Cave Exploration

Imagine exploring the depths of the earth miles from the entrance of Wind Cave. Imagine squeezing through a tight passage and finding a delicate cluster of frostwork, or a large, dark, unexplored room.

Wind Cave is one of the most complex maze caves in the world making it challenging to explore and very easy to get lost. Even with 123.09 miles [198.09 kilometers] of passages explored, only a small fraction of what is beneath the rolling hills of Wind Cave National Park has been found!


The Lakota people of the area have known of holes in the Black Hills that blow air for centuries. They believed that the entrance of Wind Cave was a sacred place, the place of their origin, where the spirits of their people came from.

In 1881, Jesse and Tom Bingham found the hole while they were deer hunting in the area. 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.

In 1890, the South Dakota Mining Co. filed a mining claim for Wind Cave and hired Jesse McDonald as manager. Because the cave had no valuable minerals the company quickly lost interest. Jesse McDonald stayed on as a homesteader and, with the help of his two sons, Elmer and Alvin, developed the cave for visitors.

Alvin McDonald was the first true explorer of Wind Cave. He had a great deal of enthusiasm and explored the passages around today's tour routes. He kept an account of his explorations and activities in a diary, helping us better understand the early history of the cave. On January 23, 1891, at the end of a long day, Alvin noted in his diary, "..have given up the idea of finding the end of Wind Cave". The McDonalds explored about 8 to 9 miles [13-14 km] of cave passage with the explorations ending in a cavern called Rome.


Wind Cave became a national park in 1903. During its early years few passages were explored. In the 1960s David Schnute was invited to Wind Cave. During their explorations they made an exciting discovery off the room called Rome. He, along with Herb and Jan Conn (who have explored over 60 miles [97 km] of passage at Jewel Cave) 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].

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, explorers discovered lakes and larger rooms such as Half Mile Hall. During the summer of 1970, one of the larger lakes was found just beyond previously discovered Calcite Lake. Windy City Lake is 200 feet [67 m] long, 50 feet [17 m] at its widest and around 28 feet [9 m] deep. Today the location of six lakes is known. They are approximately 500 feet [152 m] below the surface, at the water table.



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.



Most discovered passages at Wind Cave lie underneath one square mile. Many attempts have been made to find passage beyond this square mile, but passages always seem to pinch off. Its almost as if there are walls on all four sides keeping Wind Cave within a square.

On September 28, 1991 several explorers went to explore a possible lead beyond the "Silent Expressway", in the southwest corner of the cave. This trip involves a 4 hour squirm from the entrance with many tight and nasty crawls. During their exploration they found a passage off the "Looney Tubes" that led to a sharp squeeze named "Les Miserables". This led to a huge passage, named "Southern Comfort", 600 feet [200 m] long, 50-100 feet [15-30 m] wide, and 30 feet [10 m] tall. These passages went 650 feet [220 m] further south than any other passage in Wind Cave! Wind Cave is no longer square! New discoveries were made in this room including a new form of boxwork.

Exploration involves more than just finding a passage. Survey equipment including a compass, measuring tape, and inclinometer (which measures the slope of the passage) are used to map the cave. Also careful notes and sketches are made to record things found in the passage.

Newly explored passages harbor the untouched beauty of the unique and delicate formations that decorate them. During one exploration trip an exciting formation was recorded in a report. "It is a helictite bush that if not the biggest ever seen by man has to be a close second. The bush starts near the ceiling and continues behind a rock and then down to the floor. The total height is about six feet, the width being about three feet, and it is about two feet thick." The formation was named Emperor Maximus I.

Through the years of exploration many discoveries have been made. In the historic sections of the cave remnants of the past, such as the Chicago Tribune newspaper from 1892, can be found intact in the protected cave environment. Skeletons of rats, bats and birds have been found in the cave as well.

The first report of exploration in Wind Cave was in the fall of 1881. Black Hills pioneer Frank Herbert said he was "talking with Charles Crary in Custer [and] he told me about hole in the ground where the wind came out screeching ... he had been in there and explored it some and left a ball of string unstrung along its route." After this several people managed to squeeze through the natural entrance to enter Wind Cave.

In 1959 exploration trips conducted by the National Speleological Society, a group devoted to the exploration, study and protection of caves, resulted in new passages being mapped within the vicinity of the tour routes. Their explorations renewed interest in exploring and studying the unique passages of Wind Cave.

Last updated: January 17, 2018

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