Guidebook

5 Family-Friendly Day Hikes to Explore Wind Cave NP

Enjoy one of these 5 family-friendly hikes in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, where the rolling grasslands meet the ponderosa pine, the prairie falcons keep watch from above, and pronghorn roam freely along through the hills.

Brendon Voelker

Description

Founded in 1903 as America’s 7th national park, Wind Cave National Park hosts a stunning landscape painted by grassy hillsides, towering ponderosa, and a selection of birds so diverse that the park has earned a reputation as one of the best places to birdwatch in the region. Beneath the majestic landscape, however, sits the “first cave to be designated a national park anywhere in the world”, this sources writes. Also listed as the “densest cave system in the world, with the greatest passage volume per cubic mile,” Wind Cave is touted for its unique boxwork formations and is ranked amongst the longest cave systems in the world, the author continues. While cave tours are the single most common reason for a visit, the park hosts several above-ground trails great for anyone in the family. In this guidebook, we’ve picked 5 of the park’s classic hikes to top your list during your visit.

If you brought your four-legged friend along for the journey, the park maintains two trails that are perfect for the occasion, the Elk Mountain Trail and the Prairie Vista Trail. Elk Mountain is a short hike around the park’s main campground, where forests of ponderosa pine meet the lush, green grasslands. If you plan to stop in the park’s visitor center on your way in, you can enjoy Prairie Vista Trail as another dog-friendly hike. The short and easy trail tours the rolling hills where sightings such as deer, elk, bison, pronghorn, and prairie dogs, are quite common.

A short drive north of the visitor center, and you can hike to the highest point in the park on the Rankin Ridge Trail. The park describes it as an excellent option for families, “or those with little time to explore,” and a historic fire tower is there to greet you once you reach the summit – though it is now closed to the public. Those driving larger vehicles, including RVs and trailers, should seek out another hike, as the trailhead is small with no space to turn around.

The two best trails for birdwatching in the park are Cold Brook Canyon and Wind Cave Canyon, which are moderate and easy, respectively. The limestone cliffs hugging the canyon are home to many of the park’s avian residents, and its central location relative to the continent makes it a permanent home to over 100 species of birds, the park states. Of course, spring and fall migrations yield even more, making it one of the best national parks for birding in the lower 48. In particular, Cold Brook Canyon offers "a good place to see prairie falcons and other raptors," while this source notes the "cliff swallows, horned owls, and a variety of woodpeckers," that also nest along the limestone cliffs.

Sources:
NPS
Wikipedia

Prairie Vista Trail

Prairie Vista Trail

0 - 1 hrs
1.0 km
30 m
30 m
An easy family-friendly hike through the grasslands along Wind Cave's visitor center.
Easy
Private
Elk Mountain Trail

Elk Mountain Trail

0 - 1 hrs
1.3 km
40 m
40 m
A short, dog-friendly hike around the campground where the towering ponderosa pine meet the lush grasslands.
Easy
Private
Rankin Ridge
The best Routes on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Rankin Ridge

0 - 1 hrs
1.6 km
75 m
75 m
Wander through a mature ponderosa pine forest and enjoy breathtaking views from the park's highest point.
Easy
Private
Cold Brook Canyon Trail
The best Routes on FATMAP, hand-picked by FATMAP’s Editorial team.

Cold Brook Canyon Trail

1 - 2 hrs
4.6 km
71 m
71 m
An out-and-back family-friendly hike popular for birdwatching.
Moderate
Private
Wind Cave Canyon Trail

Wind Cave Canyon Trail

1 - 2 hrs
5.8 km
76 m
76 m
An easy hike on an old dirt road shouldered by limestone cliffs and ponderosa pine, and known for its birding opportunities.
Easy
Private