Hiking in Wind Cave National Park
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There are more than 30 mi of hiking trails within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park, covering ponderosa forest and mixed-grass prairie. The landscape has changed little over the past century, so a hike through the park is as much a historical snapshot of pioneer life in the 1890s as it is exercise. Be sure to hit the Wind Cave Canyon Trail, where limestone cliffs attract birds like cliff swallows and great horned owls, and the Cold Brook Canyon Trail, a short but fun trip past a prairie-dog town to the park's edge. Besides birds and small animals such as squirrels, you're apt to see deer and pronghorn while hiking, and probably some bison.
Hiking into the wild, untouched backcountry is perfectly safe, provided you have a map (available from the visitor center) and a good sense of direction. Don't expect any developments, however; bathrooms are available only at the visitor center, and the trails are dirt or gravel. Since there are no easily accessible sources along the trails, and water from backcountry sources must be treated, pack your own.
Wind Cave Canyon Trail. This easy 1.8-mile trail follows Wind Cave Canyon to the park boundary fence. The canyon, with its steep limestone walls and dead trees, provides the best opportunity in the park for bird-watching. Be especially vigilant for cliff swallows, great horned owls, and red-headed and Lewis woodpeckers. Deer, least chipmunks, and other small animals also are attracted to the sheltered environment of the canyon. Even though you could probably do a round-trip tour of this trail in less than an hour and a half, be sure to spend more time here to observe the wildlife. Easy. Begins on east side of Hwy. 385, 1 mile north of southern access road to visitor center, Wind Cave National Park, SD, 57747. www.nps.gov/wica.
Centennial Trail. Constructed to celebrate South Dakota's 100th birthday in 1989, this trail bisects the Black Hills, covering 111 miles from north to south. Designed for bikers, hikers, and horses, the trail is rugged but accommodating (note, however, that bicycling on the trail is not allowed within park boundaries). It will take you at least a half day to cover the 6 miles of this trail that traverse the park. Moderate. Begins off Hwy. 87, 2 miles north of visitor center, Wind Cave National Park, SD, 57747. www.nps.gov/wica.
Cold Brook Canyon Trail. Starting on the west side of U.S. 385, 2 miles south of the visitor center, this 1.5-mile, mildly strenuous hike runs past a former prairie-dog town, the edge of an area burned by a controlled fire in 1986, and through Cold Brook Canyon to the park boundary fence. Experienced hikers will conquer this trail and return to the trailhead in an hour or less, but more leisurely visitors will probably need more time. Moderate. Begins on west side of U.S. 385, 2 miles south of visitor center, Wind Cave National Park, SD, 57747. www.nps.gov/wica.
Boland Ridge Trail. Get away from the crowds for half a day via this strenuous, 2.5-mile round-trip hike. The panorama from the top is well worth it, especially at night. Difficult. Trailhead off Forest Service Rd. 6, 1 mile north of junction with Forest Service Rd. 5, Wind Cave National Park, SD, 57747. www.nps.gov/wica.
Highland Creek Trail. This difficult, roughly 8.5-mile trail is the longest and most diverse trail within the park, traversing mixed-grass prairies, ponderosa pine forests, and the riparian habitats of Highland Creek, Beaver Creek, and Wind Cave Canyon. Even those in good shape will need a full day to cover this trail round-trip. Difficult. Southern trailhead stems from Wind Cave Canyon trail 1 mile east of U.S. 385. Northern trailhead on Forest Service Rd. 5, Wind Cave National Park, SD, 57747. www.nps.gov/wica.
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