Garden of Eden Cave Tour

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Trip Date: Thursday, September 20th, 2018
Last Updated: Monday, November 19th, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 0.3 miles roundtrip
Time 1 hour
Terrain A few hills
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

The centerpiece of Wind Cave National Park, the first national park in the U.S. and the world to protect a cave, is of course Wind Cave. With nearly 150 miles of explored passages, Wind Cave is the third longest cave in the U.S. and the fifth longest in the world; even so, geologists surprisingly believe only a small fraction of the cave has been explored, and new passages are continually found. You can experience a small portion of this cave yourself on the easiest cave tour available, the Garden of Eden Cave Tour. At only $10 for adults and $5 for kids and seniors, a ranger will lead you and a small group into the cave to explain the cave's geologic and cultural significance. This tour is ideal for children, seniors, and those with limited physical ability. If you have the time and stamina, I highly recommend you do another longer tour instead, such as the Fairgrounds or Natural Entrance Cave Tours. While you certainly won't miss seeing any cave features, this tour will make you want to see more.

Just outside the visitor center, the ranger will take you down an elevator into the cave. (You can visit the cave's natural entrance by following a trail near the visitor center -- after seeing that tiny hole, you'll be thankful for the modern entrance constructed by the Park Service). One of the first things you'll notice is the presence of "wind" in the cave. Wind Cave is named for how the cave "breathes" due to the differing air pressure between the inside and outside; since there are so few openings to the outside in this gigantic cave network, air currents are especially strong in this cave and exacerbated by the extreme weather fluctuations outside the cave.

As evidenced by the stairs pictured below, the Park Service has developed a small portion of the cave with paved paths, railings, and light fixtures for tour purposes. Although lighting is preinstalled, I recommend bringing your own flashlight or headlamp to better illuminate your photos and to see formations in otherwise dim areas. After an initial orientation, the ranger will lead you down stairs to lower levels of the cave. There are 150 steps in total on this cave tour, with more down than up since you return on an elevator platform lower than where you started.

Stairs descending deep into the cave

Stairs descending deep into the cave

One unique thing about Wind Cave is that it is a relatively dry cave, so you won't see dripping water or pools or find many of the stereotypical cave formations like stalagmites and stalactites here. Instead, you'll see formations like boxwork, flowstone, and cave popcorn (pictured below). The ranger will point to each of these formations along the tour and provide a basic explanation of the geologic process that creates these cave masterpieces. These features are subtler than what you might expect, and you may be underwhelmed if you've been to other caves before.
One example of cave popcorn

One example of cave popcorn

The most special part of Wind Cave is the immense amount of boxwork formations, as pictured below. It's estimated that Wind Cave contains 95% of all boxwork formations in the world! As explained by the ranger, imagine the cave wall is made of brick, where the mortar is a much harder rock than the brick. Over time, water dissolves the "brick", leaving only the "mortar" behind -- the boxwork. You'll see examples of boxwork throughout the entire tour, and the guide will highlight the most elaborate formations.
Boxwork like this is what Wind Cave is best known for

Boxwork like this is what Wind Cave is best known for

While the geologic features of the cave might not be spectacularly wild, the history and culture of the cave adds a new layer of interest to the tour. Wind Cave is an important spiritual place to the Lakota people. During the tour, your guide will explain the cultural significance of the cave and what is essentially the Creation story of the Lakota -- you can read (or watch) the full Lakota Emergence Story on the park's website. The Lakota believe that the cave is the passageway to the spirit lodge, and that the first people waited there as the Earth was prepared for them to live. Probably because of this spiritual connection to the cave, there is no evidence that natives ever entered or explored the cave.

You'll also hear about the earliest explorers of the cave. In particular, Alvin McDonald is one of the first explorers who helped popularize the cave. He spent nearly every day for three years exploring parts of the cave using only a candlelit lantern and string to help navigate. The McDonald family started developing the cave for tourism, hoping to attract visitors from nearby Hot Springs. In one room, you'll see historic graffiti over 100 years old from one of these early tours. At some point during the tour, the ranger will turn off all of the lights and light a similar candlelit lantern to allow you to experience the cave as the earliest explorers and tourists.
Experience this otherworldly environment in Wind Cave

Experience this otherworldly environment in Wind Cave

After spending an hour in the cave and visiting several different rooms, you will exit the cave from another elevator. Again, I highly recommend doing a longer, more strenuous tour if you are able just to see even more of the interesting parts of the cave. If you enjoyed your time here, also check out Jewel Cave National Monument located only a half hour drive away! Not only is Jewel Cave an even larger cave system (the second longest in the U.S.), it is in my opinion the "better" of the two caves -- there are more visually interesting formations. Let me know what you think in the comments section below, and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

This is the easiest and shortest cave tour offered in the park specifically designed for those with limited abilities, and unlike some of the other tours offered there is no minimum age. As such, this is the best tour for families with young children. The temperature in the cave is at a constant 50 degrees regardless of the conditions outside, so wear extra clothing. Note that clothing and footwear worn in any other caves are prohibited in order to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungus harming bat populations throughout the U.S. While the cave is lit with permanently installed fixtures, bringing your own flashlight or headlamp is recommended so you can better see cave formations -- especially those that are unlit. Cave tours are available all year, though the frequency diminishes significantly during the off-season. Tour size is limited and fills up fast, so it is highly recommended that you arrive as early as possible to purchase tickets for the tour time you want. At this time reservations are not available for the Garden of Eden Tour.

Directions

From Rapid City, take South Dakota Highway 79 south to Buffalo Gap. Turn right on County Highway 101, then turn right on U.S. Highway 385. Once you enter Wind Cave National Park, watch for signs for the visitor center and turn right to reach the parking lot.

From Custer, take U.S. 385 south to Wind Cave National Park. Once you enter the park, watch for signs for the visitor center and turn right to reach the parking lot.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Unlike most national parks, there is no park entrance fee. The visitor center has flush toilets, water, a gift shop, a staffed information desk, and educational exhibits about the park.

External Links

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