Wind Cave National Park -- Rankin Ridge Trail
Wind Cave National Park was established in 1903 as our 7th National Park, and the first specifically created to protect a cave system. The cavern is so named due to the strong winds that constantly blow through the small natural entrance due to pressure differences above and below ground. To date over 150 miles of passageways have been explored, though some studies suggest this may only represent 5% of the entire system! Above ground the parks surface area stretches far beyond the cave entrance, encompassing over 28,000 acres of pine forest and mixed-grass prairie. It was our intention to do as I had done eight years prior and enjoy the guided Natural Entrance Tour. Unfortunately, upon this visit in 2019, the elevators which provide access to the cave were under repair and so no tours were available. We therefore had to content ourselves with a quick walk to the natural opening of Wind Cave and then an auto tour through the park. It was still beautiful, to be sure, but I really wanted to enjoy something a bit more unique at Wind Cave than a quick drive though. It was then I remembered reading about a short loop hike located near the northern boundary of the National Park which reportedly offered some outstanding scenery. The loop is known as the Rankin Ridge Trail and along its brief one-mile length it passes a historic fire tower located at the highest elevation in Wind Cave National Park. I quickly decided to add a visit to Rankin Ridge to the itinerary.
The trailhead for Rankin Ridge is located down a short, signed access road off of Highway 87 about five miles north of U.S. 385 near the park visitor center. Being a loop you have two choices of direction to head from the gravel parking area. A gated gravel road heads east while a traditional hiking trail heads north. Heading either direction will return you to the trailhead via the other option. I decided on walking the trail portion first, which turned out to be a good choice as it saved the best views for the back half of the hike. The route immediately begins an easy to moderate climb through a mature forest of pure ponderosa pine. About midway up to the ridge a log bench is passed with a nice view of the ridges and mountains to the northwest. The surroundings get rockier as the crest is neared, with the trail topping the ridge at about the 4/10-mile mark. Here the Rankin Ridge Trail turns south to follow the ridge uphill to the old lookout tower, in about another 1/10-mile. The views form the crest are stunning. Through fires and, unfortunately, the pine beetle plague the east side of the ridge is virtually devoid of trees. The eastern and southern ridges of the Black Hills can be seen close by while the open prairie of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland can be seen in the distance. On the clearest of days you might even make out a thin brown strip along the horizon...that's Badlands National Park, over 40 miles away!
Upon reaching the summit, the highest point in Wind Cave National Park, you'll be standing beneath the historic fire lookout. The tower, built in 1956, stands about 53' in height and is made entirely of steel. The large cab atop it was built as a live-in structure, meaning lookouts used it as a dwelling when on duty. Unfortunately the tower isn't open to climb but that hardly matters as the ridge continues to be completely open to the east. Heading south from the tower the Rankin Ridge Trail now follows the old tower service road, which it will continue to do the remaining half-mile. Views continue to abound until the road veers west and north to cross the ridge at the loops southern end. At this point it's a quick and pleasant walk downhill through the pine woodland back to the gate at the parking area. Overall this is a fantastic short hike. It's suitable for just about anyone (you could even push a stroller up the service road to the summit if you wanted). I don't know that I'd make a special trip to hike it but, if you're already touring Wind Cave, it's a fantastic way to experience the above-ground environment of the National Park. With that come I now invite you along with me as I make a quick circuit of the Rankin Ridge Trail, hopefully providing a good taste of the eye candy offered along the way...as always, please ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 43.622817, -103.485937
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: EASY (Petzoldt Rating: 1.55)
Hike Length: 1.0 miles Hike Duration: 0:30
Trailhead Temp: 80'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 4,750' Max. Elevation: 5,013'
Total Vertical Gain: 275' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 275'
Trails Used (blaze color): Rankin Ridge Nature Trail (unblazed)