Sunday, July 8, 2018

Where Prairie Meets Forest- Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
"I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures."  -Geronimo

Our Volvo had been fixed and it was time to retrieve it from the Black Hills of South Dakota (I am beginning to refer to the summer of 2018 as the summer of South Dakota).  For a change of pace, we decided this time we would camp, away from the July crowds, at Elk Mountain Campground in Wind Cave National Park.  I had read that this first come, first serve campground has only ever filled up once, during the 2017 solar eclipse, but I was a bit hesitant to show up on July 4th with no reservations.  We didn’t need to worry, because when we arrived late afternoon we found an ideal spot open in the tent-only loop, with a lot of space, privacy, and shade.  There were two levels to our campsite- the bottom level with a large picnic table and fire-pit, and a short trail up leading to a large flat area in the trees for our tent with views of the surrounding forest.  The air was cool and breezy and I felt so happy to not be sweating, especially as the campground did not have showers.  Wind Cave National Park offers cave tours that are fairly popular among Black Hills tourists, but the campground is quiet and often overlooked.  We spent the evening setting up our campsite, building a fire (no fire restrictions currently in South Dakota!) and teaching the boys the art of attempting to impale themselves and each other with flaming hot sugar sticks roasting marshmallows.  Later that evening we put out our fire and walked to the campground amphitheater for a 9 pm ranger talk about bison.  Strangely, the boys were not as enthusiastic as we were about sitting down silently in the dark (ha!) and we weren’t able to stay long, but at least were able to burn off some energy on the walk back.  I think still we might have been the last tent to go dark as it was close to midnight and dead silent when we finally got everyone to sleep.  We all slept well that night and it was just cold enough to bundle up in our sleeping bags, but not uncomfortably so.
Stopping for a picnic in Nebraska

Setting up camp- Wind Cave NP



When we woke up, the sky was overcast and cool.  It was perfect coffee drinking weather as we enjoyed the late morning at our quiet site.  Many of the other campers had left for the day or packed up completely.  After lunch we left for a scenic drive to pick up the Volvo, taking Iron Mountain Road to Rapid City, which offers beautiful views of the hills and of Mount Rushmore.  We considered driving into the park to see the faces up close, but after the solitude of our campground, the town of Keystone and the hoards of tourists heading to the Mount Rushmore entrance was not appealing, so we enjoyed the views by ourselves from afar.   

Sleepy eyes

Nothing better than a good cup of coffee when camping!

Iron Mountain Road tunnel views of Mount Rushmore

After picking up the Volvo we drove two cars back to the park and stopped at the visitor center to hike the Prairie Trail, a short 1 mile loop that winds through stunning waves of silvery green grasses and wildflowers.  From distance the prairie looks very homogeneous, but up close there is a wealth of diversity.  I realized you really need to get into the prairie, up and close, to fully appreciate its beauty. 


After dinner we attempted another ranger talk about the history of the prairie and later spent a (finally) relaxing hour sipping wine and viewing the stars from our campfire (minus a brief moment of panic when a deer running right by our tent in the dark was mistaken for a charging buffalo).  Our first camping trip as a family of four felt like a success.

After another restful night, we enjoyed breakfast and packed up, ready to take the Natural Entrance Tour of Wind Cave that leaves from the visitor center.  I’ve heard that all caves are different and from my limited experiences I would have to agree.  Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico could be described as majestic and grand, while the beauty of Wind Cave was found in the small details- intricate boxwork patterns that filled the walls and ceilings (boxwork is a rare cave phenomenon found in “dry” caves), and hidden pockets of shimmering white and rusty gold crystals.  It is a beautiful cave, and we enjoyed spending a couple of hours in the cool, dark, underground, as the outside temperatures were increasing, along with the humidity. 

Beautiful boxwork


After our tour we drove the short distance to Hot Springs, named after the numerous warm springs surrounding the Fall River that winds through town.  It is a lovely little town, built for the Black Hills settlers who struck it rich from mining, promoting health and healing from its warm waters.  Much of the town’s buildings were constructed in the late 1800’s from locally quarried sandstone, giving Main Street a unique look that differs from many other mining towns.  We checked into our hotel that I had booked in advance (I had figured we might want to shower before the long drive home) and we enjoyed the sparkling outdoor pool before walking into town for an amazing dinner at the 1891 Steakhouse, which tasted especially luxurious after the past nights dinners of pasta and hot dogs.  Afterwards we enjoyed a walk along the river, tasting water from the natural springs and attempting river crossing by hopping strategically placed boulders (included pictures of August walking around shirtless later in the night after he took an unexpected dip in the river).

On Saturday it was time to drive our two cars home, but no trip to the Southern Black Hills would be complete without a stop at Cascade Falls.  The water was especially inviting when we arrived, with temperatures flirting with 100 degrees including some noticeable humidity (at least humid by Colorado standards).  We enjoyed the numerous cool, clear pools for a good hour, had our last picnic lunch of the trip, and started our long drive home on Highway 71 that would take us out of South Dakota, through the plains of Nebraska, and into Colorado where we would cut west.  I savored numerous true crime podcasts while the boys (mostly) entertained themselves.  It was my kind of driving- wide open views and very few other vehicles (despite it being a holiday weekend!), something I almost always prefer over the busyness and stress of summer interstate driving. 

Walk to Cascade Falls

Nebraska roads