Wind Cave, Angostura Reservoir, and a pit full of dead mammoths

Hot Springs, South Dakota
September 28-October 3, 2018

As I’ve described before, we’ve found a balance that works well for us in alternating between two very different modes of “camping”.  We spend some of our time in developed campgrounds and parks, enjoying all the perks that come with the higher cost – amenities like shower houses, laundry and water/electric hook-ups, conveniently located grocery stores and coffee shops, and neighbors right outside our door.  And we spend some of our time “boondocking” – finding free or nearly-free campsites on public land, relying on our RV battery to occasionally turn on a light bulb, rationing water from our fresh tank to cook, wash hands, and flush, and enjoying the company of wildlife and star-filled skies as our closest neighbor.  Both settings have so much to offer, and we find each more delightful when we alternate between the two.  The amenities of an RV Park feel like luxury after being out boondocking for a number of days, and the privacy and beauty of the boondocking sites are thrilling and life-giving after we’ve been boxed in on all sides by other trailers.

Lovely sunset views at the Angostura Reservoir. You can see Stumbo parked in our site just above the beach. Campsite fee: $0

This transition from an RV park out onto public land proved to be just as welcome and refreshing, especially since we’d spent an entire month at a park in Pocatello before our time in Missoula – we were definitely due for some time enjoying Mother Nature’s beauty right outside our door.  We were really happy with the spot we found just outside of Hot Springs, South Dakota right on the Angostura Reservoir.  The reservoir is named after the Angostura Dam (“narrows” in Spanish), not the cocktail ingredient. This location would allow us to explore Wind Cave National Park which borders Custer State Park to the south.  Since the Custer S.P. area one of our favorite parts of South Dakota, we were excited to check out it’s Southern neighbor.  It did not disappoint!

Wind Cave National Park gets its name from the cave that is revered by several local tribes as the birthplace of their people.  The place where the people were to have emerged never ceases to have a wind blowing out from it.  Our tour guide showed us this by holding a yellow ribbon in front of the hole, which immediately began dancing outward from the constant breath of the cave.

The sign reads “Native Nations have recognized this special place since time immemorial. The Lakota Nation, in particular, chronicles this opening as the place of emergence of their people, “Pte Oyate” – buffalo nation, to the surface of the world. Their creation story says they were beneath the surface and were led to the sunlight by Tokahe (the first to come). The cave represents the buffalo’s interior complete with organs, meat, and medicines. After emergence, the Lakota saw the Black Hills were in the shape of a buffalo lying down and facing east, solidifying the relationship with Pte Oyate that still exists. Afterward, they assembled a holistic view termed “Wolakota” – natural law encompassing all that exists, that includes all places viewed as sacred. This is one of many sacred places of Native people and it is treated with respect at all times.”


Intricate wall and ceiling patterns within the cave.
Cave popcorn on the ceiling.
Of course, completion of the Junior Ranger program for badges was part of the day’s itinerary.
One morning we explored the small town of Hot Springs by enjoying parks, playgrounds, coffee shops, murals, and of course….the library.

On another day the girls and I checked out another local attraction – The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs Museum.  (Not to be confused with Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, which is the name of a large hot spring.)  The Mammoth Site is a museum built around an ancient hot spring that created a sink hole over 10s of thousands of years ago.  It’s thought that the sinkhole filled with water fed by warm artesian springs and made an oasis of flora and fauna from which numerous animals came to drink.  The water level would change seasonally, so during drier parts of the year some animals would venture down into the pit to drink the water or eat plants growing in and around the warm pond.  The steep, slick sides would then keep some creatures from being able to climb back out – especially…young male mammoths.  Over 60 of their nearly complete and well-preserved skeletons have been found at this site, and years of sediment slowly over time filled in the sinkhole pond, with layers of various archeological treasures – fossilized plants and animals in a neatly stacked historical record.  Over time, these layers proved to be stronger rock than the surrounding landscape, and by the 1970’s, the sinkhole was a nice rounded hill in the landscape that a land developer planned to use for a neighborhood.  When his equipment started to dig into the hill and hit giant tusks, they pivoted and set up the museum/research center on the site.

I’d had never heard of this site before but it was really interesting and impressive!
Giant jaws!
These mammoths are mammoth!
This site is an educational museum as well as an active archaeological dig site.
It’s thought that mammoths, like modern day elephants, lived in matriarchal societies. The only ones roaming alone would have been young males once they were old enough to leave their mothers and aunties. This may be why nearly all of the mammoth skeletons found are young males – they would have been alone when they ventured down into the pit for a drink, without the herd of aunties to warn of its dangers or help them back out again.
We had such a fun and educational visit at this place.

Since our first visit to Wind Cave N.P. was to attend a cave tour, on one of our final days in the area we headed back into to explore what the park had to offer above-ground.  We basically did a driving tour through the park, and from the comfort of our Ford truck cab we saw some of the widest variety of wildlife we’ve seen in a single day on this entire adventure.

Before we even arrived at the park, we saw a great-horned owl strangely hanging out in broad daylight near our campsite. Then just down the road we saw a bald eagle. Once we got into Wind Cave N.P. we watched pronghorns (my fave!) and lots of buffalo. The park was mostly empty, so we were able to pull off to the side of the road, turn off the engine, and listen to the sound of the animals grazing from inside our truck.
Seeing herds of bison is amazing, but there’s also something awesome about watching the solitary bulls out roaming alone.

We pulled to the side of the road to watch a large colony of prairie dogs whose intricate maze of underground burrows had small dirt hills marking the numerous entrances and exits on both sides of the road. As we sat and observed (another one of my favorites to watch!) we realized that something else was going on – an American badger was hunting them! He was going from entrance to entrance and spraying a smelly pheromone into the tunnels. The goal is to force the prairie dogs to evacuate the tunnels, popping up another one of the entrances to be caught and eaten. The badger worked this system for quite awhile which made for a really interesting session of wildlife viewing! Much to my relief, we never saw him actually catch one.

I love watching prairie dogs!
We’d never seen a badger before!

In this video you can hear the prairie dogs chirping at him and warning each other.

In a particularly deserted part of the park, we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of bison. We turned off the truck and partially rolled down the windows to enjoy watching them awhile. Even from the safety of our truck, it was a bit disconcerting when several of them began intentionally approaching us. We weren’t sure what was going on at first when they started to lick the outside of our truck! When some began doing this, others became interested until there were giant bison all around us licking the vehicle!


Bison licks!

We later learned that they have figured out that vehicles sometimes have salt on them from wintery road maintenance. It was such a cool experience; we didn’t wash the bison-tongue smudges off our truck for weeks.

Coral feeling inspired to draw next to the reservoir.
Ginger enjoyed getting to explore the beach area, and we enjoyed not having to try to keep her locked inside at all times. She’s definitely our adventure kitty.
The lovely Angostura Reservoir.

We especially treasured this time at the Angostura Reservoir knowing that it would be our last primitive camping for awhile.  Next up with be driving back East into the much more heavily populated part of the world to spend the winter months and holidays with loved ones.


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