Travel

The Midwest’s Coolest Charity Race Lurks Beneath Kansas City’s Streets

Outpace Punxsutawney Phil at SubTropolis's annual Groundhog Run, the world's only fully underground 10K.

Groundhog Run benefiting the children of Ability KC
Groundhog Run benefiting the children of Ability KC
Groundhog Run benefiting the children of Ability KC

To get to SubTropolis, take one of several entrances that buries you 150 feet below Kansas City, where 270 million-year-old limestone deposits have been excavated into massive, honeycomb-like pockets. (It helps if you’re not claustrophobic.) At regular intervals, pillars 16 feet high and 25 feet in girth are painted a slick luminescent white, lit from above by bright LED lights. Underground caves, but make it futuristic.

A sign instructs you to turn on your headlights, keep the speed limit to 15 mph, and “Smile! you’re on camera.” And also beware: Your first visit can be disorienting. The tunnels of the self-proclaimed world’s largest underground business complex seem to go on forever-make a wrong turn, and you’ll be shining your headlights into spooky undeveloped darkness. It’s such a distinctive visual that tours stop by, perhaps as an add-on on their way to Branson, speculates Connie Kamps, SubTropolis’s director of property management. “It’s just kind of a side thing to jump off the I-435, which is just minutes from us, then maybe go over to the casino and have lunch,” she says.

Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis

There are other subterranean limestone chambers-turned-business-space beneath Kansas City, MO, at least eight, possibly even up to 12. The makeup of this strata of bluff along the Missouri River is known as the Bethany Falls limestone formation, an almost pure 95% calcium carbonate that attracted extensive mining beginning in the 1800s. But while there’s more than a few of its kind, SubTropolis is the only underground chamber with the cool name. And since 1982, it’s also the only one that allows regular folks to run through its buried labyrinth almost every winter for the annual Groundhog Run. Benefiting the charity Ability KC, this year’s race takes place on January 29, where in addition to the usual 5K and 10K, they’ve added a third Children’s Run.

If you’ve got a groundhog costume, go ahead and pull that out-you won’t be alone. The race has its own groundhog mascot, and if you ask, he’ll pose for photos. Either way, say hi–his name is GUS, AKA Great Underground Space.

Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis

The Great Underground Space (not the groundhog one) owes its existence to that Bethany Falls formation, but the late Richard Gentile, geologist and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, would say so does Kansas City itself. In a 2013 lecture he explained that its jutting ledge was used as a landing place for steamboats in the 1830s. Because it was so easy to dock here, Gentile purported that it sped up the development of the city by decades.

In 1857, the town of Kansas laid claim to 40 manufacturers alongside 750 steamers tethered to the wharf. The following year, passenger ships started arriving, and according to the lecture, one visitor wrote: “The steamboat landing is perhaps the best on the Missouri River. In fact, the entire riverfront constitutes a natural wharf where any kind of vessel might discharge and pick up freight safely.” Other visitors called it the Plymouth Rock of Kansas City, and Kansas City’s Birthstone.

The bluffs above the Missouri River were eventually subdivided and sold, and in the late 1800s, mining began, the limestone dug out to create millions of miles of underground caves. To most, it would seem that once excavated, the rock had served its purpose. But to developers with vision there was opportunity for a second life.

Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis

One of those developers was Lamar Hunt, who in 1963 relocated his football team from Dallas–Fort Worth to Kansas City, renaming them the Kansas City Chiefs. The next year, he established a storage facility inside the empty caves mined by Midwest Precote (which he later purchased), and began leasing out the space. The first tenants included Russell Stover Candy, Kraft General Foods, and Ford Motor Company, who needed somewhere to park their overflow vehicles. In 1985, Hunt, along with partner Jack Steadman, merged three businesses into Hunt Midwest Enterprises, Inc. The caves were christened SubTropolis some time in the ‘90s.

When Kamps first started working in property management at SubTropolis in 1985, it was a mere 2 million square feet of developed space. Mining ended in 2012, and today, the developed underground caves clock in at 7.4 million square feet-the size of 42 Arrowhead Stadiums, they like to say-with plans this year to expand to more than 8 million. There’s development above ground as well, that Hunt Midwest shares with several other businesses. “The really neat thing from a green standpoint, is we had the property, we developed it on the surface, we mined it out, and we developed the underground,” says Kamps. “We say we have the largest green roof in the world.”

Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis

Today, SubTropolis is home to over 2,000 employees working for 55 businesses. Besides being a Foreign-Trade Zone allowing occupants to bypass or defer import duties, there’s the savings afforded by natural temperature regulation. The space maintains a cool 68 to 72 degrees, no matter what’s going on outside, keeping heating and cooling bills low.

It’s also particularly immune to natural disasters, and limestone’s low permeability translates to low humidity, which, in addition to 24-hour security, makes SubTropolis especially ideal for preservation efforts. The USPS takes advantage of this, operating a stamp distribution centre holding over $1 billion in inventory, as does the National Archives and Records Association. Hallmark has an office, as does the EPA, and the specialty food company Paris Brothers, which stocks literal cave-aged cheese and unroasted coffee. It’s also home to some significant cultural history, with tennant Underground Vault & Storage housing hundreds of thousands of original film reels including Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Friends in 45-degree refrigerated vaults.

Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis

And while most businesses aren’t consumer-facing, there is some opportunity to have a little fun. SubTropolis is home to JAEGERS Subsurface Paintball, where you’ll barely work up a sweat.

There are 2.1 miles of railroad track and 17 different entrances (five accessible to vehicles). Cell phones don’t work underground, but there are landlines and internet access. And though traffic is constantly buzzing, it’s not quite an underground city. For one thing, there’s no restaurant or bar (“The vending operations are so elaborate these days,” notes Kemp). And if you need an ambulance or the police-with over 2,000 people working there each day, emergencies do occasionally happen-they’ll show up. They’ll just have to be escorted through so they don’t get lost.

Groundhog Run benefiting the children of Ability KC
Groundhog Run benefiting the children of Ability KC
Groundhog Run benefiting the children of Ability KC

The first Groundhog Run in 1982 was thanks to Van Cooper, who was on the board of what is now Ability KC, a therapeutic centre which treats adults and children with rare conditions and medical disabilities regardless of their resources to pay. Looking for a fundraising idea, someone suggested a novelty race in Hunt Midwest’s underground tunnels. It’s come a long way in 41 years-back then it was partially on gravel, and conditions were less than ideal in other ways. “It was a three-lap course, and we had to run through some undeveloped area that was really dusty and grimy [lit with] temporary lights,” says Kamps.

These days, the only sanctioned 10K run completely underground is illuminated by permanent LEDs. It’s also fully paved, the two-lap course accommodating up to 4500 runners between two races, even more with this year’s new children’s race. And though they take over a portion of the complex from 6 am to 2 pm, Kemp says resident businesses have always been supportive. “We do it on a Sunday morning to be the least disruptive to our tenants,” she explains.

Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis
Courtesy of SubTropolis

If you want to participate in the Groundhog Run-either in-person or virtually-you can sign up online anytime before January 28 at 12 am. You can also register to volunteer. And if you’re worried about getting lost yourself, don’t. Kemp assures us that they’ve “never lost a runner.” Expect hordes running alongside you, 100 to 150 volunteers, plus bicyclists leading the way through pathways sectioned off by orange cones. And if something does go down, there will also be security personnel zipping around on golf carts-a sight that might be reason enough to venture into SubTropolis’s depths.

So stretch out those calf muscles and enjoy the cool temperatures. And don’t forget to let us know if it’ll be an early spring.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. If she ran, she would leave breadcrumbs to make sure she got out.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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