Jewel Cave National Monument
On a rainy Thursday during our visit to the Black Hills, we decided to go for a little indoor activity instead of just hanging out at the campsite or in a coffee shop, surfing the Internet. There are 2 National Park Service caves about 30 minutes apart in that area, so we decided underground was just as good as indoors. We took a tour of Wind Cave National Park first, and then headed over to Jewel Cave National Monument for another underground adventure.
Our visit helped us complete our tour of the 4 National Park Service sites focusing on caves – Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave, Wind Cave, and Jewel Cave. Although there are other National Park Service sites that include caves, the caves aren’t the focus. For example, Russell Cave focuses more on archaeology and the artifacts found within the cave area than on the cave itself.
A National Monument
Jewel Cave was designated as a National Monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. As we mentioned briefly in our post on Mount Rushmore, a National Park is a large area of public land designated as such by an Act of Congress for its scenic, recreational, scientific, or historical importance while a National Monument is a structure or site of scenic, historical, or scientific significance that may be designated such by the President. So what makes Jewel Cave significant?
Jewel Cave has a wealth of crystal formations even though the cave is now mostly dry. The “jewels” for which the cave is named – calcite crystals, known as dogtooth and nailhead spar – amazed early visitors, as did other cave features such as boxwork, cave popcorn, draperies, stalagmites, stalactites, flowstone and cave bacon.
[Important Note: Cave bacon is a cave formation with brown and beige layers that look much like bacon, hence the name. Unfortunately, cave bacon doesn’t taste amazing and is rather hard on your teeth, but we were still disappointed that we didn’t get to see any.]
At the time of its national designation and until the late 1950s, only about 2 miles of Jewel Cave had been explored and mapped. As of 2011, though, Jewel Cave registered as the 2nd longest cave in the world with 160 miles of explored passages, coming in behind only Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. According to measurement of the air volume within the cave, however, experts think that only about 5% of the cave has actually been explored.
New cave explorations continue each year to discover uncharted territory. There is an exploration base camp called The Big Duh, which takes 8-10 hours to reach and requires travel through The Miseries (2000 ft on hands and knees) and Mini Miseries (600-700 feet on belly). Who wants to go??
Touring The Cave
Jewel Cave offers 2 tour options year-round with another 2 options offered during summer months. If you’re short on time or only looking for a brief overview, the 20 minute Discovery Tour may be your best option. You only view one large room of the cave, but you also get an introduction to the heritage of Jewel Cave.
If you have more time, consider the Scenic Tour (1 hour 20 min; 1/2 mile loop) or the Historic Tour. The Scenic Tour is the most popular tour, running 1 hour & 20 minutes and showing participants the “jewels” for which the cave is known. The Historic Tour is a 1940s-style tour using gas lanterns (or LED lanterns for the younger folk) that goes through the historic entrance instead of down the elevator at the visitor center. If you’re feeling more adventurous, the 3-4 hour Wild Caving Tour will take you on a strenuous trek (or crawl!) through undeveloped sections of the cave.
Jewel Cave was only offering one tour option on the day we arrived – the Historic Lantern Tour. Thanks to the incredible amount of rain in South Dakota during our week-long visit, the elevator that takes participants down to the other tour starting points wasn’t working. That was fine with us though – we liked the idea of doing a tour by lantern light. It would be a new adventure for us!
The Historic Tour does give you a better idea of what early cave explorers did. There are no paved walkways or electric-lighted cave features. You maneuver on rocky, uneven terrain and climb steep, narrow, wooden staircases. The ceilings are low in many spots. Scott experienced that first-hand…twice! If you go visit Jewel Cave and go on the Historic Lantern Tour, be sure to look for the dents he left with his head.
The only drawback to the Historic Lantern Tour? There are fewer opportunities to see examples of the “jewels” of Jewel Cave, which is unfortunate for 2 people who really wanted to experience some cave bacon!
For The Non-Caving Types
If you want to learn more about Jewel Cave, but aren’t so keen on venturing below the Earth’s surface, check out the Jewel Cave visitor center. It has a number of exhibits telling about the history and features of Jewel Cave. During the summer months, rangers give 30 minute “patio talks” on various topics throughout the day.
There are also 10 miles of hiking trails in and around Jewel Cave National Monument. If you’re not interested in venturing out solo or want a more informative hike, during the summer months you can join a ranger-led hike to learn about the native plant and animal life in the area.
Unfortunately for Knox, pets aren’t allowed on cave tours. They also aren’t allowed on hiking trails or in picnic areas, and the rules & regulations at Jewel Cave specifically state that you should not leave pets in your vehicle while touring the cave.
Since we knew we wanted to see both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave in one day, we opted to send ‘ol Knox to daycare where we knew he’d be safe and have other doggies to sniff. Thanks to our wonderful campground hosts, we found just the spot.
As we mentioned in our post on Mammoth Cave, White-Nose Syndrome is a fungal infection that attacks the muzzles and wings of hibernating bats. The disease is causing up to 95% mortality in caves that it’s affecting, causing large population collapses in several species of cave bat. Although the disease is mostly still in the eastern U.S. and Canada, it is gradually spreading west.
Nine different species of bats call Jewel Cave National Monument home, including up to 1400 who hibernate there during the winter months. No Jewel Cave bats have yet been found to have White-Nose Syndrome, and they want to keep it that way. If you have visited another cave since 2005, be sure to wear different shoes & clothes, or let your ranger know so that you can get decontaminated.
Just like Wind Cave, Jewel Cave is easy to get to once you’ve made it to the Black Hills. Just head west from Custer, SD on US-16 and you’ll run right into it.
There is no entrance fee to Jewel Cave National Monument which means you can explore the visitor center or go on a hike for free. If you want to go inside the cave though, it’ll cost you.
The Discovery Tour is only $4 for adults unless you have a National Parks Pass, in which case it is free. The Scenic Tour (Jewel Cave’s most popular) and the Historic Lantern Tour are only $8. If you are adventurous (and small!) enough to go on the Wild Caving Tour, it’ll set you back $27 per adult.
A Few Photos
Since you aren’t supposed to carry any item on the Historic Lantern Tour that is larger than a deck of cards, we had to leave our good camera behind and rely solely on our little Canon point-and-shoot. That said, the number of pictures isn’t quite up to our usual, but you can still get a good feel for our experience in Jewel Cave.