Trip Report: Devils Tower and Wind Cave National Park
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
I had low expectations for this leg of the trip. I was looking forward to seeing Mt. Rushmore, but I’d never heard of Devils Tower or Wind Cave National Park before I began planning our trip. Turns out I’ve actually really enjoyed the past week.
Devils Tower is the first national monument we’ve visited on this trip and it’s also the first U.S. national monument ever designated. It’s a really cool structure and the campground at its base (Belle Fourche) is spacious and well-kept. We stayed for two nights and could see the tower right from our window.
On our one full day there, we walked a mile-long trail that loops around the tower, so we were able to see it from all sides. That didn’t take long, so the kids were able to play outside much of the day at our campsite, bundled in mittens and sweatshirts since the temperature was in the low 40s. We even took a little hike through the tall grass of a prairie to look for prairie dogs; they had turned in for the day, but we did see their poo.
We stopped at Mt. Rushmore on our way to Wind Cave National Park. As we approached the monument, the encroaching cloud cover caused us concern. Concern turned to anger when we realized our old nemesis from Crater Lake—Xanterra—runs the entire Mt. Rushmore operation. The America the Beautiful pass isn’t valid at Mt. Rushmore, so everyone has to pay $10 to park; in true Xanterra fashion, you can’t see the monument unless you park. I always feel like Jerry Seinfeld saying “Neumann…” when I say the word “Xanterra.”
We begrudgingly paid our $10, accidentally missed the RV lane, and became increasingly frustrated. The kids were silent as they heard their parents saying “Where are we supposed to park? Where is the damn thing anyway? Will we even be able to see it? I hate Xanterra.”
We left via the exit and drove up to the entrance gate again, where we showed the pass we’d just bought (good until the end of the year) and then got in the proper lane. This time we passed the numerous stone columns that very clearly mark the entrance to the memorial. We parked, walked to the viewing area, and…
A ranger passed by. “Where’s the monument?” I asked her. The ranger smiled, re-positioned herself a few steps, held a picture of Mt. Rushmore above her head, and said “Right here—this is what you should be seeing behind me.” Through the gray, opaque clouds lay the carefully carved faces of four presidents. Marvelous. Iconic. Completely obscured.
“Stupid nature,” I huffed. We returned to the car, fed the kids lunch, and let the dogs out for a stretch. Then we left for Wind Cave.
We drove with the trailer along Iron Mountain Road and then through Custer State Park. Not a horrible idea, but the 30 miles it added to the trip equaled more than an hour due to the windy roads. Taking Iron Mountain Road to see the Black Hills National Forest was totally worth it; the tunnels were spectacular. I could take or leave Custer State Park though; it was pretty but not worth the time it took to traverse with the trailer.
There’s no entrance booth for Wind Cave—just a sign, then another sign pointing to its only campground, Elk Mountain. This campground doesn’t take reservations, so we were a little nervous pulling up. But there were lots of spots and we were able to select one next to a large grassy play area. After setting up camp, we drove 13 miles into Hot Springs to pick up pizza then watched a movie on the iPad with the kids.
The next morning, the sky was clear and blue, so we headed back to Mt. Rushmore. An hour later we were staring at the memorial in all its glory. Totally worth the trip.
We returned to Wind Cave and decided to tour the cave. For $24, our whole family could take a ranger-led tour that lasts an hour and traverses 300 steps. Backpacks aren’t allowed, so the kids would have to walk the whole thing. What could go wrong?
As we descended steep stairs into a narrow passage of the dimly-lit cave, Darwin began crying. “It’s okay,” we told her. “You can do it.” She tried. But fear was getting the best of her. Perhaps she was having lava tube flashbacks. “Carry!” she implored, “carry!” So I did, until my arms got tired. Then I took Emerson’s hand and Wendy carried Darwin.
On we went like that for a while until Wendy got tired. Then we switched kids again and since the terrain had flattened, Darwin was able to walk. With some encouragement, she eventually became more comfortable, walked the rest of the way, and even enjoyed herself. The cave was so cool! There was enough light to walk safely, the information the ranger gave was brief and interesting, and at one point—while our group of 15 stayed very still in a large room—the ranger turned off all the lights.
Pitch black. Awesome. And thankfully, brief. Then we walked a few more feet to an elevator that brought us out of the cave. Quick fact to relay the enormity of this place: The cave system exists in one square mile, with more than 140 miles of tunnels discovered so far, and the National Park Service thinks only 10% of the cave has been mapped.
As we left, Emerson asked if he could go up more stairs and Darwin was chatting about tunnels and coming out of the dark. They’ve grown so much on this trip—not just out of the clothes we’d brought, but as little humans who now understand what a hike is and ask if they can go on one. They’re starting to remember what we do—to enjoy it, talk about it, and look forward to the next adventure.
Badlands, here we come.
Read the next trip report: Badlands National Park