Hiking the "Limestone Canyon Loop" at Wind Cave National Park

Posted by Michael Zimny on

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you feel like a Black Hills hike a little lighter on the granite and pondos, heavier on the ochre-fringed, undulant hills. If that’s the case, you’ll do well to look south to Wind Cave National Park, the high rolling prairie lover’s lesser known utopia. 

Wind Cave receives a small fraction of the visitors of attractions like Mount Rushmore or the Needle’s Eye. And most of those who make the trip take the cave tour, maybe an auto safari to peep some buffalo. Very few ever set foot on a trail, let alone one of the longer trails accessible from trailheads on a couple sparsely trafficked gravel NPS roads. Pick any one of these, and your chances of seeing anything else on two legs for the length of your ramble are slimmer than the stalks of the waving golden grains you'll wade in.

A mixed grass prairie greets the seasons in its own way. In fall, stands of copper-tinted bluestem and rose hips flammulate the plains with bursts of autumn color. In winter, you might see bison covered in snow like Lucasian arctic extras from the planet Hoth. As long as you're suitably equipped, there's no bad time to go.

WChills.jpgJust before sunrise at Wind Cave.

By combining sections of two or more trails, you can fashion a DIY “Limestone Canyon Loop”. The loop we’ll focus one here is a 13-miler, give or take, that combines sections of the Centennial and Highland Creek Trails.

Wind Cave hiking guide disclaimer: sometimes prairie trails become faint to nonexistent or cross paths with well-worn game trails. Trail markers help, but on the occasions where markers and trail go sparse in parallel, binoculars (or a zoom lens) might come in handy.

You get to the Centennial Trailhead by taking the 87 to the NPS 5, and heading Southwest (you can only turn one way). At the sign for the trailhead, ignore the path that follows along the road for the perpendicular-to-the-road, South-facing trail up into the Hills. 

4elk.jpg

You’ll quickly enter a vintage burn scar where Park staff have cut and stacked piles of timber for winter ignition. In the center of a depression, watch for the trail to veer left up and out of the burn scar and pass a creek into open meadows shimmering with bluestem.  At your first prairie dog colony, you might spy a coyote on the hunt or grazing elk, especially if you start around sunrise during bugling season. To your right the Rankin Ridge firetower stands guard. 

WCcoyote3.jpg

About three miles in, you’ll pass the junction with the Sanctuary Trail and keep trucking, through another dogtown bordered by thickets of thistle, then through a by-now familiar pattern of prairie pinstriped by bands of ponderosa, before entering a large stretch of char, where a graveyard of standing and fallen snags requires some navigation. The gothic feel here is a good chance to get a Tim Burton vibe going, maybe play some Sisters of Mercy on the inner iPod. If you’re young or unfamiliar, maybe some Drake will do. 

By the time you get to your first green band of needled pines you might want to ease up on the emo as you brak through into a cheery meadow where elk graze and then, around a bend, the crest of Limestone Canyon. The pines that grow from cracks in the canyon facade are a popular perch for birds to scan and swoop on the valley below. In the absence of wings, you’ll have to sidewind your way down to a birdsong soundtrack. 

bird2.jpg

bird.jpg

bird6_.jpg

At the bottom, take a moment for Rainbow Family/dervish/Julie Andrews style scene-absorption, at least in your head. My pictures of the canyon are like a rattlesnake jury deciding a prairie dog’s fate. They can’t do it justice. So when you see it for yourself, you’ll want to take it all in. Not many human feet ever stand where yours are now.

At the trail junction here, a sign will tell you’ve got 6.3 miles back to NPS 5. You want to follow the #4 trail for a half mile to another junction with the Highland Creek, #7 trail. As you walk, the canyon widens into a giant walled Eden underneath the Big South Dakota sky. 

elkcanyonwall.jpg

WCbison.jpg

After hopping on the #7, you’ll climb up a drainage out of the redrock cathedral. This is where your legs have to work for the bucolic bling bestowed on your soul. At the top, you’ll pass a boundary fence, then exit the treeline into a high open prairie with 360 degree views of pine-plumed hills. The firetower is visible to the Southwest, with a glimpse of the NPS 5 to the North. 

You’ll pass a red earth buffalo wallow, grass mixed with sage and rose hips, then alternating stands of pine and limestone studded prairie until you enter a dogtown built around a single lightning struck snag. They’re especially chirpy here. Bison have already bullied themselves a wallow on the heart of Main Street, and they don’t much like out of towners. No worries. You’ll quickly exit right and wind through rolling hills.

buck.windcave.jpg

prairiedog2.jpg

At the junction with the #5, you have 3.3 miles to go. Watch for the trail markers to take a quick right when the trail becomes very faint. It’s all reddish and amber (for now) shades of prairie weaving in and out of dogtowns from here as the occasional meadowlark bursts from a clump of sage.

As you reach the 5, you’ll likely run into ones and threes of ornery old bison bulls. At the NPS 5, hang a left and the dogs will chirp you home on the final leg back to the Centennial trailhead. You've now covered as representative a roving intro to the beauty of the Southern Hills as any. You'll be back. 

subscribe to sdpb email updates food blog link image learning blog link image living blog link news and information blog link science and technology blog link sports blog link image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

In The Moment ... Remembering The Cold War In South Dakota

In The Moment ... June 19, 2017 Show 117 Hour 2 We look back now at the Cold War, when notions of a nuclear attack...

In The Moment ... Warrior Culture And 200 Years Of Fort Pierre

In The Moment ... June 13, 2017 Show 113 Hour 2 The current issue of “South Dakota Magazine” highlights South Dakota'...

In The Moment ... Meet The Street Poet

In The Moment ... June 5, 2017 Show 107 Hour 2 Vernon Patterson writes poetry about personal growth, his experiences...

In The Moment ... Benjamin Jones And “Eisenhower’s Guerillas”

In The Moment ... June 1, 2017 Show 105 Hour 2 Ben Jones is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Dakota State University. He'...

Books

In The Moment ... Adoption In South Dakota

In The Moment ... July 20, 2017 Show 138 Hour 1 Today we talk adoption in the state, going beyond the politics of...

In The Moment ... Summer Reading With Peggy Stout

In The Moment ... June 29, 2017 Show 125 Hour 1 It's time to pack your beach bag with books and get ready for a...

In The Moment ... Children’s Literature In The Age Of Trump

In The Moment ... May 19, 2017 Show 097 Hour 1 We could all use a laugh right now, especially children. So says...

In The Moment ... Dental Forensics And The Deadwood Pioneer

In The Moment ... May 16, 2017 Show 094 Hour 2 "Deadwood Pioneer: A Face from the Past" is a new documentary from...

Music

In The Moment ... Yoga Culture In South Dakota

In The Moment ... July 24, 2017 Show 140 Hour 2 South Dakota yoga lovers Gather, Embrace, and Expand this weekend at...

Personalities: From Huron High to Broadway

Singer, actor, and teacher Joseph Mahowald graduated from Huron High School in 1977. He went on to study music and...

In The Moment ... Moment In Sound With Bo DePena

In The Moment ... July 21, 2017 Show 139 Hour 1 SDPB’s Steve Zwemke talks with musician Bo DePena. His latest EP is...

In The Moment ... Moment In Sound With Matthew Curry

In The Moment ... July 14, 2017 Show 134 Hour 1 Matthew Curry plays JazzFest tonight in Sioux Falls. You can see him...

Theater

In The Moment ... Alex Meyer's Scenic Design

In The Moment ... May 10, 2017 Show 090 Hour 2 Alex Meyer. He's a junior art and theater major at Augustana College...

In The Moment ... Remembering Vietnam On Horseback

In The Moment ... May 9, 2017 Show 089 Hour 2 Colt Romberger’s father served in Vietnam, and it changed his life...

Dakota Midday: S.F. Washington's "Wizard Of Oz"

South Dakota high schools produce a variety of plays each year. This week the Washington High School drama...

Dakota Midday: Lisa McNulty On Female Artists

The Off-Broadway Women's Project Theater is the oldest and largest theater company that promotes women artists in...