Hiking Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

This short hike brings visitors to the highest point in Wind Cave National Park and a historic fire tower. A great hike for all ages in this unique South Dakota National Park.

Rankin Ridge is a spectacular spot to get an overlook at Wind Cave National Park. Being the highest point in the park, you can get a look for miles around. Even to Badlands National Park, on a good day.

Distance: 1 mile

Level: Easy, with some stairs.

Time to Go: Open year-round, summer is easiest, rock steps may be slippery or snow covered in winter months. Check trail conditions.

Dog Friendly: No, but there are two trails near the visitor’s center that are dog friendly. Prairie Vista Trail & Elk Mountain Campground Trail.

Fees: No entrance pass

Trail Head & Parking

From the visitor’s center, head north towards the campground, but stay right at the fork. You’ll come to a “T” in the road, go left. Then, take the first right onto Hwy 87. The road is winding and beautiful. There will be signs for Rankin Ridge, it’s on the right. RV’s and trailers are not allowed in the small parking area, but there is a pull off area by the turn toward Rankin Ridge trail head.

The Trail head is quite obvious with a sign, map, and the usual trail warnings.

Clockwise with Stairs

We chose to hike this trail clockwise and I’m glad we did. This trail makes more sense, based on the terrain, to hike it clockwise. So start out heading north on the left most trail.

Though this is considered an easy trail, there are a fair number of stone steps. They could be slick when wet, take care if it’s raining. The steps are also a main reason to hike this trail clockwise. There are no steps descending from the peak on the other side of the trail. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather climb steps than descend. Especially if they’re wet or I am carrying a child on my back.

The steps are not difficult, take your time and watch your step. Our two year old was able to tackle them just fine and he loved every bit of this hike.


Don’t rush on this trail. It’s only a mile long, so take your time and appreciate the views along the way. The best views, in my opinion, were not at the highest point, but along the stairway leading up to it. There is so much to see, don’t speed through this one.

Fire Tower

The historic Fire Tower sits at the highest point in the park. On a clear day, hikers can see all the way to the Badlands National Park. On the day of our hike, there was just a little too much haze for us to see that far, but the view was still vast.

The Fire Tower is really neat and a great place to have a snack and water break. Unfortunately, the tower is closed to visitors. A bummer, we’ve climbed a few towers on our explorations and were disappointed to find that this was not possible here at Wind Cave. It was still a great place to see, though.

Lightning Warning: Watch the weather forecast and be aware of surroundings. This is the highest point in the park, meaning the most at risk for lightning strikes. Plan around thunderstorms and change plans to avoid being caught in a light storm on this trail.

Smooth Descent

After taking in the views and having a snack at the height of this trail. The rest is smooth sailing! The way down is a breeze. This trail is very well maintained with a gravel slope that leads back to the parking area. Great for little explorers to find their footing.

Bison Beds and Droppings

Watch for animal sign as you make your way back to the parking area. The presence of animals was much more prevalent on this side of the trail, making the descent just as exciting as the climb up.

Looking closely in the grass, it was evident that bison had bedded down in the area and, of course, our toddler found poop. Leave it to the boy to always find poop.

Wildlife Warning: Keep your distance from wildlife. Yes, it’s so cool to see them in their natural habitat. This is their home, we are guests and they don’t like to be disturbed. The NPS recommends keeping at least 25 yards away from wildlife, but strongly suggests farther from bison. Don’t pet the fluffy cows, they are dangerous!!

Open Hike

This park does allow “open hiking.” This means that hikers are not confined to stay on designated trails. Hikers are welcome to hike off trail and explore the park at their own risk. Be aware of surroundings, weather, and animals at all times. Be sure to bring a map, plenty of water, and know that there is likely no cell service.

Check out 5 Things to do at Wind Cave National Park for other ideas on exploring this unique national park.

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