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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.