After spending the morning hiking in Badlands, we drove over to Wind Cave (~75 minutes). We hadn't scheduled a cave tour but were able to buy tickets for one that afternoon. We even managed to snag a spot at the campground in the park before the tour. Perfect!
The tour was fine. We enjoy exploring on our own more than with a tour but the only options for Wind Cave are tours, so we took what we could get. It was a nice break from the heat and our novice tour guide clearly loved her job. That night we drove around the park, watched some prairie dogs and bison, and hit the sack before dark.
The next day, we took a short hike up Rankin Ridge to visit the highest point in Wind Cave. The round trip hike was ~1 mile. It had some moderate sections but the scenery was lovely (despite overcast skies). We hadn't spent any time in the Black Hills area before and this hike made us want to plan to come back. If you're just driving through Wind Cave NP to take a cave tour, do this loop before or after your tour to get a broader sense of the region.
After this short hike, we drove back down to the Lookout/Centennial trailhead. The Lookout trail first descended through some thick prairie and over an easy creek. The first 1/3 mile of the trail did not feel promising. But then it opened up and took us slowly up and over rolling prairie fields. It was reminiscent of hiking over grassy balds in the Appalachian mountains. Eventually, we met the Highlands and then the Centennial trail, hiking through some cool rock canyon areas until we climbed back up to where we had parked at the trailhead. The whole loop was about 4.5 miles and was one of our biggest surprises from the trip.
Not every National Park is a Yosemite or Glacier. Embrace a park for what it is and the beauty of its wild spaces--even if they aren't the stereotypically amazing places plastering social media--just might sweep you away for a few hours.
Pro Tip: The campground in Wind Cave NP is lovely and quiet, an easy place to find an affordable place to sleep for the night.