Wind Cave Exploration

Cavers in Snowdrift Avenue
Snowdrift Avenue

NPS Photo by D.A. Buehler

For all practical purposes the exploration and mapping of Wind Cave has been accomplished by volunteer help. Over many years, many people have contributed their knowledge, skills, and efforts to create the map that rangers and park visitors alike look at in wonderment.

What follows is a brief history of the discovery, exploration, and survey of Wind Cave.

Natural Entrance to Wind Cave- a small hole in the surrounding rock.
The only known natural entrance to Wind Cave

NPS Photo

Discovery of the Entrance

The discovery of the entrance to Wind Cave is shrouded in mystery. Lakota Indians traveling and living in the Black Hills were the first people to notice the entrance to the cave. They consider the area sacred. There is no evidence that any of them actually entered the cave.

The discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought an onslaught of white settlers during 1876 and it was perhaps inevitable that someone would happen upon the entrance to Wind Cave. By most accounts, that is credited to Tom and Jesse Bingham during the spring of 1881. They noticed an 12 x 10 inch [30 x 25 cm] hole. Air rushing out of the hole knocked the hat right off of Jesse's head! The Binghams saw the windy entrance as a curiosity and had no other association with the cave.


Early Explorations

Between the time of the Binghams noticing the winds of Wind Cave and 1890 several groups of people were reported to have visited the cave to explore..."the labyrinthine mazes of that attractive wonder..."(Custer Chronicle, July 1886). By September 23, 1887 the Hot Springs Star was reporting that Wind Cave had been explored for three miles [5km] and "no bottom found". Early caves lengths such as this were probably exaggerations of inexperienced cave explorers or of the press.

Exploration activity took off when J.D. McDonald was hired as manager of Wind Cave by the South Dakota Mining Company in 1890. Fortunately for us Alvin McDonald, one of J.D.'s sons, started recording his exploration trips into Wind Cave. Alvin's diary describes the explorations in Wind Cave from 1891-1893 by members of the McDonald and Stabler families and people who came to visit the cave.

signatures in the rock of the Fairgrounds Discovery
Fairgrounds discovery

NPS Photo by Bill Holmes

Based upon Alvin's writings, signatures, specimen stashes, and artifacts discovered in the cave it is possible to estimate the extent of exploration during this historic period of Wind Cave's history. Despite claims by the McDonald's that the cave had been explored for 97 miles [156km] (see Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills, L.A. Owen 1898), only 5-8 miles [8-13km] of passages were known by these first cave explorers.

Jeri Kizer using surveying equipment to get cave measurements.
Jeri Kizer reading instruments

NPS Photo

Modern cave exploration began with surveying and mapping of the cave. The first survey of Wind Cave started on April 4, 1902. The United States Wind Cave Survey (USWCS) was commissioned by the General Land Office and was done by Maryon Willsie, a surveyor from Rapid City, South Dakota. Willsie surveyed 4509.2 feet [1374m], basically following the current Natural Entrance route to the Assembly Room, out to the Pearly Gates, and up to the Fairgrounds. On January 9, 1903, Wind Cave was established. As well as being one of the nation's oldest national parks, it was the first one created solely to protect a cave.

Following the initial flurry of activity in the 1890s, little happened in the way of exploration and survey in Wind Cave for many years. During the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) days, while the trail system was being developed, some additional mapping was done but little in the way of new discoveries was found.

It was not until the 1950s that surveying was again begun at Wind Cave. Cavers from the Colorado Grotto (1950-1970), South Dakota School of Mines (1955-1963), and the National Speleological Society (NSS) Expedition (1959) began to survey in the Historic Zone of the cave. Most of the cave mapped in this area had been previously explored by the McDonalds (principally Alvin) and the Stablers.

NOLS Instructor John Gookin in Crawlway
NOLS Instructor John Gookin in a Crawlway

NPS Photo

To this day, explorers are still surveying passages in the Historic zone that had been previously entered as early as the early 1890s. Individuals and groups that have been involved in the survey of the Historic zone of Wind Cave include Alan Howard (1962), Windy City Grotto (1970-1973), National Park Service (NPS) staff (1971-present), Gartzke-Kopp [Black Hills Spelunkers] (1974), Bruce Zerr (1976), the National Outdoor Leadership School [NOLS] (1978-1989), and the Colorado Grotto (1990-present).

New Cave Passageways Are Discovered

Despite the renewed interest in mapping Wind Cave very little in the way of new passages was discovered until the 1960s. Between 1963 and 1965, Herb and Jan Conn (who have explored over 60 miles [97 km] of Jewel Cave) teamed up with Dave Schnute to make significant breakthroughs in what was then known about Wind Cave. During their explorations they made an exciting discovery off the room called Rome. They found a tight passage that "spilled" over into miles of passage beyond the previously known limits of the cave. This small passage is known as the Spillway. In 1965 the known length of Wind Cave was 10.53 miles [16.95 km].

The discovery of the Spillway led to Omnibus Hall and the Frostline. Until 1984, when the Snake Pit Entrance (called the Blowhole at that time) was connected into Wind Cave, this route provided the only way into what we today know of the vast western reaches of Wind Cave. Even with the connection to the Snake Pit Entrance, the Spillway continues to be the preferred route.

The major discoveries by Conn, Conn and Schnute included the route down to Calcite Lake and the Club Room. All of this, and most of the discoveries made at Wind Cave in the next thirty years was dependent upon the discovery of the Spillway.


In addition to the Conns' western pushes they also found their way out to the Xerox Room. That opened the door to further discoveries by the Colorado Grotto. During the mid-1960s to mid-1970s these cavers pioneered explorations in the Red Crystal Canyon and Atlas Underground Hempworks area. In the past few years these cavers have been the most active mapping group and have added several miles of new passages in the Red Crystal Canyon Area, Historic Zone and Silent Expressway as well as many other areas of the cave.

From 1970 to 1973 the Windy City Grotto, a caving club from Chicago affiliated with the NSS, explored and surveyed in Wind Cave. This period saw over 20 miles [32km] of passages mapped, most of it previously unknown. Major finds that occurred during this time include Windy City Lake (lowest point in the cave) and Half Mile Hall(the largest room/passage yet discovered).

Windy City Lake
Windy City Lake

NPS Photo by Jim Pisarowicz

For the first time in the history of Wind Cave base camps were used to push further into the cave without having to exit the cave between trips. Two base camps were established (one merely a communication station with telephone to the surface) and used during these explorations by Windy City Grotto members. Although such camps are no longer used in the exploration of Wind Cave since the person-power to establish and stock the camps was found to be better utilized in exploring and mapping, this era of exploration established Wind Cave as one of the longest caves yet discovered anywhere in the world. (Currently (2011), base camps are used in Wind Cave. However they are maintained by the cavers using the camp not a cadre of cavers traveling in and out of the cave.)


Over the years Wind Cave National Park has had cavers on the staff who have made contributions to the exploration of the cave. Dave Schnute, who made significant finds with Herb and Jan Conn was a seasonal ranger at Wind Cave. Most of the Wind Cave staff contributions have been in the survey of passages previously known in the Historic zone but several new areas were pioneered by Wind Cave cavers. Most notable of these contributions have been Gypsum Palace/Blue Bayou Avenue (currently the most northeast extent of the cave), the new lakes area beyond Windy City Lake, and several areas north of Omnibus Hall.

John Scheltens was the president of the Windy City Grotto during the early 1970's when they brought Wind Cave to the forefront of the caving world. In 1979 he returned to Wind Cave when he became City Engineer of the town of Hot Springs, SD. Exploration activity took off again as he teamed with ex-Windy City Grotto members Dave Springhetti (from Rapid City, SD) and Andy Flurkey (from Denver until 1985). Assisted on occasion by Colorado Grotto members, occasional NPS staff, and other cavers from across the country, Scheltens has pushed the reaches of Wind Cave to their current limits and is perhaps the most knowledgeable individual about the passages and survey of the cave. Scheltens' significant finds (1979-present) include the Silent Expressway and the entire northwest section of known cave.

In 1984 the Blowhole (Snake Pit Entrance), a small cave long thought to be another entrance into Wind Cave, was pushed by a group of cavers organized by Scheltens. One group of cavers went into Wind Cave via the traditional route through the Spillway and another group through the Blowhole. By shouting and pounding on rocks they eventually linked up proving that Wind Cave had a second entrance.

1984 was a significant year for Wind Cave not only because of the connection of the Blowhole. In that year the first master map was produced that had essentially all the known recorded survey data. This monumental task of organizing surveys and notes, identifying duplicate surveys, hanging surveys, overlapping, unfinished and incorrect surveys was accomplished by John Scheltens. Wind Cave National Park now has converted all the survey data onto a computer database and future maps will by generated by computer programs and plotters.

Protecting the Cave

The focus of cave managers is to protect the passages for future generations to enjoy and study. Exploring the cave informs the park staff of the location of passages so that they can be protected. When exploration conflicts with preservation, preservation comes first. Delicate and unique features of the cave are avoided sometimes sacrificing knowledge of what's beyond.

Many people inquire about the possibilities of exploring Wind Cave. It is important to remember that these passages have been undisturbed in a silent splendor for millions of years. As people begin crawling through passages dust is raised and brilliant white formations may become covered in reddish brown sediment. Even the most careful cavers may accidentally break a formation while negotiating a tight passage.

As a National Park, Wind Cave has the difficult mission of protecting the cave for future generations and allowing people to enjoy and study the cave today. Because of this, undirected and unsupervised underground activities, including exploration, are prohibited. Exploration involves experienced cavers who are participating in established projects as a part of a comprehensive organized program. If you wish to learn more about exploration contact a park ranger.

Just the First Step

The survey and mapping of Wind Cave, interesting and exciting as it is, is only the first step in the exploration of Wind Cave. It is the descriptive stage in our understanding of this vast underground world.

Seen in this perspective, the great length and complexity of Wind Cave as revealed through exploration and mapping provides the taxonomy upon which further explorations can now be accomplished. We are at the stage of knowledge that Linnaeus brought biology when he proposed his taxonomy of living things. That taxonomy, though still ongoing as new species are discovered, laid the groundwork for modern biology, evolution theory, and realization that all life is tied together into an intricate web.

The mapping of Wind Cave is, in many ways, the speleological equivalent to Linneaus' taxonomy. It is the descriptive base upon which further explorations, further questions, can be drawn. It allows the new explorers (geologists, hydrologists, paleontologists, etc.) to ask new and different questions.

What is the relationship of the land above and the cave below the surface? Why are certain speleothems found here and not there? What should we do or not do with a National Park that just happens to be a cave as well as
33,851acres of surface resources?

When Alvin McDonald notes in his diary that he'd given up on the idea of ever finding the end to Wind Cave, that did not deter him from exploring. It was merely the realization that the exploration of Wind Cave, like everything else in the universe, is a never ending process. There is always the need to describe the new, there will always be the need to look around the next bend into the unknown.

Last updated: January 19, 2018

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