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A few hours of mountain climbing turns a rascal and a saint into two pretty similar creatures.
– Friedrich Nietzsche

Wind Cave National Park – Rankin Ridge


Park Summary:

  • Protects an extensive cave system
  • Outstanding displays of boxwork - thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs
  • Mixed grass prairie in the rolling hills of South Dakota’s Black Hills
  • Bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs
  • Park Location: In southwest South Dakota seven miles north of Hot Springs and 40 miles southwest of Rapid City on Interstate 90
  • Best seasons: spring through fall
  • Established: 1903; Acreage: 28,295; Visitation: 696,402; Code: WICA

Rankin Ridge Summary:

  • Rankin Ridge – 5,013 feet
  • A north-south ridge located in the northwestern part of the park
  • There is a lookout tower on the highpoint
  • USGS Quads: SD Mount Coolidge (40´), Wind Cave (20´)
  • Other Maps: SD DeLorme: p. 48; Trails Illustrated #238
  • Highpoint Latitude and Longitude: 43° 37.52´ N, 103° 28.95´ W
  • Rankin Ridge Nature Trail Loop Hike:
    • A short, easy hike up a marked nature trail, and down an access road
    • Class 1; 1.0 miles round-trip; 263 feet net & total

Rankin Ridge – 5,013 feet – Park Highpoint


Rankin Ridge Trailhead:

  • Trailhead USGS 7.5´ Quad: SD Wind Cave (20´)
  • Trailhead Latitude and Longitude: 43° 37.37´ N, 103° 29.17´ W
  • Trailhead Altitude: 4,750 feet
If approaching from the south, go 7.0 miles north on U.S. 385 from the town of Hot Springs to the southern park entrance and measure from this point. Continue north on U.S. 385, pass the turn to the park visitor center at mile 3.0, pass the turn to the Elk Mountain Campground at mile 5.1 and turn north (right) onto South Dakota 87 (SD 87) at mile 5.4. Go north on SD 87, and wind through a circular turn where the road passes under itself via a narrow tunnel at mile 8.2. Turn east (right) onto the signed Rankin Ridge Road at mile 10.2, go east and reach the well-marked trailhead at mile 10.5.
If approaching from the north, measure from the northern park entrance on SD 87. Go south on SD 87, turn east (left) onto the Rankin Ridge Road at mile 2.1 and reach the trailhead at mile 2.4. This approach avoids the narrow tunnel. This trailhead is accessible to all vehicles, but trailers are not recommended on the Rankin Ridge Road.

Rankin Ridge Nature Trail Loop Hike:

  • A short, easy hike up a marked nature trail, and down an access road
  • Class 1; 1.0 mile round-trip; 263 feet net & total
  • USGS Quads: SD Mount Coolidge (40´), Wind Cave (20´)
  • Other maps: SD DeLorme: p. 48; Trails Illustrated #238
  • Highpoint Latitude and Longitude: 43° 37.52´ N, 103° 28.95´ W

Key points along the loop hike:

  • 0.0   mile  – 4,750 feet: Rankin Ridge Trailhead
  • 0.4   mile  – 4,970 feet: Reach the crest of Rankin Ridge on trail
  • 0.55 mile – 5,013 feet: Reach the park highpoint
  • 0.75 mile – 4,900 feet: Leave the crest of Rankin Ridge on access road
  • 1.0   mile  – 4,750 feet: Rankin Ridge Trailhead

The hike:

From the parking lot at the Rankin Ridge Trailhead, walk east and get onto the signed Rankin Ridge Nature Trail. There are brochures available for this self-guided nature trail at the beginning of the trail, and you can either return the brochure after your hike, or deposit $.50 in the iron ranger and keep the brochure. Follow the well-graded nature trail northeast as it climbs gently through a Ponderosa Pine forest, which allows peek-a-boo views to the northwest. Pass several numbered signs and reach the crest of Rankin Ridge after 0.4 mile, where your views open to the east. Turn south (right) toward the highpoint and reach the lookout tower after another 250 yards. The highest ground is just north of the tower. You can climb the tower, but if it is unoccupied the trap door to the observation room will be locked. In any season, you can view the rolling, forested fields that make South Dakota’s Black Hills famous. To complete your loop hike, walk 0.2 mile south from the lookout tower on the dirt access road, turn north and follow the road back down to the trailhead.

Variations:

You can choose to go up and down the nature trail, up and down the access road, or do the loop hike in the opposite direction. The distances and views are all commensurate. If you go down the nature trail, it will be hard to read the signs.

Camping, services and activities:

The Elk Mountain Campground is northwest of the park visitor center. Surrounded by a Ponderosa Pine forest, the campground has 75 sites for tents and recreational vehicles. The campground is open from April through October on a first come-first served basis. Picnic tables, fire grills, water and restrooms are provided; fees are charged. Rangers give campfire programs at the amphitheater in summer. Backcountry camping is allowed with a permit. There are no lodging facilities or grocery services in the national park. The nearest full service town is Hot Springs, which is seven miles south of the park. For a good meal surrounded by local artifacts, we recommend the Chicago Street Café in Hot Springs.

More about the park:

Wind Cave is one of the world’s oldest caves. Regarded as sacred by American Indians, it was “discovered” by settlers in 1881 when Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a loud whistling noise emanating from the cave’s only natural entrance. The escaping wind was strong enough to blow Jesse’s hat off. Today, the cave is famous for its boxwork, popcorn and frostwork formations. Chocolate-colored crystals resembling faces or animals and dank chambers inspire names such as the “Garden of Eden” and the “Dungeon.” Wind Cave, one of the most complex in the world, has over 112 miles of known passages, but studies estimate that only 5% of the cave has been explored. The deepest place in the known cave is 649 feet below the surface. The elevation at the natural entrance is 4,082 feet.
Scheduled, ranger-led tours of Wind Cave are offered all year; fees are charged. Three cave tours are available – two of 0.5 mile, and one of 0.25 mile – that follow paved, lighted walkways. These tours last from 1 to 1 ½ hours and require negotiating 150 to 450 stairs. There are also two special tours offered from mid-June to mid-August that allow you to explore more remote, less developed portions of the cave. Reservations are required for these special tours. Smoking, food, drink and touching cave formations are prohibited on all tours. The temperature in the cave is always 53° F, so dress accordingly. All cave tours start at the visitor center.
When first established in 1903, Wind Cave National Park’s main purpose was to protect the cave and assist visitors in enjoying it. By 1912, uncontrolled hunting had eliminated the original bison population, and the protection and reestablishment of native wildlife was recognized as an equally important goal. The Bronx Zoo donated 14 bison in 1913, and today, the park protects over 350 bison, as well as large herds of elk and pronghorn. Other wildlife, including mule deer, cottontail rabbits, and many kinds of birds, live in the prairies, forests, and hills near Wind Cave. Located near the middle of the country, the park embraces animal and plant species common to both the East and West. Ponderosa Pines and pinion jays – both western natives – thrive alongside American Elms and eastern bluebirds.

Special Considerations:

Do not approach, hunt, feed or harass any wildlife, especially the bison. They can attack if disturbed, and they definitely outweigh you! Also, watch for rattlesnakes, which sometimes live in prairie dog holes.

Other Activities:

There is a lot to do in the Black Hills surrounding Wind Cave National Park. Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest, adjacent to Wind Cave, offer campgrounds, lakes for swimming, boating and fishing, trails for hiking and horseback riding, and picnic areas. Jewel Cave, a national monument 20 miles northwest of the park, features sparkling jewel-like calcite crystals. Mount Rushmore National Memorial 20 miles north of the park features the monumental rock sculpture of American presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. 7,242-foot Harney Peak, the highest peak in South Dakota, is 5 miles west of Mount Rushmore and is accessed from Sylvan Lake. The 3-mile trail hike to this state summit takes you to a stone lookout building perched on the rocky highpoint.
Welcome to Wind Cave National Park Welcome to Wind Cave National Park
At the Rankin Ridge Trailhead looking at the start of the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail At the Rankin Ridge Trailhead looking at the start of the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail
The lookout tower on top of Rankin Ridge The lookout tower on top of Rankin Ridge
Where the deer and the buffalo play Where the deer and the buffalo play
Enjoying their comeback Enjoying their comeback
Prelude to a stormy day Prelude to a stormy day
Gerry took the above photos on 10/22/04
Boxwork Boxwork
Flowstone Flowstone
Popcorn Popcorn
Frostwork Frostwork
Wind Cave National Park Location Wind Cave National Park Location
Wind Cave National Park Area Wind Cave National Park Area
Wind Cave National Park Wind Cave National Park
Rankin Ridge Rankin Ridge
NPS photos and maps
Copyright © 2001-2017 by Gerry Roach. All Rights Reserved.
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