Wind Cave National Park is located in the Black Hills just south of Custer State Park and the town of Keystone. It contains one of the most intricate and longest (fourth longest) cave complexes in the world. Above ground, the park protects more than 29,000 acres of mixed grass prairie and ponderosa pine forest. The indigenous wildlife in this reserve includes elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs. Additionally, the Wind Cave bison herd is probably the most visible and iconic species in the park.
Before the Europeans arrived in the New World, as many as 60 million bison roamed the continent. A substantial number of these were concentrated in the area around Wind Cave in South Dakota and the Black Hills, traditional hunting grounds of numerous Native American tribes. By 1883, there were no more wild bison, and by 1900 there were fewer than 1,000 captive animals remaining. The history of today's Wind Cave bison herd began in 1913 when the New York Zoological Society donated fourteen animals (six bulls and eight cows) to Wind Cave National Park in an effort to return the herds to the Great Plains, which once covered the entire west central part of North America from Canada to Mexico. To illustrate the scale of land required to sustain the great herds, the Wind Cave bison herd is maintained at a goal of only 350 to 450 total animals—the largest number that can be sustained in the relatively small park, which comprises less than 29,000 acres. The current herd is one of only four free-roaming bison herds in North America. The other three are in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, the Henry Mountains of Utah, and Elk Island in Alberta, Canada.
The Lakota, Cheyenne, and other Native American bands had several centuries' old legends revolving around Wind Cave in South Dakota long before traders and settlers arrived in late 1880s. This was sacred ground to the native people, who told of a "hole that breathes air" in the Black Hills. In 1881, two white men (the Bingham brothers) found the cave by following the whistling noise. In 1890, after the mining claim failed, the mine's manager J.D. McDonald found he could earn money by conducting cave tours. In 1891, McDonald's son reported in his diary that he had given up trying to find the end of the extensive cave, which continues to increase in length each year as spelunkers find further tunnels and passages. There are currently more than 130 miles of mapped passages.
In addition to several kinds of cave tours, things to do in Wind Cave National Park include hiking on more than 30 miles of trails. Horseback riding is not permitted on maintained trails, but it is allowed elsewhere in the park and the required permit is free. Backcountry camping is allowed in the northwest corner of the park, and there is one park campground near the Visitors Center. While this camping is the only possibility for overnight stays in the park, there are numerous lodging options in the vicinity, including Keystone hotels and motels.
There are numerous other Black Hills attractions in the vicinity of Wind Cave in South Dakota, including Custer State Park (ten miles away) and Mount Rushmore (50 miles away). Badlands National Park is about 145 miles away, and the classic western town of Rapid City is about 50 miles away.