Fourth Day: Caves and Mammoths

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series South Dakota Trip 2013

Saturday

Today we planned to go to Wind Cave and the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. We were able to get a lot in, also hiking Rankin Ridge, which was a beautiful hike. I was excited to see Wind Cave too. It provided some good variety in environments. Now, Wind Cave is an absolutely vast cave system. It is actually one of the largest caves in the world. The end of it has not even been found, and it is a “three-dimensional maze cave”. What this means is that it really doesn’t have a certain linear progression. As you are walking along the path inside, you constantly see holes and tunnels leading in all directions, both up and down. It has 140 miles of explored passageways. That idea might freak some people out, but I thought it was really cool. Here was somewhere that we don’t actually know everything about. In fact, you could volunteer to explore and map it. It is pretty cool that spots like this still exist. Oh, and it is named Wind Cave because a wind blows out of some openings above the cave (and sometimes sucks in) due to changes in air pressure. If you haven’t been on a cave tour before, don’t worry, it is perfectly safe. A ranger just guides you through a walkway that you can almost always stand straight up on. I think you can get some more hardcore cave tours, but we just took the walking one. It was not very easy to get pictures in the cave. Lighting wasn’t ideal for a camera, and we were generally moving along. On top of that, any picture without a person in it is hard to get a sense of scale. But, here is one picture of a rather narrow (relative to the rest of the tour) part of the cave.

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After we did the cave tour, we explored a bit of the above-ground portion of the park some. The above ground area is great too, protecting a large area of the prairie and forests. Even if you don’t do the cave, it is a good park. A really beautiful area was Rankin Ridge, which is coming up later in the day. But, it is time to eat now, and then go to the Mammoth Site.

We decided to have a picnic at a spot we noticed in Hot Springs near a waterfall. I should mention now that I really got a good impression of Hot Springs. The town felt nice and homey, and was nestled right in the Black Hills. Later on we go to Rapid City, and I definitely liked it there too. It felt more like a big city though, whereas Hot Springs felt like a nice smaller town.

But, I digress. We had a nice picnic near the waterfall. When we finished, we walked over to the waterfall and enjoyed some small nearby overhangs of crumbly rock. There were some structures that looked like water taps, but were actually from the hot springs the town is built on.

Once we finished exploring, it was off to the Mammoth Site. The Mammoth Site is a mixture of a museum and a paleontological dig. It is contained within a building, and is still being actively dug in and analyzed. Here is a picture of the place so you can see what it looks like, to help me explain.

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This is one segment of the dig. It is all indoors, and was a pit when those mammoths were alive. They would get stuck in the pit and be unable to climb back out, and eventually die. They were preserved by the clay that the pit filled in with, and there are at least 60 individual mammoths contained in the dig. The Mammoth Site was fascinating to visit, and be able to see actual mammoth skeletons as they were found.

There was a tour led by a tour guide, but then you were free to wander around the walkways and look into the dig by yourself. We spent a long time here interpreting the skeletons. Afterwards, there was a good museum on the mammoths to go through.

On another note, mammoths were huge! It is hard to get a sense of scale for just how big they were. They had a mural on the wall which showed the heights of elephants and mammoths. (I know, I have hat hair!)

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It would be astonishing to see one of these magnificent creatures alive, but coming and seeing their skeletons is the next best thing.

After taking our time to thoroughly experience the Mammoth Site, we headed out to hike Rankin Ridge. I greatly recommend this hike if you are visiting Wind Cave and have the time, among everything else there is to see out there. It is just a 1 mile loop, so it shouldn’t take too long. Take some time for the view at the top though! While there is a tall fire tower at the top of the ridge, it is not open to the public. I was especially surprised and excited by being able to see the Badlands from here. With binoculars, you could even make out the ridges themselves. It was a clear day though, I think any haze would cut down the distance you can see by a lot. Here are some photos from the hike.

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We were surprised to be able to see so far. The Badlands appear as a faint tan on the horizon in this picture, which nicely symbolizes the overall color and feel of the Badlands.
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After we finished the hike, it was starting to get dark. We drove back through Custer State Park and observed a lot of wildlife, the most exciting of which being a large herd of elk.

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If you want to see a lot of wildlife, definitely check out Custer State Park. We probably came at a particularly good time of year, but we saw many herds of buffalo, plenty of pronghorn and of course this large herd of elk. While we were on Rankin Ridge, we even heard the faint howling and chattering of coyotes in the distance, a truly iconic sound. We got to our hotel and relaxed after a satisfying day.

 

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