii in South Dakota
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Mount Rushmore at sunset, June 2015
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Sunset over Mount Rushmore. You can probably tell from all the gray–we got caught in some crazy thunder and lightning on the way back to camp!

Although we didn’t have enough time to hike any of the trails that would have brought us to the base of the carvings, we enjoyed browsing museum exhibits that cataloged the arduous task of bringing Mount Rushmore into fruition. Given a second chance, I’d definitely allot an entire day here, but if 2015 turns out to be my only experience at Mount Rushmore, I’m extremely grateful to have experienced the park’s evening program. Like everything else about South Dakota, the evening lighting ceremony was so much more than I expected. The sun set over the amphitheater, crowning the monument with a brilliant halo and then darkness. Floodlights illuminated the stage, drawing our attention away from the darkening monument. Through film, the ranger explained the significance of the presidents honored by Mount Rushmore. She asked us to consider the symbolic light of freedom and its importance not just to Americans, but to all those fighting oppression worldwide as Mount Rushmore came aglow. By the time the audience joined her in the Pledge of Allegiance and “The Star Spangled Banner,” I was choking back tears. The ranger called those who’ve served to the stage, asking each serviceman and servicewoman to introduce themselves and their branch of service. I was beside myself. The crowd’s deafening cheers, the rousing ovation for the men and women who defend our freedom–it was a swell of patriotism and pride I’ll never forget.

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Evening lighting ceremony. As the sky darkens, the amphitheater stage comes to life
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Symbolic light of freedom, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If you visit Mount Rushmore during the summer, I highly recommend attending this ceremony!
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The park ranger called servicemen and women to the stage. So incredibly moving.
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Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” during the evening lighting ceremony

Since 2015, we’ve compiled a growing list of places we’d like to explore in South Dakota, among them Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. My friend will roll her eyes when I tell her our plans, no doubt. Is South Dakota all grasslands on steroids? Absolutely–and not at all. Amid all that grass, there is so much more than meets the eye, and I, for one, am thankful that my friend is a very good sport because goodness knows, I am a very bad listener.     

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22 thoughts on “More Than Meets the Eye: Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial”

  1. I feel the same way–I could spend three weeks in the Black Hills. My wife and I stopped by Badlands and Rushmore on our way back from dropping our daughters off at college last fall. We made a morning visit to Rushmore with the eastern sun lighting up the faces. The Presidential Trail gives you a much different perspective of the scale looking almost straight up the mountain. We plan another stop on the way back this time to catch the evening program. I saw it as a kid and still remember the dramatic lighting and the patriotism. Also hope to take the Iron Mountain Road with it’s views of Rushmore this time.

    Might drive through Custer State Park and maybe Wind Cave on the way home. We’ll only spend one night there, so an afternoon/evening and the next morning is all the time we have–too short!

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    1. I love that you and your wife made a point of stopping at Mount Rushmore after dropping your girls off. I hope to continue visiting parks with my husband after our kids leave for college, too (in 3 years, yikes). This gives me hope that we will. 🙂 So great that you hiked the Presidential Trail! I’m disappointed that we missed it but hope to do it next time. The hikers we saw looked like ants against the mountain. I can only imagine the immense sense of scale they must experience from that angle. I think we need to camp elsewhere next time so we won’t be tempted to play our Mount Rushmore day away. I’ll look forward to your Custer SP report–it’s top-billing on our SD wish list. And I know what you mean…a day feels so short when there’s so much to do and see!

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  2. You really opened my eyes about SD, I didn’t know there was so many interesting places to visit there. Those boxwork formations in the Wind Cave are so cool! You got some great pics in the cave, I have yet to master that. Looks very beautiful down in the caves. Omg, that KOA at Wind Gulch!?! For Real? That is quite the “campground.” The evening program at Mt Rushmore sounds pretty incredible as well. “Grassland on steroids” – love it, that describes my backyard perfectly. 🙂 Oh and the prairie dog pic, perfectly timed shot!! Awesome

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    1. That KOA, right?! They had full-on stables and sluicing for gold and multiple restaurants–the youngest wants to go back and stay a week with zero Nat’l parks to interrupt his KOA time, lol. I felt the same way about SD, but wow, they have such a thriving tourist industry, and now I can see why. Your grassland backyard sounds awesome! I love our pomelo and lychee trees, but they sure take up a lot of grass real estate in the yard. 😀

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  3. Another great post that made me a tiny bit less ignorant about South Dakota and highlighted the fact that this is such a large and diverse country. Your experience and wonderful storytelling made me more inclined to expand our route planning in the future. On our own we tend to stay in the West and the Southwest.

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    1. I know what you mean–I hardly knew anything about SD before we went, and it was so much more beautiful and scenic than I expected. The Black Hills area is especially gorgeous. I think you’d love Badlands NP (reminds me of the Southwest a little, at least the desert part! Also, the Yellow Mounds are really pretty) and Custer SP (which I’ve only seen pictures of, but it looks incredible).

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  4. @kcbernick https://kcbontheroad.wordpress.com I’m so sorry! My clumsy fingers accidentally marked your kind comment as spam, and now I can’t seem to bring your comment back up to reply to. I remember you mentioning your PNW road trip–that’s some amazingly diverse terrain, driving from MN through the Dakotas to WA. What an incredible trip! I’m familiar with NPF but wasn’t aware that they offered downloadable books and resource. I’m definitely interested; thank you so much for the link–I’ll check it out this weekend.

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  5. You are so right about South Dakota! I had no idea how much I would like that state. And I’m sorry we missed the evening ceremony. It looks awesome and means we have to go back. The KOA also looks super fun and my kids would love that place. I better not show them your pictures though because then they’ll want to go there instead of Custer State Park where I like to stay. 😉

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    1. I would love to stay at Custer SP! It’s #1 on our return to-do list; I’ve read so many awesome posts and reviews about camping there. You’re right, though–the kids have already said they want to go back to that KOA if we ever make it back, so “if you’ve never tasted an ice cream cone, you don’t know what you’re missing” might be a good approach with the boys on this one, lol. 😀

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  6. Your reports are just fantastic – so helpful and detailed! I’ve “done” SoDak with the DH, but not yet with the children. Now you’ve given me all kinds of ideas! 🙂

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  7. I wish we would have known about the KOA when we drove through SD and visited Rushmore! We went to the Jewel Cave NM, next time we’ll have to try the Wind Caves. That lacy boxwork looks fascinating. Although not nearly as cool, the KOA near Concrete, WA also has the jumping pillow which was a hit on one of our family camping staycations when the Winthrop KOA basically was surrounded by wildfires a few years ago. Thanks for the travel ideas!

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    1. Love that you visited Jewel Cave NM–I bet it was fantastic! The photos I’ve seen of Jewel Cave look amazing; we only had time for one cave and it was so hard to choose. Thanks so much for the heads-up on the Concrete KOA–we’re hoping to head back to N. Cascades after Seattle next year and that KOA sounds like the perfect stopover for the kids. I hear you about those jump pillows–they’re the best! Thanks again for the tip!

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  8. Living in South Dakota myself, it’s nice to see blog posts like this that show how much there actually is to do in the state and that it isn’t all just flat prairie fields. One question for you though; did you ever have a chance to pass through Sioux Falls?

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