Travel

Wind Cave National Park is a Breath of Fresh Subterranean Air

The first protected cave in the world, next to the Badlands, was also a portal to the spirit world.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

The Black Hills of Western South Dakota are well-known for shimmering lakes, bison-trod terrain, and colossal rock carvings. But there’s something lurking beneath the surface that many visitors to this Americana dreamscape don’t ever see-and no, we’re not talking about The Lost City of Gold, despite what Nicolas Cage would have you believe. Nestled underneath the iconic byways, state parks, and monuments, Wind Cave National Park is not only one of the most underrated destinations in the region, it’s also one of the more underrated national parks in the country.

Sure, much of its under-the-radar-ness can be attested to the fact that most of this park is out of sight, literally beneath the Earth’s surface. But especially compared to more widely visited cave parks, like Mammoth Cave National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Wind Cave is a hidden gem that deserves more of that subterranean A-list status. What it lacks in Batman references, it more than makes up for with rare cave formations, epic wildlife, and an origin story that’s both mythical and wild-western. Here’s what to know about visiting Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

See the portal to the spirit world

Between road trip locales like Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse Memorial, there’s lots of lore in western South Dakota. And Wind Cave boasts its own distinct history, legacy, and staggering statistics. One of two national parks in South Dakota (the other being the more visited Badlands National Park), the cave system is about 300 million years old, making it one of the oldest on the planet.

Like most caves, it was formed-at a thrillingly glacial pace-by the steady trickle of fresh water seeping into the Earth, converting gypsum to calcite, creating sulfuric acid, and dissolving limestone into present-day formations and passageways. Today, with more than 150 mapped passages, it’s the seventh largest cave system in the world and the third largest in the country. Wind Cave is filled with speleothems (a.k.a. cave formations) like cave popcorn, helictite bushes, flowstone, needle-like frostwork, and most famously, boxwork. The latter is a rare feature, a meticulous patchwork of calcite blades interwoven along the cave ceiling, found almost nowhere else on Earth.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

The Indigenous people who first inhabited the region had great admiration and awe for the cave, which is woven into folkloric tales. Oral history from the Lakota tells of an “Emergence Story,” about how humans first emerged onto the surface of the Earth via Wind Cave, or as they described it, Oniya Oshoka, where the Earth “breathes inside.” Somewhere, in the annals of this gnarly labyrinth, was a portal to the spirit world.

Millennia later, new explorers came upon the cave with curiosity, but a lot less deference. Brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham stumbled upon it in 1881, after following what sounded like a loud windy whistle, leading them to the only natural opening into the cave. This was the tip of the iceberg for devil-may-care adventurers who followed that wind into a hidden world of craggy caverns and intricate formations. One such explorer was Alvin McDonald, a turn-of-the-century Nicolas Cage-type who began mapping the cave, drafting reports of its unique formations, naming some of the rooms, and charging fees to give curious visitors tours.

To prevent the rampant bastardization of this delicate wonder, though, the federal government stepped in. They designated it Wind Cave National Park in 1903, so named for the atmospheric pressure differences between the cave and the surface, thus creating gusts of wind at the entrance. Theodore Roosevelt established it as the sixth national park in the U.S.-and the first in the world created to protect a cave.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

Best time to visit Wind Cave National Park

There’s never a bad time to visit Wind Cave National Park. That’s thanks to its constant, year-round cave temperature of 54°F, which can feel refreshing in the hot summer months and downright balmy in the frigid winter ones. June through September sees a bulk of the crowds, but compared to more visited nearby attractions like Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore, it never reaches the kind of mosh pit hordes seen at, say, Zion National Park.

Activities that require tickets, like cave tours, consistently have open reservation availability, even during peak season-a benefit of being the most underrated facet of a touristy area. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that western South Dakota can be quite arctic in the winter. While the cave itself might be comparatively comfortable, the overall region is prone to ample snow and frosty weather, which can impede driving and make hiking the surface trails an exercise in masochism. To avoid the crowds and the snow, a spring or fall visit can ensure plenty of wide-open space, cozy temps, and luminous flora on the surface.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

Descend into the depths on a cave tour

As the first cave-centric national park in the world, you need to get underground at Wind Cave to really appreciate its majesty. Accessible only on ranger-led tours, which require tickets, some particularly popular routes are open for advanced reservations, while others are offered first come, first serve.

Naturally, when traipsing into a dark underground maze lined with jagged speleothems, there are some extra precautions to take with you into the cave. This includes being mindful of potential claustrophobia and selecting a tour that feels right for you (i.e. if you’re averse to tight spaces, a narrow four-hour crawl on the Wild Cave tour is best avoided). Also remember to not touch any of the delicate formations, wear comfortable shoes with non-slip soles, and dress with layers for 54°F.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

There are a handful of cave tours offered throughout the year, as well as a couple summer exclusives for the tourism surge. A good entry-level offering is the Garden of Eden, an easy one-hour trek that gets guests up close and personal with iconic formations like boxwork and flowstone. The Natural Entrance tour is another comfortable option for cave newbies-a 0.6-mile jaunt that begins at the cave’s natural entrance and descends via stairs into boxwork-lined passageways (the natural entrance is only about 10 inches wide, so it’s only used to show visitors how and where the cave was discovered).

In the summer, the two-hour Candlelight tour is an old-fashioned romp that shows how the cave looked to its earliest explorers. The Wild Cave tour is the park’s toughest option-a strenuous four-hour squeeze through cramped passages that requires a fair amount of crawling and climbing. For those who laugh in the face of claustrophobia, helmets and kneepads are provided.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

Hike wherever you want across the surface

Even for the claustrophobic, there’s plenty to see and do at Wind Cave that doesn’t involve any cave-related activity whatsoever. Sprawled across the prairies, canyons, ponderosa forests, and coulees that comprise the southern fringes of the Black Hills, the surface is just as stunning. And with more than 30 miles of hiking trails, there’s no shortage of vantage points.

Easier options include the Prairie Vista trail, a one-mile hike through mixed grasses for panoramic views and potential bison sightings (just be sure to stay at least 25 yards away, as these fluffy rhinos are notoriously unpredictable and can run a lot faster than you’d think). Rankin Ridge is another good option for all skill types. The one-mile trail leads to the tallest point in the park, with views as far as Badlands National Park some 54 miles away.

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park

Cold Brook Canyon is billed as moderate, as it weaves 1.5 miles though ponderosa pines and adorable prairie dog towns. East Bison Flats offers a more strenuous option down into a canyon and up prairie hills. And at nearly nine miles, Highland Creek is the longest-and most geographically diverse-trail in the park, criss-crossing creeks and canyons as it meanders through fragrant forests and prairies.

If Wind Cave’s marked trails weren’t enough, the park has an open hike policy, which means visitors can hike off-trail anywhere they’d like. Just be sure to come prepared with plenty of water and navigation materials, lest you get lost in the WiFi-less wilderness.

Custer State Park Resort
Custer State Park Resort
Custer State Park Resort

Where to stay and eat near Wind Cave National Park

Perched within the rugged wilds of the least developed part of the Black Hills, the park is devoid of lodging or restaurants. The only way to stay directly inside Wind Cave National Park is at Elk Mountain Campground, which is open year-round on a first come, first served basis. Beyond the confines of the park, more camping and lodging abounds in nearby communities like Hot Springs and Custer.

In Hot Springs, a quick seven miles south of the park, Red Rock River Resort is the historic cornerstone. In a building that dates to 1891, rooms are comfy and ornate, especially in the spacious corner spa suites that come with 24-hour access to Sap Minnekahta. Custer has even more options. About 18 miles north of the park, the bustling tourist town is brimming with inns, hotels, and motels, from all the requisite budget chains to handsome indie properties like the cottage-filled Chalet Motel and the fairy tale-looking Bavarian Inn. To immerse yourself in nature, Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park nestles you near the shores of boulder-clad Sylvan Lake, at the base of the tallest mountain in South Dakota, Black Elk Peak.

For food, dig a little deeper than trail mix with all manner of destination-worthy restaurants in towns like Custer. Skogen Kitchen is a chef-driven gem, presided over by a couple of Californians who curate an ever-changing array of eclectic seasonal fare like kimchi Brussels sprouts, lobster steam buns, and swordfish with curried sweet potato and roasted baby squash. For something sweet, Purple Pie Place is a seasonal staple (open in summer and fall) in Custer, offering a cornucopia of sweet and savory comfort foods, especially pies. In Hot Springs, Buffalo Dreamer is the cream of the crop, a rigorously seasonal staple slinging everything from Turkish potato salad and lemon-ginger mung beans to lamb chops in honey-mint sauce.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. 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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