On July 31, a Tuesday, our journey to Montana began with a 5:20pm flight from O’Hare to…Seattle. Then we’d continue on to Great Falls. Sean and I both worked from home until it was time to head to the airport. And we both were stressed tying up some final things before the trip. Our stress continued on the way to the airport in a Lyft. Traffic was extremely heavy, and we’d left later than we’d wanted to because of work stuff.
It was the evening of Saturday, September 13, 2014, and Sean and I were back in camp after a great eleven-plus-mile hike through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
No rest for the weary, though, while Sean started supper, I began to pack up. We still had one more night in camp, but the more we prepped to convert our packs to checked and carry-on bags, the less we’d have to do in the morning. I hoped to hit the road at 6am, so that we’d not be rushed on our nine-hour drive to Sioux Falls for our 6:05pm flight. Neither of us wanted a repeat of the sprint to the airport we’d experienced leaving Big Bend.
We still had a touch of wiper fluid left in the bottle we’d purchased back in South Dakota when it had been so snowy. I figured we’d used enough that I could top off the chamber. I walked around to the front of the Jeep and opened the hood. I was greeted by a small face as surprised as I was. It twitched its whiskers excitedly and then slipped behind the engine.
“Sean,” I cried, “bring a camera!”
The tiny face worked its whiskers and nose and then dove deeper behind the engine into the bowels of the Jeep. By the time Sean got there, seconds later, it was nowhere to be seen. Neither of us had seen it scamper from the Jeep, but we hoped that it would be gone by the morning.
My feelings about Mount Rushmore are best captured in four objects: a poem, a playlist, a video, and a set of images.
After we departed Wind Cave National Park, we entered Custer State Park. Founded in 1912 in part by the efforts of Peter Norbeck, who would be so instrumental in the creation of Badlands National Monument, the park now comprises 71,000 acres of the Black Hills. Our destination was the Cathedral Spires formation in the northwest corner of the park, deep in the granite heart of the Black Hills.
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.
It was Monday afternoon, September 8, and we’d already explored two caves, but the day wasn’t over. We arrived back at our campsite at Elk Mountain Campground just before 4pm, which still gave us plenty of time for an above ground hike at Wind Cave before the sun set at 7:19pm.
The hike we chose was the Lookout Point/Centennial Trail Loop, a four-mile loop that began not too far from the campground up the park road and wound through prairie, forest, and riparian areas.
In 1913, ten years after the park was established, American Bison were reintroduced to Wind Cave National Park. In establishing the park in 1903, the intent of Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt was to protect the marvelous boxwork formations of the cave, but as an ancillary benefit, the park protected thousands of acres of mixed grass prairie in the foothills of the Black Hills. This habitat would be ripe for an ambitious bison reintroduction program that would culminate at Wind Cave.
The truly vital importance of the Wind Cave herd was recognized and reinforced only in recent decades as increasingly sophisticated genetic tests have confirmed that the herd is one of the last remaining genetically pure herds on public lands in North America. Most other herds have a certain percentage of genetic material from interbreeding with cattle. Even the herd at Custer State Park, adjacent to Wind Cave along its northern border, is not free of genetic material from cattle. The other pure herds are found at Yellowstone National Park, the Henry Mountains in Utah (reintroduced from the Yellowstone herd), and Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Jewel Cave National Monument was established by President Theodore Roosevelt on February 7, 1908 as the nation’s thirteenth National Monument. It was intended to protect what at the time was assumed to be a small, but distinctly beautiful cave. Jewel Cave now stands as the second longest on Earth at over 166 miles of explored passageways.
After our morning tour of Wind Cave, we had planned to do a couple short hikes and then visit Jewel Cave for the 2pm Scenic Tour. The unexpectedly busy tours at Wind Cave (particularly for a Monday after Labor Day) made us a little anxious about getting the tour we wanted that afternoon. (The ultimate plan was to come back to Wind Cave to do some hiking in the late afternoon.) So we started out on the 35-mile drive to Jewel Cave
After we’d breakfasted on Monday morning, September 8, we drove the short distance from Elk Mountain Campground to the Wind Cave National Park visitor center. We were hoping to take the 9am Natural Entrance Tour, but we were too close to its starting time. Ranger Andrew sold us the final two tickets for the 9:45am tour. He informed us that there would be a group of middle schoolers on the tour with us, but it should be fine, since there had been others from the same large group on tours the day before without any problems.
As we waited the forty-five minutes for our tour, we watched the twenty-minute park introductory film and explored the exhibitions in the CCC-era visitor center. We also stopped by the bookstore.
Wind Cave National Park is possibly the most important little-known park in the entire system. It became the seventh National Park in 1903 when Congress passed legislation, subsequently signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, to protect a small, but beautiful cave in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. (Starting here with Wind Cave, all five park units we’d visit would have some connection or indebtedness to Roosevelt.) It was the first National Park to protect a cave, and it also happened to protect an important transition zone between the mixed grass prairie of the South Dakota plains and the Ponderosa Pine forests of the Black Hills.
The quiet importance of the park would grow. What had been assumed to be a small cave is now known to be the fourth longest and among the oldest in the world. On the surface, a reintroduction program for the American Bison, begun in 1913, has yielded one of the most important, purest herds in the United States. It is a herd vital to reintroduction programs across the prairie.
Yet even many of those who have visited the Badlands or Mount Rushmore haven’t necessarily heard of this unassuming, intensely beautiful park. Perhaps that’s for the best.