Rankin Ridge Nature Trail, Wind Cave National Park

When you’re looking to get a good overview of the “above ground” features of Wind Cave National Park, what better way than to climb to the highest point. Fortunately, that’s easy to do with the Rankin Ridge Nature Trail. This one-mile loop takes you to an old retired fire tower with views into the Black Hills and as far away as The Badlands. Watch for wildlife and wildflowers along the way. My brother Dave and I hiked Rankin Ridge Trail on Thursday, May 24, 2018 beginning about 8:30AM and finishing at 9:15AM. This was a nice tuneup for a longer hike later in the morning.

Total Length: 1 mile Hike Duration: 45 minutes

Hike Rating: Mostly easy. There is some moderate climbing on the way up.

Hike Configuration: Loop Blaze: Nature trail markers

Trail Condition: Good. Uphill is a rocky climb thru pine forest. Downhill is a dirt road.

Starting Point: Parking area off Hwy 87. Room for half a dozen cars.

Trail Traffic: We did not encounter anyone else during our early morning trek.

How to Get There: From Custer, SD take Hwy 385 south to Pringle then east to the park. Approximately 18 miles total distance.


Rankin Ridge Trail Map

We stopped at the Visitor Center for Wind Cave National Park to talk with a friendly ranger about above ground hiking recommendations. Since this was our first visit to the park, he suggested three, to get our feet wet. Boland Ridge in the far reaches of the park and known for wildlife, the Lookout Point/Centennial loop in the heart of the park, and this one that features access to a fire tower at the highest point in the park, and therefore offers a good overview of all that surrounds the ridge.

We chose to do Rankin Ridge first. It’s easy to get to and on the way to Boland Ridge. Plus it’s only a mile loop.

The trailhead is a short drive up a hill off Hwy 87 in the northern part of the park. It starts deep in the woods, in a pine forest, and climbs gently to the ridge. We were treated immediately, just past the trailhead, to a wealth of wildflowers including bluebells and pink shooting stars. I’ve seen white shooting stars before, in the Smokies, but these were my first pink ones.

Soon, there are views to the north through the trees of the craggy Black Hills in the distance. Some of those crags would be on our hiking agenda later in the week. As we approached the ridge line, the terrain got rockier. A summer intern project had done a nice job years ago building a stone stairway through the outcrops.

As we topped the ridge the wide expanse of the South Dakotan horizon came in to view. Far in the distance to the east is Buffalo Gap, a natural pass through the mountains in this area. Beyond that, even farther east, we could just make out the Badlands area where we had been the days before.

There’s a fire tower at the high point, still climbable. Far below there was a lone bison grazing amidst the pine forest. From this perch we could see the vast prairies, one of which would be our next hike, the canyon area we would be hiking the next day, and the forest that is intermingled amongst it all.

The return to the car is a simple stroll down the old dirt road that used to carry the park rangers to the fire tower when it was still in use.

This short nature trail was a good recommendation by the park ranger. It helped us get a good feel for the lay of the land that makes up Wind Cave National Park. This is typical western South Dakota with prairie, hills and forest. Most people come to Wind Cave for the massive caverns found below ground. Don’t cheat yourself, however, by not exploring the fantastic scenery that is also found above.



This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.


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