We had a really busy day on Saturday, with three stops on our agenda. First up was the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.
We had seen it on the map, and on several billboards along the road, so we drove a few miles south of Hot Springs to check it out.
The Wild Horse Sanctuary provides a safe place for wild and rescued mustangs to roam free and thrive.
We had hoped we’d be able to drive through the sanctuary and see some of the horses, but it turned out that you had to take one of their guided tours to see the horses.
At $50/person, and 2 hours, we decided to skip the tour. They did have a few Choctaw Ponies that had recently had babies, up near the Visitor Center, so we stopped to see them before we left.
The babies were really cute!
From the sanctuary, we drove back to the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs.
In 1974, while excavating for a housing development, the contractor discovered a bone that turned out to be from a mammoth. 26,000 years ago, this site was a water-filled sinkhole which numerous columbian and wooly mammoths had fallen into and died, eventually covered by a mound of sedimentary rock.
Wooly Mammoth – actual size
Columbian Mammoth – the largest of all
The site was eventually secured by a non-profit group, and a climate-controlled building was constructed over the site to contain and preserve the prehistoric remains.
97% of the sinkhole is contained within this large open room. They have dug down about 20 feet so far, and have discovered 121 tusks, so at least 61 mammoths – 58 of them have been identified as columbian, and 3 as wooly.
These are the tools used by the scientists to dig, and beside them is a tusk. July is the only month when digging is done, and the other 11 months of the year are spent testing and analyzing what has been uncovered.
This skeleton is nearly complete, missing only the head, and was found near the edge of the sinkhole. The scientists believe that he was trying to climb out of the sinkhole, and died there, although they don’t know what happened to his head.
Below is the head and tusks of another mammoth.
Even after the sinkhole dried up, as it continued to fill with sediment, mammoths travelled through the area.
The scientists have found evidence of their footprints, both in the cross-section of the rock (indicated by the green arrows in the photo below),
and on the surface of the layers of rock as they are removed. (In the foreground of the picture above are teeth.)
While we were on our tour, we saw scientists at work in the dig site,
as well as down in the lab, analyzing and cleaning.
Mammoths aren’t the only animal remains that have been found in the sinkhole. There have been 58 other species of mammal discovered – including rabbits, wolves, prairie dogs, and even a prehistoric short-faced bear,
one of only 15 found in the entire world!
It was a very interesting tour, and in addition to the dig site, they also have an exhibit hall with displays of replicas of the mammoths.
Mammoths, especially wooly mammoths, were hunted by Indian tribes and their hide was used for clothing and building shelters.
The Mammoth Site was a really interesting and educational stop, and we’re glad we visited!
From there we drove north a few miles to Wind Cave National Park.
On the surface, it looks like most of the surrounding area, but lurking below the surface is 140 miles of narrow, complex passageways.
After arriving at the Visitor Center, we purchased tickets to the next available Natural Entrance tour. Before our tour, we had just enough time to watch the orientation video where we learned about the discovery of the cave, the exploration that took place before it became the 6th national park, and the preservation efforts that have taken place since then.
This small opening in the rock is where those first explorers discovered wind coming from the cave, and its where they entered the cave to continue exploration.
Depending on the barometric pressure, the wind can be coming out of the cave, or being pulled into the cave. On the day we were there, the wind was blowing out of the cave.
That small opening may have looked inviting to those early explorers, but we were glad we had a more “normal” entrance to go through!
As we started down the stairs, we could see the instrumentation that is monitoring the wind going in and out of that original opening.
We continued down into the cave,
and began to see the feature of this cave that makes it unique from all others --
Boxwork. 95% of all known boxwork in the world is found in Wind Cave.
Boxwork was formed when the limestone layers below the surface developed cracks, and these cracks filled in with sediment. Over time, as water flowed through these passageways, the limestone eroded away, and the stronger sedimentary material in the cracks remained.
This was the first time we had seen boxwork, and it was truly amazing!
We continued through the narrow passageways, and reached an area where we found some more interesting cave formations --
We continued moving through the narrow passages,
and occasional our ranger guide, Adam, would stop and tell us about some interesting feature of the cave, or point out some hidden tunnel, or just ask us to think about what it was probably like for those early explorers to venture into unexplored territory, with only a candle to light their way.
Our tour ended at one of the few larger rooms in Wind Cave,
and we took one last look at some boxwork before taking the short path up to the elevator where we exited the cave, ascending 20 stories back to the surface.
An amazing and educational day!