We were plunged into total darkness. Initially it felt as if the pitch black was deadening all of our senses. I first began to hear the faint rustling and murmuring of the other visitors. Then, slowly, my eyes began to adjust, but it was still too dark to see anything — except for the faint glow of someone’s smartphone nearby.

Twenty-first-century technology trumps 19th-century geological discovery!

We were gathered deep within Wind Cave in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, just south of Rapid City. While this is a lesser known national park, Wind Cave is a popular tourist destination.

I like caves. They are dim, cool, slightly wet, quiet and full of unique geological formations you will find nowhere else. I’ve visited several before this trip and this one did not disappoint.

The drive to Wind Cave through the park was full of the same wildlife we saw in other parts of the Black Hills, including bison, pronghorn and mule deer.

Wind Cave was discovered in the 1880s when two brothers heard wind whistling from a hole in the ground, hence its name. Soon, someone decided to explore what was down there. However, long before that it was considered a sacred Lakota site.

The cave tours are popular. But there are several different tours of various lengths and difficulties so we didn’t have to wait very long to get on one — less than an hour in the middle of the day in September. In the meantime, we explored the visitor center, which told the story of how the cave was discovered and how it’s been used through the years.

My mother and I joined the Garden of Eden tour, an easy one-hour, ⅓-mile trek, which generally covered the upper areas of the cave. There are also tours which take visitors through the middle of the caves, through the caves by candlelight, and one that involves some crawling through the caves. All tours are ranger-guided; our tour leader was Ranger Celeste.

For this tour, we began with a 12-story elevator ride down into the cave. We wound through a few “rooms” such as the Eastern Star Room, Cathedral Dome and the beautiful Garden of Eden. Ranger Celeste pointed out formations such as boxwork, popcorn and flowstone (also known as “cave snot”) and explained how they are formed. Wind Cave has an impressive concentration of boxwork.

In addition, our ranger turned off the lights so we could feel how the original explorers experienced the cave. Early explorers had to crawl through using a candle in a bucket to light the way and string to guide them back out. I couldn’t imagine being an early female explorer crawling through there in a long skirt!

Although the least strenuous tour, there were some stairs, uneven ground and slippery spots due to water dropping from the ceiling of the cave that had people grabbing for their traveling companions. We also had to avoid touching the walls and formations as that could harm them, which was difficult in some places which were narrow or where we had to duck when the ceiling was low.

I also visited the natural entrance to the cave, which is where the cave was discovered. Located down the boardwalk from the visitor center, it was a small hole in the ground that left me thinking — who would look at that hole and say “I wonder what’s down there?”

Fortunately, someone did, so we could all enjoy this natural wonder.


Heidi Hunter lives in Eagan. Her story about Rocky Mountain National Park launched the “Our National Parks” series May 29. She enjoys photography and writing about her travels.