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12 Months of National Parks — No. 9, Wind Cave: Drama unfolds in a quiet corner of the prairie

First Published      Last Updated Aug 22 2016 08:59 am

Some of the most interesting surprises in the national parks are in the back corners: the places that aren't widely promoted and don't see much traffic.

Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota pretty clearly advertises the main attraction. My family and I really enjoyed the cave — the first one my daughter had gone into during our yearlong tour of national parks. The boxwork and popcorn formations cast mysteries of texture in the low light, and the ranger interpretation was really entertaining.

But for me, the highlight of Wind Cave was on the back roads in the northern reaches of the park. There we found great wildlife drama on the sprawling prairies checkerboarded in tawny and green bunchgrasses.



We were watching a herd of bison near the road when a coyote approached them like it owned the place. It walked through the herd, directly toward a calf that was surrounded by adults. Eventually an adult bison gave some threatening stomps, and the calf and its mother galloped away. Still the coyote lingered while the remaining bison stared it down.

What was this coyote trying to do? I don't know. After it outstayed its welcome, it trotted to a nearby prairie dog town and ate something bloody. A prairie dog stood a few yards away and watched; perhaps the meal was an unlucky companion. A pronghorn then appeared, surveyed the scene and ran away. Bison calves were nursing.

There was so much to see. We sat in the parked car for about 45 minutes before continuing our exploration. Nobody else drove by.

There is great opportunity to choose your own adventure in the national parks. It's easy to rely on guide literature to identify popular attractions and plan every minute of a trip because we all want to make the most of our time. But sometimes it's just as well to make time to be surprised.

National park hike: Wind Cave, Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden is one of several cave tours offered at Wind Cave. It's 1/3 mile, and while there is a long stretch of narrow stairs at the beginning of the tour, it is not strenuous. The tour lasts about one hour and gives a nice sampling of cave formations while passing through magnificent underground rooms. You can find details on the park's website.

Previous national park trip reports

12 Months of National Parks: A mother-daughter tour

12 Months of National Parks — No. 1, Acadia: Small children love nature, but on their own level

12 Months of National Parks — No. 2, Capitol Reef: 'People shouldn't be here'

12 Months of National Parks — No. 3, Arches: Are national park rules too strict?

12 Months of National Parks — No. 4, Canyonlands: The best fun may require a child's eyes

12 Months of National Parks — No. 5, Biscayne: A threatened park claws its way forward

12 Months of National Parks — No. 6, Everglades: Please don't spank the gator

12 Months of National Parks — No. 7, Bryce Canyon: The $10 lifetime senior pass needs to end

12 Months of National Parks — No. 8, Death Valley: The poetry of survival

ealberty@sltrib.com

Twitter: @erinalberty

 

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