Rankin Ridge Loop

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Trip Date: Thursday, September 20th, 2018
Last Updated: Monday, December 3rd, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 1 mile roundtrip
Time 30 minutes
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No


Hike Summary

Rankin Ridge, pictured below as seen from the drive to the trailhead, is the highest point in Wind Cave National Park, but it's easily accessed via a gently sloping mile long loop trail. This hike is a must do for any first time visitors to the park. While the park is most famous for its underground wonders in Wind Cave, that's literally only half of the park! The environment here is quite unique since it is the crossroads of eastern and western flora and fauna. From the top of Rankin Ridge, you can see this mixture in action as you peer down on pine forest transitioning to prairie grassland.

Rankin Ridge with a prairie dog town in the foreground as seen on the drive to the trailhead

Rankin Ridge with a prairie dog town in the foreground as seen on the drive to the trailhead

One special thing about Wind Cave National Park is the significant presence of bison, which were reintroduced into the park in 1913 and are only one of four free-roaming genetically pure bison herds in the entire world. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt National Park a few hours away in North Dakota where bison sightings are a special occurrence, I can almost guarantee you will see a bison if you drive through Wind Cave National Park. I saw several on the drive to the hike, and another greeted me as I arrived at the trailhead, pictured below. If you do encounter a bison during your hike, keep your distance and walk off-trail if necessary. These seemingly docile beasts can weigh over a ton and are known for being unpredictable!
A bison grazing just beyond the trailhead

A bison grazing just beyond the trailhead

You can do the loop in either direction, but I'm quite partial to doing it clockwise and starting it from the sign pictured above rather than the dirt road behind the gate -- traveling south on the ridge is best to maximize views while hiking. No matter which way you go, the trail is nice and gradual with benches for taking a break. As you ascend, you'll be under the shady cover of the ponderosa pine forest with glimpses of the surroundings through the trees. Near the top of the climb, you'll round a corner and suddenly have astounding views (pictured below) that continue the entire length of the ridge, even past the fire lookout tower.
Near the top of the climb you'll be rewarded with nice views

Near the top of the climb you'll be rewarded with nice views

Once you reach the fire lookout tower, you'll have great views to the east that extend over the vast prairie to Badlands National Park on a clear day. The fire tower is completely off limits, and the stairwell is locked. Nevertheless, there aren't many trees to the east to obstruct your view, as pictured below.
Looking eastward from the top of Rankin Ridge at the rolling prairie below

Looking eastward from the top of Rankin Ridge at the rolling prairie below

The remainder of the hike follows a dirt service road, so your path back will be wide and very gradual. As you walk south along the ridge, you'll continue to have excellent views, as pictured below. Eventually you'll return to the forest, and your views will disappear until you reach the end at the parking lot.
The hills to the south as seen from Rankin Ridge

The hills to the south as seen from Rankin Ridge

And there you have it, an excellent easy hike to introduce you to the surface level natural beauty of Wind Cave National Park. Now that you've seen above the ground, head back to the visitor center and try a cave tour to see the other half of the park. Let me know what you think in the comments section below, and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Dogs are not allowed on trails in Wind Cave National Park. This is an excellent family hike thanks to the short distance and incredible views. You can hike this trail in all seasons, but winter weather may temporarily close roads in the park. In addition, avoid this area during thunderstorms, common in summer. Since this hike has some of the best views in the entire park and is also one of the easier trails, expect to see many people, especially during the peak summer travel season.


From Custer, take U.S. 385 south towards Wind Cave National Park. After entering the park, turn left onto South Dakota Highway 87. This road has many tight turns as it winds through the hills, even passing over itself at one point. Once the road has straightened out and reaches a prairie dog town, a sign will direct you to turn right to reach the parking area for Rankin Ridge.

From Rapid City, take South Dakota Highway 79 south. After passing Hermosa, turn right onto South Dakota Highway 36. Continue straight (towards Custer) as the highway intersects with U.S. Highway 16A. Turn left onto South Dakota Highway 87. In about 13 miles, turn left after the pullout for the prairie dog town on the road signed for Rankin Ridge.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Unlike most national parks, there is no park entrance fee. There are no facilities near this lot, so travel to the visitor center for flush toilets, water, a gift shop, a staffed information desk, and educational exhibits about the park.

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