Located in Custer County, South Dakota, underneath the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States lies Wind Cave. The complexity of Wind Cave is comparable to a giant three-dimensional maze.
At 230km long, Wind Cave is the 7th longest cave in the world. All 230km are contained within a 2km by 2km square, and that’s just the parts that have been explored. It is believed that there are still many more kilometres of cave left to be discovered.
Wind Cave gets its name from the air exiting the cave. Due to the difference in barometric pressure between the cave atmosphere and the outside air, you can usually hear and feel “wind” blowing out of the cave entrance.
Wind cave is known for calcite (calcium carbonate) formations known as boxwork. Boxwork is an uncommon mineral structure formed from erosion when bedrock is weathered away. The calcite stays behind forming the boxlike formations.
95% of all known boxwork in the world is in Wind Cave.
While boxwork is the most famous of the cave formations found at Wind Cave, you can also find popcorn, frostwork and dogtooth spar crystals.
The first documented discovery of Wind Cave by White Americans was in 1881 by two brothers, Tom and Jesse Bingham. Amongst a rocky spot in the grasslands, the brothers noticed a small hole in the ground. This was the cave entrance. Tom bent down to look into it and the wind exiting the hole blew his hat off of his head.
Native Americans knew of the existence of Wind Cave for many centuries. The Lakota, who live in the Black Hills region, consider Wind Cave to be a holy site. They believe that deep within Wind Cave is a portal to Tunkan Tipi, the great spirit lodge.
According to Lakota legend, before people and bison roamed the Earth, humankind lived underground in the Tunkan Tipi. Here people waited until the Earth was ready to live upon.
Sometime before people left the spirit lodge Iktomi, the trickster spirit, sent a wolf into Wind Cave to find the people in the spirit lodge. Once there, the wolf told stories about the surface of the Earth. The wolf told the people that if they followed him to the surface, they’d be blessed with such wonders as meat and leather.
However, one person Tokahe, who was known as the first one, refused to go with the wolf. He stated that The Creator told them they were supposed to stay in the spirit lodge.
Many of the people did not listen and took the long treacherous journey through Wind Cave to the surface. There, the people did not find wonders, but hardship. They suffered and toiled trying to survive. When winter came many of them either froze or starved.
The people then begged for help from The Creator. Upon hearing their cries he told them “You should not have disobeyed me.” He then cursed the people, turning them into Bison.
After time had passed, the Creator went down into Wind Cave and told the people that had waited patiently for his return that it was time for them to find their way to the surface.
They slowly made the treacherous journey through Wind Cave. They climbed through passage after passage. In some places they passed through giant caverns, in others, the caves were barely big enough to fit through.
Led by Tokahe they managed to navigate their way through Wind Cave until they reached the surface. After finally exiting the cave The Creator shrunk the entrance from the size of a man to the 25 centimetres by 36 centimetres hole that it is now.
He left the small hole in order to remind people of their history.
The creator then instructed the people to follow the bison. For the bison would lead them to water. The bison would give them food. The bison would give them shelter.