Wind cave and Jewel cave are the two best known caves in the Black Hills Region. Wind cave is a National Park located just south of Custer State Park, and it’s easy to locate on a map. Jewel cave is a National Monument, and is less well marked. When two coworkers and I set out to find it on my last weekend adventure, Google Maps on my iPhone failed to find it. Well, it found it, but placed it well north of the actual location out in the middle of nowhere. At least the drive was scenic.
To actually find it, drive west of Custer on Highway 16, and you’ll see signs when you start getting close. Parking is free, as is admittance onto the grounds and use of the facilities. You pay for the cave tours, and that’s it.
There are four available tours, ranging from the 20 minute Discovery tour ($4) which is access to one large room of the cave accessible by elevator and friendly to those with limited mobility or small children, to the extremely strenuous 3-4 hour Wild Caving Tour ($27) which requires special equipment and crawling around on your hands and knees. These tours cover a very small fraction of the cave system. In fact Jewel cave has not been fully explored yet, it’s currently rated the third longest cave in the world. To learn more about the monument and available tours, the official Jewel cave website is: http://www.nps.gov/jeca/index.htm
For 2013, advanced reservations are only available for the Wild Caving tour due to construction projects and expected disruptions in service. When I went there wasn’t any construction going on that was causing service disruptions, but I guess that’s subject to change.
Because there are no advanced reservations available, I will say that arriving early is a good plan. When I got there at 2 pm the next tour was already full. We had to wait around until 4 pm for the last tour of the day. During the wait there was a little presentation given by a Park Ranger on bats to entertain the kids, and there are also restrooms, food and drink vending machines, and hiking trails available.
We went with the Historic Lantern tour, which lasts about 1 hour and 45 minutes and uses the historic cave entrance discovered in 1908. It costs $8, and is the next most strenuous after the Wild Caving tour with about 600 steps on a steep narrow stairway while holding an old gas lantern, ducking and bending are required. It has been years since I’ve been in a cave, it was a lot of fun.
Jewel cave gets it’s name from the abundant calcite crystals found within. Calcite is relatively soft, only about as hard as a fingernail, and is not considered a true ‘jewel’ and has no monetary value. It sure is pretty to look at though. Pictures were hard to get in the low light with only my phone camera, but I did what I could.
Near the end of the tour, our guide Brian took those of us who were willing through a narrow but short passage requiring some crawling around. It opened up into a small room that had a few bats roosting in it, pretty neat.
When we left the cave, I was amazed at the wall of heat and smells that hit me. Jewel cave is a near constant 49 degrees winter and summer, and there is very little odor to it. Compared to that the blooming flowers and trees outside seemed extremely pungent. The thunderstorm that had been brewing off in the distance during the cave and lantern safety talk at the start of the tour was about ready to roll in, adding the smell of rain into the mix and making for some dramatic pictures.
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I hope everyone is having a good 4th of July! It’s looking like rain here and I close tonight at work, but it sounds like the fireworks in Interior are visible from the Lodge (assuming the rain is done by then) so I might catch some of the festivities anyway. 🙂