Rankin Ridge Trail – Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs, South Dakota

This would be the final hike of our visit to the Badlands/Black Hills area and after spending much of the morning touring the nearby and outstanding Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Drive, I was itching to get out of the car and have my boots on a trail.

The selection of Rankin Ridge was multifactorial: I knew time would be a factor so that limited distance – I wanted to balance challenge with reward – and I wanted one last opportunity for views from the 5000 foot altitude mountain range. This trail delivered on all aspects.

The trailhead is at a gravel parking lot near a lower ridge. We opted to traverse the loop trail counterclockwise which was the park’s design and the correct choice.

Initially the rock strewn and gravelly trail works a mild grade through a Ponderosa Pine woodland with mixed grass and small shrub understory.

Sagewart grew in big groupings on the north facing slope. Its grey leaves contrasting with the tan of the late season grasses.

Here we were seeing the first colors of fall in large swathes of Poison Ivy which did not encroach on the trail.

And Poison Ivy fall color can be outstanding.

It was adorned with the white waxy berries that birds love.

This trail was the first time that we used the National Park Service app, and specifically, the “Self-guided Tours” feature. Placed along the trail were numbered locations and the app would allow you to read about the ecosystem, specific plants, climate items, fire, etc. It definitely added value to the experience and I was bummed that I did not pursue its use when we visited the Badlands National Park and Devil’s Tower National Monument.

Along the early part of the trail we did get some nice views to the northwest through to the surrounding Black Hills landscape. These can be seen in the title photo and below.

We had no idea of the views to come.

The dominant tree species on Rankin Ridge is the Ponderosa Pine. In this arid environment, and with the rocky soils, they do not approach the 150-180 feet heights common for the species. Here they only grow 4 inches per year. They have prominent orange bark, adding nice color to the landscape palette.

As we approached the ridge top, the trail became more demanding with surface rocks making for more challenging footing.

But at times these rock obstacles offered their own beauty, such as this exposed quartz.

The trail became more vertical, and to the left, a steep ravine necessitated concentration. Rock stairs were added to help with some of the grade.

We rounded a large rock outcropping and ascended to a subapex (maybe not a word but it is in Wiktionary) where we got our first of many outstanding views.

To our right, atop the remaining slope up the ridge, we could see one of the last remaining fire towers in the region.

Its work platform was much larger than those I had seen in eastern forests. Signage said that it is closed to the public and the app said it was only manned “during periods of extreme fire danger and following intense electrical storms”. I could only imagine the 360 degrees view from its enclosed lookout.

From the ridge top the views east were outstanding and you could understand where the tag line for Wind Cave National Park, “Where the prairie meets the Black Hills”, came from.

On this amazingly clear day we could just make out the Badlands 40 miles to the east.

From the fire tower the trail descends the gravel drive that leads up to the tower for personnel and supplies. This is an easy ramble down, first heading south and then winding west, back to the parking lot, and you are rewarded with additional outstanding views.

I particularly liked this view which shows the rapid transition from the Black Hills, to prairie, to the Badlands as one looks east.

As we were hiking the trail one thing that struck us was the varieties of lichen that we were seeing on the rocks.

But structurally the most interesting ones were these minute “cup lichen”, with little funnel shapes.

The Rankin Ridge area is prone to fire. The height of the mountain range, the dryness of the environment, the prevailing winds, and weather patterns, make it susceptible to lightning ignited fires. Historically the area burns every 8 to 12 years and the last major fire was in 2005, which we saw evidence of.

There were dead trees (“snags”) displaying fire damage.

An additional indication of recent fire was seeing a flush of new young tree growth which is called “doghair”. The fire removes competition for sunlight and water, allowing for germination of pine seeds on the exposed soil. These small trees will then compete to see who lives to old age, selecting for superior genes.

Plant of the DayPrickly Pear Cactus

Interesting because we have seen it in the Florida Panhandle at 6 feet above sea level, and now here at 5,000 feet above sea level. While the two are different species of the same genus, Opuntia, the genus clearly deals well with temperature and hydration extremes. Both the leaves and the fruit are edible, but both harbor needles, and have to be prepped correctly.

In summary, Rankin Ridge is an outstanding immersion into the Black Hills ecosystem of Ponderosa Pines and grasslands. It offers outstanding views to the nearby ridge lines and valleys, and of the short grass prairies to the east. For me it was a demonstration of the added value of some of the features of the National Park Service app. As we were digesting the trip over beverages before our flight home, the photographer pointed out that I said, “That was the best hike of the trip” four times. On reflection, I think that the appeal of each of those hikes was that they were in different ecosystems, or venues that had added interest due to their ties to Native American culture. The Badlands and Black Hills region has so much to offer, and what is exciting is that it would serve people with broad ranges of physical abilities. The beauty is everywhere, from the comfort of your car, to the ridge top of the highest mountain.


Location – Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Parking – Gravel lot for 12 cars at trailhead.

Facilities – None

Trail Conditions – moderately challenging bare dirt and gravel path. Some narrow rock stairs near the top. There is an area of steep ravine just left of the trail for a while.

Print Map Link – None, take photo of map at trailhead.

Benches – One with an outstanding valley view to the east and the Badlands.

Picnic Tables – none

Kids – Kids 6 and up should do well.

Dogs – Prohibited

Suggested Paired Hikes – There are several additional hikes in the Wind Cave, some involving different ecosystems.




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