Rugged, isolated islands. Southern boreal and northern hardwood forests. Four glorious seasons, complete with vibrant fall foliage. Wilds where apex predators not only survive but thrive. From exposed rock ridges to wetlands, fascinating, moss-covered formations and urban climes, the national parks in the Midwestern United States offer more than meets the eye.
Providing a surprising variety of environs— including open farmland, glaciated landscapes, mixed prairielands and clastic dikes in hues of tan, green and red — the Midwest is also home to lumbering buffalos, elusive grey wolves, bighorn sheep and bald eagles.
Whether you favor lakes, deep forests, fossils or something in between, so much of the Midwestern U.S. is just waiting to be explored. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in the region, America’s breathtaking backyards — National Park Service-managed lands — are a hop, skip and a jump from home.
Considering a move to the Midwestern United States? Already settled in? Wilderness, dunes and winding waterways are calling — and so much more.
Tips for Visiting National Parks
Whether you prefer a quick weekend jaunt or a full-on vacation, it’s important to get the lay of the land before visiting the national parks in the Midwest, as these destinations are among the remotest areas on Earth. As such, you’ll lack access to certain necessities; cell service can be spotty; and weather and road conditions can change in the blink of an eye.
It’s often an hours-long drive through challenging — not to mention exhilarating — driving conditions when traveling from one end of most national parks to the other. Plan your routes and map out everything in advance. It’s also a good idea to purchase hard-copy maps, like National Geographic’s waterproof trail map series. They not only include topography, but also roads and routes not detailed on regular maps — or, frankly, the ones you receive at the gate.
Then, check the parks’ official website for things like road and trail closures before you go — otherwise you could be met with a closed road, entrance or trail that can derail an otherwise well-planned adventure. This is the wilderness, after all, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature every day.
Consider, too, what time of year is right for your visit. In some parts of the country, the summer heat is oppressive, while winter brings seasonal road closures that render parts of the parks off-limits for months at a time. By contrast, off-season visits — spring and fall — prove more peaceful and less populated, while providing a beauty of their own. However, there can also be times when certain regions receive the most rain.
Here are some other important considerations and rules of thumb when planning national park trips:
- Get an annual national park pass
- Buy a park passport — and stamp it at each visitor’s center
- Book early — nearby accommodations fill up well in advance
- Bring proper gear — and prepare for weather changes
- Dress in layers and bring a daypack
- Drink water — and lots of it
- Slather on sunscreen, regardless of the weather
- Pack a picnic, as dining options are limited-to-non-existent
- Stop by the gift shop — they tend to be great
- Gas up the night before — hours vary and options are few and far between
- Combine camping with a stay in a historic lodge or Airbnb
- Befriend park rangers for insider information
- Download park, weather and GPS apps in advance
- Check the park website for time entry requirements
- Leave no trace
Ready to get started? Let’s explore some of the national parks in the Midwest and delve into their biggest draws.
- Indiana Dunes National Park
- Isle Royale National Park
- Voyageurs National Park
- Gateway Arch National Park
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Badlands National Park
- Wind Cave National Park
National Parks in Indiana
Indiana Dunes National Park
Sprawling across 15,000 acres — including 15 miles of southern Lake Michigan shoreline — Indiana Dunes National Park features more than 50 miles of trails, which intersect rugged dunes, sun-drenched prairies, bird-populated wetlands, snaking rivers and serene forests.
Brimming with four seasons of picturesque to-dos, each rewarding in its own way, visitors can not only hike, but also build sandcastles, camp, fish, birdwatch and go horseback riding amid spectacular foliage. And when the weather turns cold? There’s always snowshoeing, sledding and cross-country skiing.
The Flora and Fauna
Situated within several ecological transition zones, “The Dunes” pack a punch, ranking fourth in biological diversity among the country’s national parks. Here, some species of which flourish on account of past climatic changes. All told, there are 46 species of mammals, 18 species of amphibians, 23 species of reptiles, 71 species of fish, 60 butterfly species (including the endangered Karner blue butterfly), 350 species of birds — many migratory — and 60 species of damselflies and dragonflies within park boundaries.
From coyotes to white-tail deer and a great blue heron rookery, opportunities for wildlife-spotting opportunities are at every turn.
Shaped by glacial effects and changing weather patterns, the park is a haven for 1,130 native vascular plants, too, among them the federally threatened Pitcher’s thistle. Home to populations of 30% of Indiana’s listed rare, threatened, endangered and of-special-concern plant species, the dunes landscape contains flora common to eastern deciduous forests, remnants of boreal forests, wetlands, tallgrass prairies and species typically seen along the Atlantic coast.
With weather that’s significantly affected by Lake Michigan, the weather at Indiana Dunes can quickly change. Typical, though, are sunny, hot, humid summers that usually cap around the mid-80s F. Peasant, dry weather arrives on account of fronts that descend from Canada.
On the other hand, winters tend to be cloudy and in the mid 30s F, dipping into the low 20s F — even below 0 F — an average of 15 days of the year. During periods of extreme cold, skies tend to be clear.
Be sure to check the park’s website for weather and water conditions, from storms to rip currents.
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints
Featuring a staggering array of plant diversity, the 4.3-mile, lollipop-shaped Cowles Bog Trail journeys along a moderately challenging route through wetlands, savanna, dunes and the shores of Lake Michigan. A chance to marvel at several distinct habitats — ponds, marshes, swamps, black oak savannas and beaches — it features steep, sandy climbs.
Explore four stages of dune development on the 1.1-mile West Beach – Dune Succession Trail, starting at the beach and ending at the boardwalk, which takes you through a forest rising from the sand.
Nearby, at Indiana Dunes State Park, find the most difficult hike in the area, the 1.5-mile 3 Dunes Challenge, which begins at the nature center and features 552 vertical feet to climb for breathtaking views from atop.
The 3.9-mile Little Calumet River and Mnoke Prairie Trail offers a lovely introduction to the park’s biodiversity, traveling through many habitats and affording opportunities to relax at the beach. Connecting Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm, and the Dunes Learning Center, it passes through the tranquil Mnoke Prairie, skirts the Little Calumet River valley, and follows a boardwalk through wet bottomlands before it ascends to a hardwood forest and pine plantation.
Short with a steep trip down the largest living dune in the national park, the somewhat strenuous, .9-mile Mount Baldy Beach Trail brings you to the shimmering waterfront.
Interchangeably called the East Dunes Highway or the Lake Michigan Shoreline Scenic Drive journeys through picturesque landscapes, industrial areas and a breathtaking beach area within the national park. From Gary traveling east, you’ll eventually reach Indiana Dunes National Park on a route that continues well beyond, as the entirety of U.S. Route 12 is 2,484 miles long.
National Parks in Michigan
Isle Royale National Park
A remote, untouched treasure, seasonally accessible Isle Royale National Park is a rugged, isolated wilderness of forests, lakes and waterways, where moose and wolves roam. Reached by private boat, ferry or seaplane to the island’s southwest end (Windigo, Michigan) or northeast end (Rock Harbor, Minnesota, where the only lodging outside of camping exists).
Minong and the waters immediately surrounding the archipelago are an important part of the North Shore Ojibwe’s traditional cultural history, they were also part of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s (Ojibwe) ancestral land, used for hunting and trapping, as well as fishing, maple sugaring, gathering plants and practicing spiritual traditions.
According to the Ojibwe, the waters off Minong are home to the Mishipeshu, a mythological underwater lynx, both an important and potentially dangerous spirit being.
Isle Royale National Park is open every year from April 16 through October 31. The closure, which extends 4.5 miles out into Lake Superior, extends from November 1 through April 15 on account of extreme winter weather conditions and safety reasons.
The Flora and Fauna
A nature lover’s paradise, Isle Royale’s 18 mammal present species had to cross Lake Superior to reach it. Among them are the curious red fox, otters, beavers and massive moose. Arriving on the island by crossing an ice bridge that formed between the island and the Canadian mainland in 1948, there is also a thriving population of grey wolves.
Wolves help stabilize the moose herd, as they prey on the old, young, ill and injured among them, providing stable winter hunting for the wolves, which saw a dramatic comeback to now total 28. Joining them are a wide array of amphibians, mollusks, birds, insects and 40 documented species of fish, some rare and others found only in the inland lakes or streams.
Isle Royale is also home to over 600 flowering plants, including a number of rare species. Mosses form lush carpets, nearly 30 species of ferns flourish and 600 different species of lichen cling to bedrock and balsam firs.
Affording a moist continental climate, Isle Royale sees comfortable summers and frigid, snowy winters. Generally, it’s partly cloudy year-round, with temperatures that fluctuate from -1° F to 76°F on average. Wondering about the best time of year to visit? It depends on what experience you seek, though warm-weather activities are best enjoyed from early July to late August.
When setting out for hikes on the island, it’s extremely important to have the following, as rescue support is limited:
- Plenty of drinking water
- Rain Gear
- First aid kit
- Map of Isle Royale
On and around Isle Royale, consider all surface lake and stream water contaminated and non-potable. You’ll find helpful information about safely treating water in the backcountry here. Additionally, be sure to always check both land and water conditions on the park’s website, as well as a reliable weather service, as conditions can quickly change and are known to be quite temperamental.
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints
Isle Royale is 45 miles long and nine miles wide, with an area of nearly 207, making it the fourth largest lake-island in the world.
For spectacular views, the 4.7-mile Scoville Point via the Stoll Memorial Trail is a moderately challenging but rewarding hike that winds to the northeast from Rock Harbor, Michigan, area between the forest and Lake Superior shoreline.
More rigorous and lengthy, the point-to-point, 39.5-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail from Windigo to Tobin Harbor is the park’s longest and most varied. It typically takes four- to-five days to hike in its entirety. Taking you through dense arboreal forest, damp, thigh-high ferns, up and down basalt ridges and to the pinnacle of 1,394-foot-high Mount Desor, it features beautiful wildflowers and viewpoints along the way.
A 6.7-mile out-and-back option, the Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm Trail offers scenic views along the Rock Harbor Channel and Mott Island.
The 19th-century Rock Harbor Lighthouse features a small museum. Meanwhile, dive sites in Lake Superior include several shipwrecks. To preserve its wilderness integrity, vehicles and wheeled devices, with the exception of wheelchairs, are not allowed on Isle Royale National Park. Hiking, boating, canoeing and kayaking are the best — and only — way to experience its expanse.
National Parks in Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park
Situated at the Canadian border in International Falls, Minnesota, 218,055-acre Voyageurs National Park offers year-round enchantment, from its rock ridges and cliffs to its wetlands, southern boreal and northern hardwood forests, streams, and lakes.
Featuring booth land and aquatic ecosystems, it’s a place where the Northern Lights make a sporadic appearance, eagles soar overhead while wolves roam below, and Ellsworth Rock Gardens on the shores of Lake Kabetogama and the Kabetogama Peninsula with its 200 sculptures delights.
The park’s name is a nod to the voyageurs—French Canadian fur traders — who began journeying along the area’s interconnected waterways more than 250 years ago. But it was during the Paleo-Indian Period that people first entered this area, when the waters from glacial Lake Agassiz receded.
The Flora and Fauna
With interconnected waterways that flow west and, eventually, north as part of the Hudson Bay’s arctic watershed, Voyageurs transition between land and aquatic ecosystems. Part wild and part developed, it is marked by glaciation that ended over 10,000 years ago, exposing ancient Precambrian rocks.
Home to iconic Northwoods species — among them moose, several wolf packs, black bears, bald eagles and owls — its wetlands are also a haven for beavers and amphibians. Roughly 40% of the park is water, it’s also populated with walleye, northern pike, lake trout and sturgeon.
Boreal tree species from the north — spruce, fir, aspen and paper birch — mingle with maples, oaks, pines, oaks and basswood from the south and east. Time it right and strawberries, blueberries and raspberries abound.
Experiencing four distinct seasons, the weather is most temperate June through August. The park remains frost-free an average of 120 days from June to mid-September, with the average date beginning May 3.
Fairly rainy and snowy, annual precipitation — including rain and snow — averages 25 to 28 inches. The snowfall varies but is usually between 55 and 70 inches, beginning in late October.
Keep an eye on trail and weather conditions on the park’s website.
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints
Narrow, winding and rocky, the 3-mile Blind Ash Bay Trail cuts through the boreal forest, with ample opportunities to spot wildlife, such as deer and a variety of birds.
The 1.7-mile out-and-back Oberholtzer Trail travels through deciduous and conifer forest before twisting through a cattail-dotted wetland and past rocks that were left by ancient glaciers.
Fringed by pine trees, the .4-mile Kabetogama Lake Trail is an easy option with excellent lake vistas.
Another non-strenuous choice is the .3-mile, out-and-back Beaver Pond Overlook Trail is a short, uphill hike that culminates in a view of its namesake.
Opt to take Minnesota’s northernmost scenic drive — Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway — which travels from Voyageurs National Park along the Canadian border. Motor from Rainy River in International Falls to Baudette, pass through fields of lady’s slippers from Baudette to Warroad, and follow the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail west of Warroad.
National Parks in Missouri
Gateway Arch National Park
Set in the city of St. Louis, Gateway Arch National Park serves as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s role in opening the west, leading to the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century; the explorers, pioneers and rebels who helped shape American history; and Dred Scott — and his wife, Harriet — who sued for their freedom from slavery.
Formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the national park now consists of the Gateway Arch; an underground visitor center beneath it; the Museum of Westward Expansion; and St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, which is two blocks west of the arch.
Constructed of stainless steel, the arch:
- Spans 630 feet between the outer faces of its triangular legs at ground level
- Soars 630 feet into the sky
- Is shaped like an inverted catenary curve
- Has legs shaped like an equilateral triangle
- Has legs that are 54 feet long at ground level, tapering to 17 feet up top
The Flora and Fauna
Set on 91 picturesque acres, Gateway Arch is the smallest national park in the United States. An oasis of ornamental turf grass, bald cypress trees, shrubs and flowers, it’s an urban oasis that includes Zen gardens and even a native grass meadow.
Situated between the prolific habitat of the Mississippi River and downtown St. Louis, the park welcomes urban-adapted species, like raccoons, white-tailed deer and Canada geese. Meanwhile, resident birds include mourning doves, northern cardinals, robins, house finches and blue jays. Not to be overlooked are the insects — like Monarch butterflies and buzzing bees — which are crucial to its ecology.
Featuring hot, muggy summers, winters in St. Louis are quite cold and snowy. Seeing an average of 42 inches of rain per year, May through August are its busiest months. Crowds are much smaller in January and February, while March and April usher in spring and an increase in visitors. Fall is a pleasant time to visit, though crowds can peak, as they do in November and December, especially when kids are out of school.
Keep an eye on current conditions on the park’s website.
The arch takes visitors from the lower-level lobby to the observation platform at the top of the arch via a conveyance system. The 40-passenger train — in total eight five-passenger capsules per leg — runs at the rate of 340 feet per minute and takes 10 minutes to complete a round trip. From the observation platform at the top, plate-glass windows offer expansive east and west views.
National Parks in North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Located in western North Dakota, where the Great Plains meet the rugged badlands, sprawling Theodore Roosevelt National Park memorializes its namesake president, who began ranching operations in the Dakota Territory after the death of his wife and mother in the late 1800s. However, the park’s cultural history extends back thousands of years.
Whether directly or indirectly, the park is greatly impacted by environmental factors, be it glaciation, ancient swamps and river deltas, or constant winds and sporadic, torrential rainstorms. From its flood plains to its forests, prairies, rivers and streams, it’s a land of stark contrasts filled with fascinating geologic formations, glacial features and fossils.
Although an absence of artifacts was found in the park proper, the region’s historic inhabitants include the Mandan and Hidatsa, whose traditional bison hunting grounds included the Little Missouri River basin.
West of the badlands, the Crow used the badlands at the eastern edge of their territory, while hunting and trading drew other tribes — such as the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Chippewa, Cree, Sioux and Rocky Boy — in the early 19th century.
The Flora and Fauna
A wide variety of animal species call Theodore Roosevelt National Park home, thanks in no small part to its native grasses, which supply sustenance for large and small grazing animals. Its varied habitats attract a diversity of birds, while its intriguing terrain results in microclimates that range from warm, dry slopes to cooler, wetter juniper woodlands, and river bottoms filled with life.
Visitors may see bison, wild horses and elk, as well as pronghorn, prairie dogs, and white-tail and mule deer. Plenty of reptiles — like bull snakes, prairie rattlesnakes, western painted turtles and short-horned lizards — are residents, too, as are more than 186 types of birds and amphibians, such as boreal chorus frogs and tiger salamanders.
As for plant life, more than 400 species have been identified in the park’s prairies, grasslands, forested and cooler slopes, and dry, south-facing buttes. Boasting an impressive display of wildflowers, the pasqueflower is the first to bloom, followed later by sunflowers, asters and rabbitbrush.
Warm, sunny weather prevails in summer, when temperatures typically are in the 70s° F and 80s° F. Conversely, winters are cold — as in the single digits from December through February. The park receives an average of 15 inches of precipitation per year, which includes an average of 30 inches of snow during the winter.
Violent thunderstorms in summer and blizzards in winter can occur. Watch for current conditions on the park’s website.
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints
The 4.4-mile Caprock Coulee Loop travels through dry washes, with vistas of the Little Missouri River and vibrant badlands landscape. Wildlife sightings are common along this route, which ascends 730 feet.
Short and sweet, the family-friendly, .5-mile Wind Canyon Trail begins at Scenic Loop Road, taking hikers past wind-eroded cliffs above the Little Missouri river and culminating at a dramatic lookout point over the breathtaking, barren landscape.
A short hike just off of I-94, the 1.1-mile Painted Canyon Nature Trail drops down into the canyon, revealing vivid layers of eroded rock and a proliferation of wildflowers and junipers.
The .8-mile out-and-back Boicourt Overlook Trail is a stunner offering vast panoramas of the rugged, rolling landscape and distant buttes from above.
A remote, unpaved backcountry route, the 4.4-mile Petrified Forest Trail lends insight into the park’s geologic past, when it was dominated by shallow swamps and soaring trees. After traveling up out of the badlands into a wide prairie, the trail splits, each side taking hikers through a valley filled with petrified stumps.
From the South Unit Visitor Center, putter along 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive through the colorful badlands and prairie dog towns, with many opportunities to spot wildlife. In the North Unit, hook up with the 14-mile scenic drive, which follows the north rim of the Little Missouri River Valley for magnificent views and more chances to see wildlife.
National Parks in Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Set along the winding Cuyahoga River, between the urban Ohio cities of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers over 125 miles of hiking trails, not to mention a chance to ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a unique way to experience its natural beauty.
With over 12,000 years of human occupation, Native Americans were the first occupants, building villages before Europeans established trading posts and New England settlers decided to stay. While the Native American villages, pioneer settlements and canal worker communities no longer exist, remnants throughout the park offer insight into the past.
The 22-mile stretch of river — a riparian habitat — is but one element of the park, joined by deciduous mixed-mesophytic forests and wetland habitats.
The Flora and Fauna
The park has 900 resident plant species, in addition to well over 200 bird species, 32 mammals, 91 aquatic macroinvertebrates, 43 fish, 22 amphibians, and 20 reptile species. Featuring two distinct geographic regions — the Appalachian Plateau and the Central Lowlands — 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley welcomes coyotes, red and gray foxes, bats, chipmunks and squirrels, along with deer, beavers and muskrats.
The northern copperhead threatened spotted turtle and 28 species of birds of concern populate the landscape, too. Look overhead to spot bald eagles or peregrine falcons, as well as three heronries within the park’s boundaries.
A stroll through the forests and fields reveals field or forest many of the park’s 943 plant species, be it bloodroot and spring beauty on the forest floor or late summer stands of goldenrod and wingstem lining roadways.
Warming springs and humid summers, ranging from 49 F to 95 F, make layering one’s attire a must. Fall temperatures can vary significantly, too, ranging from low 70s F during the day to freezing during the night. Winter weather has the potential to change rapidly on account of lake effect snow from Lake Erie, when temperatures hover between the mid-30s F to below zero.
Check the park’s website for current conditions and closures.
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints
Offering the best panoramas of the park — including its sandstone layered rock “ledges” — the 2.3-mile Ledges Trail takes you through mossy passageways and an overlook with views for miles.
A 1.4-mile loop near the town of Hudson, the Brandywine Gorge Trail, when taken clockwise, takes you down into the gorge, back up the other side, over the falls and to a viewing boardwalk to see it plummet and hear its roar. Consider taking the 3.9-mile Stanford Trail, one of the most popular in the park, seeing the historic 1843 Stanford House, a raised, three-bay barn.
Mostly made of dirt, the 2.4-mile Blue Hen Falls Trail — via the Buckeye Trail from Boston Mill — begins with a 200-foot climb and zigzags through the forest before descending to the picturesque waterfall. Expect a steep 580-foot change in elevation.
Consider combining the Pine Grove and Forest Point Trails for a family-friendly, 2.7-mile trek through wooded deciduous greenery, hemlocks and oaks as well as a stippling of wildflowers swaying switchgrass.
Looking for a pretty drive? Riverview Road Scenic Drive — or County Road 9 — extends nearly 20 miles through this park, through some of the most beautiful parts of the park, with picnic areas, waterfalls and visitors centers accessible just off its route. You can also park and take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, its tracks are visible from the road.
National Parks in South Dakota
Badlands National Park
A wilderness of layered rock formations, soaring spires and steep canyons, wild and wonderful Badlands National Park spans 242,756 singular acres in southwestern South Dakota.
Archaeological finds show people have been in and around the Badlands for as long as 12,000 years. The park’s South Unit resides entirely on Tribal Trust land, held in trust by the federal government for the use and benefit of Oglala Sioux tribe members, though a great number of associated tribes have histories associated with the park’s natural and cultural landscape. Later, homesteaders moved to the Midwest in search of a new life, some ultimately homesteading in the Badlands.
Surrounded by a mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, the ever-changing, deeply eroded expanse of buttes, pinnacles and spires — deposited as early as 75 million years ago — reveal fossilized remains buried in the rock beneath.
The Flora and Fauna
A place both once striking and stark, ancient horses and rhinos once roamed here. Today, the Badlands welcome bighorn sheep, pronghorns, bison, black-footed ferrets (one of North America’s most endangered animals) and comical, curious — not to mention vocal — prairie dogs, who pop up from holes in the ground. Meanwhile, birds of prey coast overhead in search of their next meal, perhaps venomous, thermosensitive prairie rattlesnakes. Roughly 206 bird species, 69 documented species of butterflies and amphibians from frogs to toads have also been found in Badlands National Park.
Weather is known to change quickly in the Badlands, with highly variable, extreme temperatures that range from 116 F to -40 F. June is the wettest month and violent thunderstorms can occur during hot, dry summers. Meanwhile, the Badlands are no stranger to hailstorms; the occasional tornado can occur; and winter typically brings 12 to 24 inches of snow.
Because changes in weather can be both sudden and dramatic, it’s important to dress in layers, wear protective sunblock and carry adequate water for hiking.
Always check weather conditions on the park’s website to help prepare for visits.
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints
Wind through a canyon and climb a log ladder, following a ledge to vistas of the White River Valley on the 1.5-mile, out-and-back Notch Trail, the park’s most popular hike. Note, however, that it’s treacherous during or after heavy rains or snow.
Set out on a .9-mile hike along The Door Trail, where a boardwalk leads to an opening in Badlands Wall, revealing a rugged, otherworldly landscape.
Requiring caution and a climb of 900 feet, 5.5-mile The Window Trail drops into Oak Creek Canyon to the Window pour-off, with its spectacular desert vistas. Depending on conditions, though, Oak Creek may be flowing and therefore crossed several times. Additionally, the top of the Window pour-off is slickrock, without railings.
Climb up the Badlands Wall for views over the White River Valley on the .7-mile Saddle Pass Trail, from which it’s possible to connect with the Castle and Medicine Root Loop trails. Although among the park’s shorter trails, it’s also one of the steepest, with a 300-foot change in elevation.
Don’t skip the surreal 39-mile loop drive on South Dakota Highway 240 between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall — it’s so dramatic, so, thrilling, it has been featured in driving video games. With 16 overlooks, view everything from the Pinnacles to the Burns and Conata Basin and the Yellow Mounds, the result of an ancient sea draining away and the chemicals from decaying plants.
Wind Cave National Park
Tucked into the southwestern corner of South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park is best known for one of the longest and most complex caves in the world, a subterranean maze of passages with boxwork, a unique, rarely seen formation consisting of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern.
Above, an intact prairie and ponderosa forests are intersected by hiking trails. Incredible Black Hills scenery creates a home for some of North America’s most iconic wildlife and prairie dog towns — or colonies — offer sightings of these social creatures.
A place of mystery and endless oral stories, native people called the Black Hills home since time immemorial.
The Flora and Fauna
A tale of two vastly different worlds within the park’s boundaries, its cave is a seldom seen mix of needle-like frostwork, popcorn — small, knobby growths of calcite — and rarely found boxwork, along with stalactites, stalagmites, dogtooth spar crystals and flowstone.
Above ground, bison, elk and pronghorns live among American bison, endangered black-footed ferrets, elk, mule deer, coyotes and secretive bobcats. Challenging as the environment may be, several species of reptiles and amphibians — from trilling frogs to poisonous prairie rattlesnakes — are residents.
Vanilla-scented ponderosa pines give way to prairie grasses and delicate wildflowers. Punctuated by white sego lilies, purple coneflowers and cheery sunflowers, the flora is an unexpected feast for the eyes.
Generally semi-arid, with mild winters and warm summers, Wind Cave’s weather is
greatly influenced by the Rocky Mountains to the west, as well as the high peaks of the northern Black Hills. It’s significantly warmer and drier than the northern hills, even when arctic air masses move south from Canada.
Seeing an average annual winter of 30 inches, spring and fall days alternate between warm and sunny and cool, windy and rainy. Summer ushers in warm daytime temperatures with cool evenings, with oft-occurring, severe thunderstorms, hail and lightning in June and July.
Be cautious of flash-flooding and do keep an eye on weather conditions on the park’s website.
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints
No visit to the park is complete without taking a guided tour of the cave, be it the hour-long Garden of Eden tour to see boxwork, frostwork and cave popcorn; boxwork and cave popcorn reveals during the slightly longer Natural Entrance tour; or the strenuous Fairgrounds tour, another, more lengthy chance to discover boxwork, frostwork and cave popcorn, with steep stair climbs.
The 1-mile Raskin Ridge Interpretive Trail is a short, stunning hike to the highest point in the park, with views of Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap on clear days.
Combine the Lookout Point and Centennial Loop Trails for a 5.2-mile taste of the 113-mile Centennial Trail, which runs from Bear Butte to Wind Cave National Park. A narrow trek mostly upon slickrock, it features a lookout from the park’s pinnacle and vast views across mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa forests.
A 2.8-mile out-and-back trail near Custer, the 2.8-mile Cold Brook Canyon Trail winds through its namesake, with opportunities to clean up vibrant raptor populations and prairie dog colonies.
The 3.8-mile out-and-back Wind Cave Canyon Trail Wind Cave Canyon takes hikers along an old road to the park’s boundary, seeing limestone cliffs, which are nesting habitats for cliff swallows, canyon wrens and great horned owls.
Both US Highway 385 and South Dakota Highway 87 — the two main roads through the park — afford scenic drives with pull-outs for appreciating the landscape and spotting wildlife.
Whether you live in the Midwest, are considering a cross-country move to the central U.S. or are planning a visit, our blog is filled with ideas to experience the region through a local lens.
Heading to another part of the country, whether to move, for business or for pleasure? Be sure to check out our other national park guides:
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