Wind Cave national park is an underground magical world full of strange formations and eclectic natural designs. There’s some mystery and a lot of speculation behind the history of this subterranean world. While most people agree that the Lakota Indians were truly the first to discover this place, a well-accepted story tells of two gentlemen who stumbled upon the cave when they felt strong gusts of wind coming from this shrubbery-hidden hole.
Pictured above is the Natural Entrance. Can you imagine squeezing yourself through that hole into the unknown? Curiosity (and probably a little bit of recklessness) led a handful of young men into the cave armed only with a candle in a bucket. This was the late 1800’s and their chosen safety precaution was a trail of string that enabled them to find their way back.
Comparatively, my tour of the cave was a cakewalk. With the assistance of electrical lights, I could view the artistic patterns on the walls and ceilings around me. Wind Cave contains a very unique deposition of minerals referred to as boxwork. This honey-comb outline is ridiculously delicate and absolutely gorgeous.
Wind Cave was different from Mammoth Cave in that I really had the time to gaze at strange and wonderful-looking formations. If you recall, I spent most of my time at Mammoth with my face in the dirt!
When I first met Ricky there wasn’t much of a connection. After spending 4 hours on the trail together, however, we finally hit it off.
Ricky, the adorable Arabian, was a real trooper maneuvering his way through the rugged trail up along the base of a rocky ridge. It was morning, and the sweet smell of fall mixed with the not-as-sweet scent of horse turds. Local wildlife calmly watched as the nimble beast and I passed respectfully through their forest territory. It was a gorgeous day, and I couldn’t think of a better way to experience the Black Hills than astride Ricky. Crazy Horse memorial could easily be spotted in the distance. If you’ve never heard of this artistic work that’s been 68 years in the making, you should Google it. It makes for an interesting read.
And then there were the bison.
Although not anywhere as sweet as my little Arabian friend, these creatures are something else! Immediately after I entered Wind Cave national park, they corralled my car as the official welcoming committee. I strained my ear to listen for huffing – the characteristic sound they make when agitated – but heard only heavy, labored breathing. I’ve seen some nifty characters in the wild during my travels, but I think the bison is one of my favorite thus far.
Unlike most national parks who either limit or closely monitor the use of backcountry hiking, the Badlands have an open-trail policy. This means you can virtually go anywhere in the park, which is quite mind boggling considering the miles upon miles of maze-like formations that dot the landscape in middle-of-nowhere South Dakota. I took the Badlands up on their offer to venture off the beaten bath and had a grand ol’ time weaving my way around and through the terrain. I especially enjoyed scrambling upwards, saying silent prayers that the crumbly siltstone would hold beneath my shifting weight.
Fact #2: The Badlands are unbelievably beautiful at dusk.
When I first arrived at the Badlands, I was eager to see part of the park, even though it was rather late in the day. A park rancher suggested a sunset hike, explaining how the reflecting red/orange hues of the sunlight turn the panorama into a Mars-like illusion. The experience did not disappoint. While the daylight slowly dwindled, my senses came alive. The cool breeze brushed my skin and my ears picked up the sounds of an owl awakening for his nightly hunt. I found such a pleasant solitude as the night slowly settled and I sat there drinking it all in.
Now, back to the whole confession piece. What do you get when you combine a desire to explore and a propensity to be out at dusk? Ding, ding, ding! I got lost… in the dark. I was smart enough to have a headlamp and my Spot with me, but probably not quite smart enough to be overly concerned. The waxing gibbous moon provided a nice sheen of light that helped me spot some landmarks, but I still spent 45 minutes doing a hefty amount of backtracking. There are some deep slopes and crevices in the rock that need to be avoided. Also, I tried to stay away from the rattle-snake laden grasses that appeared in patches throughout the area. Eventually I found a road. Then it was just a matter of sauntering 3 miles back to my car. All in all it wasn’t a bad experience. In reality, being “lost” for such a short time was more of a novelty than something to write home about (yet here I am writing about it…?).
Final fact: I still plan on exploring the Badlands off-trail and staying out at dusk – just not at the same time.
Food has become my frenemy while living on the road. I still enjoy a delicious meal, yet sometimes food preparation is simply a hassle.
My Yeti cooler has been phenomenal. It keeps produce cool and refreshing for up to 3 days. I thought I would miss my salads and raw veggie snacking, but I’ve been able to maintain my fruits and vegetable intake no problem. It’s a good thing, too, since McDonald’s cheeseburgers and vanilla cones have become a go-to (only $1 each).
Depending on my location, my eating habits vary drastically. Some days it feels like I’m just consuming energy bars, nuts, apples, and dried edamame. Other days I feast on local cuisine or my sister-in-law’s impeccable frittata. I’ve gotten pretty creative with my nourishment, as well. A Spam sandwich, or Spamwich, isn’t half-bad. Also, Siracha can spruce up even the blandest of ingredients, including a lukewarm can of turkey chili.
The bottom line: I feel good, healthy, and still haven’t had to dip into my emergency MRE’s.
“I’m sure that after all the national parks you’ve been to, this is underwhelming.”
“You’ve been to all these incredible places – what are you doing here?”
People I run into seem to believe that my senses have become dulled towards appreciating beautiful things in a “lesser” setting. Sure, I’ve gazed upon the Appalachians, snorkeled in picturesque waters, and watched the sun set over Colorado mesas. Yet despite all of the big nature moments I’ve experienced, I still thoroughly enjoy the simple things about being outside. Whether it’s feeling a cool breeze as a respite from the hot sun, or exploring a strange rock outcropping, I am not in the habit of comparing my natural encounters or rating my perspectives. If anything, visiting so many national parks has piqued my curiosity and honed my ability to pick out the most alluring views. I have learned to treasure beauty, regardless of the place or form.
Denver is a great example. This city is surrounded by a great outdoor playground. During my stay, I hiked in some local parks, marveling at the uniqueness of the area and its relative solitude despite its proximity to hundreds of thousands of people. My 2-day break from camping was ideal: I had all the amenities of a city, yet the ability to escape into nature for hours. My gracious Denver hosts, J.C. and Renae, are fellow nature-lovers and explorers. In fact, J.C. is a traveler/blogger who focuses on helping sojourners travel safely. I was able to gather some pro tips about staying safe while on the road.
In a couple days I’ll say goodbye to Colorado. The views have been spectacular, the people have been gregarious, and the beauty (big and small) has been absolutely extraordinary.