Jewel Cave National Monument
Named for the glittering calcite crystals that line the walls, Jewel Cave National Monument was discovered by miners Frank and Albert Michaud in 1900. The brothers filed a mining claim, but it seems clear that their intention was always to create a tourist attraction.
Over the next few years, the brothers, with family friend Charles Bush, widened the entrance to the cave with dynamite and constructed a rudimentary trail. They built a lodge on the rim of the nearby Hell Canyon, and established the Jewel Cave Dancing Club in 1902.
At the time, however, travel was difficult and the local population was not large enough to provide enough financial support for the cave. Bush was bought out for $300, and after the brothers died, the claim was sold to the government for a nominal amount. While the cave was small, with just a half-mile mapped, and the attempt at tourism wasn’t a success, the beauty of the cave was well known and in 1908 Theodore Roosevelt declared the cave a National Monument.
The cave remained virtually unexplored through 1959, when the cave had only been increased in size to two miles in length. A local geologist decided to take exploration of the cave more seriously and convinced two avid rock climbers, Herb and Jan Conn, to join him in mapping out the cave. In less than two years, the length of the cave expanded to 15 miles. This sparked the interest of the National Park Service and mapping of the cave continued in earnest.
Today the cave is the second-longest cave in the world and growing, currently measuring 148.27 miles in length, honeycombed under just three square miles of land. The largest room in the cave is over 570 feet long, 180 feet at its widest and 30 feet tall. In addition to the sparkling calcite crystals that gave the cave its name, the cave also features popcorn (small round clusters of calcium carbonate that looks like…popcorn), stalactites, and stalagmites.
The first place to stop when visiting Jewel Cave is the visitors center (13 miles west of Custer, 605/673-8300, mid-Sept.–mid-June daily 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., mid-June–mid-Aug. daily 8 a.m.–7 p.m., mid-Aug.–mid-Sept. daily 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.). Information about the available cave tours and ranger-led education programs can be obtained at the visitors center.
Park rangers offer educational programs during the high summer months between early June and mid-August. These programs include a variety of guided walks on the surface of the Jewel Cave property, and a series of talks about cave exploration, wildlife, fire ecology, and wildflowers, plants, and animals of the area. All cave tours originate in the visitors center.
A small bookstore, operated by the Black Hills Parks and Forests Association, offers books and maps specific to Jewel Cave, as well as books on local and regional flora, fauna, and history.
More than 80,000 people per year take the cave tours here. If you plan on taking a tour, remember to bring a sweater. Jewel Cave is one of the colder caves in the hills, reaching only 49°F, even in the hottest days of summer. There are four tours available.
The Discovery Tour (adult $4, all others free) is offered year-round and is wheelchair accessible. One room of the cave is visited, with elevator access, and a park ranger provides a 20-minute introduction to the cave’s history and formation.
The Scenic Tour (adult $8, child 6–16 $4, child under 5 free), also offered year-round, takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes and is moderately strenuous. The trail is paved and there is electric lighting along the path. There are 723 stairs to climb in a half-mile loop. This is one of the most popular tours. The glittering calcite crystals that gave the cave its name can be viewed in several rooms. Other cave formations (speleothems) on this tour include knobby calcite formations called popcorn, boxwork, flowstone, stalactites, and stalagmites, and cave bacon. (Many formations are named for what they look like.) Most of the formations in Jewel Cave are calcite or gypsum related.
The Lantern Tour (mid-June–Labor Day, adult $8, child $4, minimum age 6) is designed to replicate the experience of the early cave explorers. Park employees wear historic uniforms and lighting for the tour is provided only by lanterns carried in by the participants. The tour last 1 hour and 45 minutes and is considered strenuous. The tour begins at the cave’s natural entrance and includes walking up wooden staircases, bending, stooping, duck walking’ and climbing steep ladders. The trail is unpaved and study shoes with rubber soles and long pants are recommended. Reservations are highly recommended.
The Wild Caving (Spelunking) Tour (mid-June–early Oct., adult $27, minimum age 16) is an extremely strenuous, 3–4-hour tour. Participants must in good health and physical condition. Participants are required to wear sturdy leather over ankle boots, elbow and knee pads, gloves, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt. (Bring extra clothes, as you will get very dirty.) The tour provides a hard hat and head lamp. This tour is designed for thrill seekers. It will give participants a real feel for what it is like to explore and map a cave in its natural state. Participants will scramble over rough rock, belly crawl through tight passages, rope climb semi-vertical rocks, and chimney between cave walls. Do not even think about this tour if you are even mildly claustrophobic. Before taking the tour, participants must demonstrate that they can fit through a passage 8.5 inches high by 24 inches wide. During the course of the tour, participants will learn about safe caving, caving equipment, and techniques. Advance reservations are required.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition