Spot Bison in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Get up close (but not too close) with a classic symbol of America on this Great Plains trail.
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Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Bison in Wind Cave’s prairies.

I knew I’d see bison. My itinerary was set to carry me through a prairieland named after Wind Cave’s largest residents, but my breath still caught in my throat when I rounded a butte to see a herd of 40. I had stopped to study the huge creatures (bigger in person, trust me) when six pronghorn antelope sprinted through the scene. I was feverishly pawing my phone out of my hipbelt pocket to snap a picture when I spied a skulking coyote trying to score a meal in the prairie dog town up ahead. I’m on day one of a three-day trip that will take me more than 23 miles across the prairie. This national park isn’t celebrated for what lies above ground, but that means I don’t see another soul on my trek—well, the human kind, anyway.

Turn-by-Turn From the Gobbler

Pass trailhead

1) From the park’s southern boundary, pick up the East Bison Flats Trail and take it 3.5 miles north to an intersection.

2) Turn east onto the Wind Cave Canyon Trail and follow it .6 mile through its narrow namesake to another junction.

3) Veer north onto the Highland Creek Trail, which meanders through grassy flats to the start of the loop at mile 6.5.

4) Create a 10.2-mile, clockwise loop by threading together the Lookout Point, Centennial, Sanctuary, and Highland Creek Trails across a high butte overlooking the park, through ponderosa woods, past open prairie, and back around Limestone Canyon.

5) Back at the T-junction from step 3, retrace your steps 6.5 miles to the trailhead.

Campsite 1 Beaver Creek (mile 9.9)

Backcountry camping is allowed anywhere in the northwest corner of Wind Cave National Park—so along the loop on this route. Near mile 9.9, look for a small, grassy knoll just east of the junction of the Centennial and Highland Creek Trails. Set up your tent on the butte, backed up against the pines and overlooking Beaver Creek (runs year-round). Enjoy a bird’s-eye vantage over the 400-strong bison herd, should the big boys wander through. (Note: Top off bottles before leaving; this is the last reliable water.)

Campsite 2 Ponderosa grove (mile 14)

Score the hike’s best view east over the prairie on this butte, which is tucked in a stand of the dark-colored trees that give the Black Hills their name. (Set an alarm for sunrise.) Find the secluded rise south of the intersection of the Sanctuary and Highland Creek Trails. (Highland Creek is not reliable; call ahead to check, or carry water from the first campsite.)

Flora

In June, enjoy the park’s best blooms when white bluestem prickly poppies, pink wild prairie roses, and the yellow flowers of prickly pears grow trailside. Enduring purple pasque flower (South Dakota’s state flower) may also poke out of the grass, though it peaks in spring.

Do It

TRAILHEAD: 43.5213, -103.4776; 7 miles north of Hot Springs on US 385.
SEASON: April to October
PERMIT: Required for overnighting (free); obtain from the visitor center.
CUSTOM MAP ($15) CONTACT 

DISTANCE: 23.2 miles (lollipop-loop)
TIME: 3 days
DIFFICULTY: 3/5

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