Wind Cave National Park: Rankin Ridge Trail


Next morning dawned overcast. It was our final morning at Wind Cave National Park, and we intended to get one more short hike in before continuing on our adventures.

We were still trepidatious about the changing weather. It was Tuesday, September 9, and the forecast for the Black Hills the next day was possible snow, while in North Dakota, our ultimate destination, the temperatures were forecasted to drop precipitously.

We broke camp at Elk Mountain Campground and carefully organized the Jeep for a day of in-and-out sightseeing and day hikes. We drove down to the visitor center to see if they were able to recycle our first empty can of backpacking stove fuel. It was Ranger Madison, who had led our tour the previous morning, who was at the desk. She asked if we’d camped in the backcountry. We said no, but that we were on a ten-day trip and hoped to backpack at least once. We chatted about the impending bad weather, and she said that at least that morning, the temperatures weren’t supposed to drop as much as had previously been thought. This did not change our plans of stopping at the Scheel’s in Rapid City later in the day to augment our gear. Ultimately, the park did not have a way to recycle our canister. Ranger Madison mentioned that the VFW hall in Hot Springs did, but it was entirely the wrong direction for us. We decided to hang onto the canister until we got another chance.

As we left the visitor center area, Sean snapped a couple shots of the charming CCC-era administrative and housing buildings.

Image: Sean M. Santos
Image: Sean M. Santos

We took the park road, SD 87, north to the northwest corner of the park and into a section where the rolling of the Black Hills and the encroaching of the Ponderosa Pine forest became more resolute. At the turn off for Ranking Ridge Trail, a herd of bison grazed and lazed near a prairie dog town.

American Bison
American Bison
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog
American Bison

(Note that although it is overcast, Sean is still wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Unbeknown to us, this would be the last time on the trip he would wear such warm-weather clothes. Also, while we were sitting at this pullout watching bison and prairie dogs, a retired couple were also there in their parked car. The woman was gabbing loudly on the phone with someone about someone else’s health. Amusing.)


The destination for our hike was an old fire lookout tower on Rankin Ridge. From the parking lot a good distance up the ridge, the tower is accessible by an easy one-mile loop trail through Ponderosa Pine forest that offers views west into Black Hills National Forest, north into Custer State Park, and east across Wind Cave’s backcountry.


Although there was another car in the parking lot when we arrived, those hikers were far enough ahead of us on loop that we never saw them, giving us the illusion of solitude.

Westerly view into Black Hills National Forest

We were now beginning to enter the granite heart of the Black Hills, with its higher, harder, and older rock.

What lovely poison ivy decorates the stone stair near the top of the trail.

At the top, the easterly view commanded broad swaths of Wind Cave’s backcountry. I vowed silently that we’d return one day to backpack out there. We regarded it in silence for a long while, with no sound other than the wind in the pines and the occasional bird.


Video: Brandon Hayes

On clear days, Badlands National Park is visible in the far distance, but not that day. The below photo is dark, but I was attempting to capture the texture and the low ceiling of the clouds.


We weren’t able to climb into the tower as we’d done at Mount Ojibway on Isle Royale. Most, if not all, of these old fire towers are defunct due to increasingly sophisticated land management policies that no longer suppress naturally occurring wildfires. The towers now serve to monitor environmental factors such as air quality.


We continued on the loop to begin our descent, curving back into the forest.

Image: Sean M. Santos

I was pleased to capture a fine photo of a Red Squirrel. I had been trying to get a decent one ever since we’d arrived at Wind Cave. Now, in our final moments at this gem of a National Park, I did.

Red Squirrel

Soon we were back in the Jeep, driving the short distance north out of Wind Cave National Park and into adjacent Custer State Park.

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