Jewel Cave - Spelunking

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About

Summary

Jewel Cave, in western South Dakota, is the third longest cave in the world. There are several tours of the national monument available, making it great for the whole family to explore.

Written by

Abbie Mood

Distance

1.0 miles

The tours range from less than 1/2 mile to 2/3 mile.

Destination Distance From Downtown

42.4 miles

Difficulty

3 of 5 diamonds

Tours range from scenic to strenuous.

Time To Complete

2 hours

The easier tours take about 80-90 minutes, but the more difficult tours will take 3-4 hours. There is also a talk that is about 20 minutes.

Seasonality

All Seasons

Cave tours are subject to change and can be dependent on weather, but are open year round. In the peak season (the summer), wait times can be up to four hours, so get there early, or go in the spring or fall.

Dog Friendly

No

Fees Permits

Yes

There is no fee to enter the monument, but each tour has a fee.

Review

Intro

Jewel Cave in western South Dakota was first found in 1900 by brothers Frank and Albert Michaud. It was described as a "a hole that was too small for human entry, with a blast of cold air coming out". After repeated blasts of dynamite, the brothers were able to enter the cave and found the ceilings covered in calcite crystals that sparkled like jewels, which led to the name of the cave.

The National Park service took over responsibility of the monument in 1933 and have been offering tours since 1939. The tours range from a Discovery Talk (a 20-minute informational talk in one of the larger cave rooms) to the more strenuous, 3-4 hour Wild Caving Tour. With four different tours available to the public, there is a way for every family member to be able to come and enjoy this natural wonder.

What Makes It Great

Jewel Cave should be on any beginner spelunkers list of places to visit. It's easily accessible and there are several guided tours for visitors of any age/ability level. The cave itself remains in its natural state, and visitors are captivated by the sparkling walls and ceilings.

There are four tours available, though availability may change depending on weather and other circumstances. 

The easiest and most family-friendly tour is the Discovery Talk. It's a 20-minute introduction to the cave and is best for families with young children, or people with limited mobility (including wheelchairs). There is an elevator that takes visitors down to one of the larger cave rooms, where you will see the sparkling nailhead spar and dogtooth spar.

The Scenic Tour is the most popular tour of the cave, and frequently sells out. It's considered moderately strenuous, involving 723 stairs and a 1/2 mile walking loop, though the route is paved and lighted. Visitors will also see the "jewels of the cave" - nailhead spar and dogtooth spar, and formations such as boxwork, cave popcorn, flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, draperies. There is also the unique feature known as "cave bacon", which is ribbons of minerals that look like bacon! It's not recommended that young children participate in the Scenic Tour because everyone needs to be able to get through the tour on their own — parents may not carry their children.

The Historic Lantern Tour, offered only in the summer, gives visitors an idea of what the caves used to be like in the the early 1900s. The park ranger dresses up in a 1930s uniform and visitors carry lanterns as they travel along the 1/2 mile route (including 600+ stairs). This tour is only for ages 6 years and older.

The last tour is the most strenuous, but is by far the best way to explore the cave if you are up for it. The Wild Caving Tour covers 2/3 mile, but lasts 3-4 hours as spelunkers "feel the wind at the famous Hurricane Corner, ascend Martha's Kettle, crawl through the Roller Coaster, and squeeze into the Brain Drain". The ranger will talk about low-impact caving, caving techniques, and safety along the way, making this a great way to safely get some practice with cave exploration (skip this one if you are afraid of heights or enclosed spaces, though). This tour requires reservations in advance, and is only offered mid-June through August and November through April.

Who is Going to Love It

This national monument has something for everyone, from the youngest family members to the adventurous cave explorer. There's no option for independent exploration, but this is one of the most accessible caves in the United States for anyone who wants to learn more about caves and spelunking.

There are also hiking trails around the monument that range from 0.25 - 5.5 miles if you want to stretch your legs after crawling around the cave.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

Jewel Cave is located 13 miles west of Custer, South Dakota. The cave is generally about 49 degrees, so bring a jacket - even in the summer!There is no cell phone reception at the monument. Backpacks and purses are not allowed, so leave them in the car.

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Location

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44.485135, -103.872206

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