Travel

Welcome to the Socially Distanced Forest of Your Nightmares

This is one spooky hike.

Ann W
Ann W
Ann W

A dark, maze-like forest of non-native trees deliberately planted by the federal government sounds like something out of Stranger Things, but nestled amidst the rugged Wichita Mountains in southwest Oklahoma, one such place is all too perplexingly real. The Parallel Forest is like an eerie mirage on a quiet, winding stretch of Oklahoma State Route 115. This unmarked patch of woods, only distinguished by a tiny parking lot that frequently sits empty, stands in stark contrast to the surrounding desert-like terrain, with its soaring canopy of red cedar trees so dense and tall that they block out the sun. Welcome to the creepiest hike of your life.

Wander through creepy perfection

The Parallel Forest isn’t huge. At just 16 acres, the whole thing could easily be contained on one floor of the Mall of America, but it’s a matter of quality over quantity here-or rather, a matter of labyrinthine mystery and intrigue. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for with creepy Stepford Wives-like perfection.

The forest is a sea of more than 20,000 red cedars that were purposely planted by the federal government as an experiment to try to counter the effects of the Dust Bowl. As dust came sweeping down the Plains in the ‘30s, essentially covering much of the state in dirt for a good decade, the US government apparently thought it would be a good idea to plant non-native cedars exactly six-feet apart in every direction over a swath of several acres, to act as a would-be wind block to break up the dusty maelstrom. The fact that there aren’t multiple Parallel Forests throughout the region suggests that the experiment may have been… not successful. Instead, the government succeeded with gifting southwestern Oklahoma a forest that’s as socially distanced as it is creepy and plagued by murky, haunted lore.

Oklahoma Tourism
Oklahoma Tourism
Oklahoma Tourism

Get lost in lore

For starters, the forest just looks foreboding as hell. From the small cement patch of a parking lot, it’s an imposing wall of cedars that looks more like a fortress than an inviting woodland trek. If Harry Potter took place in Oklahoma, this would be the Forbidden Forest. Penetrating its walls, the sunny skies are quickly replaced by a thick canopy, and the further you traipse, the more the road fades away. Since the trees are all perfectly planted six-feet apart in every direction, this isn’t really a forest with designated trails; rather, keep track of where you entered and try not to wander around in circles, which is all too easy to do, considering this is like the wooded equivalent of a mirror maze. That being said, the forest is only 16 acres, so you probably don’t need to worry about befalling a hopeless Blair Witch-style fate. Your best bet is to download the AllTrails app and use it to follow the 0.8-mile loop tail.

Still, something as unnatural and bewildering as this is bound to attract some ghoulish mythos. Since its dusty origins, there have been reports of unexplained sights-including orbs in photos, drum sounds, and headless ghosts-and witchcraft ceremonies, though whether or not the Blair Witch is involved is still to be determined. Oh, and there’s also an unexplained man-made rock formation in the middle of the woods that’s rumoured to be an altar for satanic rituals, NBD. Whether any of these “hauntings” or rituals are legit remains to be seen, or perhaps they’re just subconscious mind-trickery brought on by the ominous setting. After all, any place that’s been abandoned by the government and shrouded in near-constant darkness is guaranteed to feel a tad unsettling regardless. And if you hear a twig snap in the distance, just tell yourself it’s an errant longhorn lost in the forest. Just like you.

YuniqueB/Shutterstock
YuniqueB/Shutterstock
YuniqueB/Shutterstock

Visit non-haunted stuff nearby

All that being said, there’s a lot to see and do in the area around the Parallel Forest that doesn’t involve satanic rituals. The forest is on the eastern edge of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a 60,000-acre park that’s far more straightforward to navigate. Here, you’ll find babbling brooks, lakes, grassy prairies, rocky canyons, and craggy mountains, along with numerous designated trails. One of the most scenic is the Bison Trail, a six-mile loop that moseys by a surprisingly deep canyon (at least by Oklahoma standards; maybe don’t take an Arizonan here), across a river, through forests, and grassland, with the likely chance to spot wild bison, longhorn, and other critters, like tarantulas, prairie dogs, and roadrunners.

To the east of the Parallel Forest lies the bucolic, preserved-in-time town of  Medicine Park, a happy little slice of Americana lined with cobblestone streets, wooden bridges, swimming holes, ice cream shops, and twee cottages that look like hobbit hollows. Charming restaurants abound, including Riverside Cafe, Santa’s Snack Shop, Small Mountain Street Tacos, and The Old Plantation, the latter of which scratches the Southern comfort itch with fried green tomatoes, chicken-fried steak, fried catfish sandwiches, and cobbler.

For more quintessentially Oklahoman cuisine, queue up at Meers Store and Restaurant, a ramshackle burger institution that’s been around since 1901, when the tiny town of Meers was a bustling gold mine mecca. Nowadays, this enduringly popular shanty of a restaurant commands inevitably long lines for tried-and-true platter-sized cheeseburgers, thick wedge fries, and ice cream sundaes so large they’re basically served in baseball helmets.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple-and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on Instagram.

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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