We get on the road by 9 am to go to Wind Cave. Our plan today is to start as far south as we can and work our way back up towards home. So we travel to Custer State Park and pay the entrance fee which is $15, kind of steep but it IS an awesome park. We travel the 16A to the 87. On the way in I want to see the Coolidge Fire Tower which sits at the top of a very curvy gravel road. Only 1 problem: today it is very foggy and we really can’t see in front of us. So hardy adventurers we are we go but real slow straight up the mountain road. We get to the top and see the fire tower barely through the fog. We climb the stairs and find out if it was a nice day we could see the Badlands, Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, and some other locations but today is soup and we can’t see our hands in front of our faces. So we leave and follow the road back down to connect to SD 87 and the prairie dog town. These prairie dogs were not as cute or playful as the ones in Devil’s Tower yesterday. Maybe no one is feeding them?
On our drive we see lots of bison and a white tail deer herd, and a few pronghorn antelopes. After a few miles we come to Wind Cave’s property line and cross over. There were lots of bison and pronghorns here as well. There were also 2 one lane bridges built by the CCC we went over.
We get to the visitor center and inquire about cave tours. Unfortunately they had only 2 tickets to the easier tour that had less stairs in it. I volunteered to stay behind because of my knee but CC wouldn’t let me. So we went on the tour that has the most stairs (450) a half hour later. PTCC got her book and started working on her Jr Ranger badge while we waited to go. She had it almost finished by the time the tour started. CC wandered in the gift shop and displays while she worked and I got my NP stamp for my book and looked at the displays as well.
Our tour starts down the path that leads to an elevator that the CCC installed in the 1930’s. It has been updated since then though. We go down in groups of 10 so it takes 4 trips to get everyone below. We went in the last group so we could walk slow and ended up with a guy near the end who thought he was a professional photographer. I think he took 1000 pictures in the cave. We never heard anything the ranger said because this guy held us up taking his pictures, so we were always lagging behind. The only things I found out about this cave is that they have mapped 134 miles of it, it has boxwork, popcorn, and frosted formations. It is also what is known as a dry cave. It was discovered by a guy that saw a hole in the ground that was whistling and when he went nearer his hat blew off. He then climbed inside this hole that is no wider than 18 inches across to get inside. After doing that a few times he dynamited a hole next to the original one to make it easier to get inside. Our tour lasted 1.5 hours which we decide was much too long to be in 53 degree temperatures. There was not a lot of info passed down the line- so it was for us, a mostly silent tour. We learned more from the guide behind us bringing a new group in as we were exiting than we did on our own tour.
We go back up and eat lunch then we looked at the original hole and PTCC finished her badge and got her pin and we took off for Custer SP again.
We retraced our steps back to prairie dog town and took Hwy 14 which is the wildlife loop to the next visitor center. It was originally a park ranger’s log cabin. On the way there we saw more bison, many with babies, and wild burros that used to be work animals in the park but were released a long time ago and live wild now. We pick up the Jr Naturalist book for PTCC. This is Custer’s version of Jr Ranger. She works on it as we drive to the next visitor center. We pass Game Lodge which is an original hotel that people stayed in when they came to hunt. Hunting is still allowed in the winter in the park. Also each September they have a buffalo roundup to cull the herd, because in summer it gets to 1500 and they can only winter about 960 so they sell the surplus at auction.
We arrive at the Peter Norbeck visitor center and PTCC joins in a group of Jr Naturalists doing a program. Meanwhile CC and I check out the displays and bookstore until she is finished. When the program is over we help her to complete her 2 pages she has left and she gets her certificate with a seal on it. If we were able to go to 3 or more sessions she would get a patch but we can’t as we only have one day here. I would love to come back in the future as it is a really nice park and just spend a week camping inside it.
We have a family vote and decide to take the Needles Hwy back to Rafter J. We will go through 3 tunnels and see unique rock formations on this path. W e are on a very winding road which is why all the motorcyclists like it. Every turn seems to be an S curve. We come to the first tunnel and it is not too long but it is only wide enough for one car to go through at a time. Most of the tunnels aren’t wider than 8-10 ft and 9-10ft high. We then start seeing the rock formations that stick straight up in the air like needles for which they are named. We come to the second tunnel and it is about as long as the first one, it just seems skinner to us. As you come out you can see the formation that looks like a needle in the rock. Everybody stops here so it gets really crowded quickly. We take some video and pictures and go on our way since it is starting to rain. Just before the third tunnel we see a wild turkey in the road and then the tunnel. It is the shortest one we go through, maybe 10 ft long. As we exit we see a camper coming up the road to go through it. We hope he made it, we couldn’t stay to watch because we had 2 U turns to make to get out of there. A mile or so later we pass Sylvan Lake and then we are home. We ended up right across the street from Rafter J so it was easy to find for us. It started to rain so we will spend the evening inside since it is getting colder as well. I guess the cold just follows us.