Custer, SD: A Jewel of a Cave

Check out this “jewel” of a place in Custer, South Dakota: Jewel Cave National Monument! Indeed, she’s a bit of a hidden “gem” in this area, living in the shadow of other more well-known attractions such as Custer State Park and its thousands of roaming bison, Wind Cave National Park, and of course Mount Rushmore.

Jewel Cave was so named when in 1900, two brothers investigated a small hole in the limestone rock of this area, where a breeze was blowing through the opening. They returned with tools and dynamite, and upon blasting their way inside, “found themselves surrounded by sparkling crystals,” the jewels of Jewel Cave.

Although they look kinda like popcorn cakes (those tasteless bane of every dieter’s existence), these calcite crystals are beautiful in person, especially when illuminated, and can be seen on cave tours, accessed via an elevator ride down down down into the ground and then along a lighted path.

The Scenic Tour involves 723 steps, the equivalent of 40 flights of stairs, through various levels of a very small section of the cave, including the highly decorated Formation Room. Besides the calcite crystals, formations such as dogtooth spar, draperies, aragonite frostwork, and gypsum flowers may be pointed out by guides.

And of course, the ubiquitous “cave bacon” … we have yet to be on any cave tour anywhere, yet, that didn’t involve (1) the showcasing of the bacon rock formation, and (2) the turning off of every light so you can see how dark it really is inside the cave. To be fair, however, this was the most dramatically lit cave bacon we’ve ever seen, so props for that, Jewel Cave!

Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the WORLD, and yet airflow studies indicate that 95% of Jewel Cave is still unexplored! So someday, in a time far far away, she may get a promotion and move to the top of this list.

All these years later, the 180 mapped miles look like a picture that our 1-year-old grandson Connor might have scribbled. Many of the areas have imaginative names such as The Torture Room, Rum Runners Alley, The Miseries, Cracker Barrel, and Carnegie Hall.

All of the exploration has been done, and continues to be done, by volunteer teams. Would YOU crawl down tight spaces like these? If a standard tour is a little too tame for your adventurous soul, Jewel Cave offers a Wild Caving Tour, 4 hours of strenous off-trail caving experiences, through challenging tight passages.

Scientific studies have shown that Jewel Cave could actually connect with another national park, Wind Cave, which is only 20 miles away by road, but for which a direct caving route hasn’t been found (and will not be found, unless hundreds more miles in Jewel Cave are yet explored and mapped). We visited Wind Cave in 2019 … when it was obviously a little colder!

Like many caves, Jewel Cave is home to many different species of bats, but one in particular is the most useful. Have you had a margarita in the last year? If so, thank a bat! The long-nosed bat is solely responsible for the pollination of the agave plant, from which tequila is made. Why bats? Because agave is one of the very few plants that pollinates at night, when the only critters awake and available for duty are … you guessed it … bats! And you thought honeybees were the only heroes! We raise a (tequila) toast to you, bat friends!

Of great personal pride was Philip’s promotion to the oldest official Junior Park Ranger in the National Park Service. Normally reserved for small children, the Jewel Cave rangers recognized Philip’s exemplary service as the “caboose” in the line of people touring the cave, and not even losing any of them.

We were pretty excited until a friend pointed out that his dog also recently this status, although he did try to soften the blow by saying this was “proof that this elite status is only awarded to a select few with special skills and bravery.” At his official swearing-in ceremony, which was disappointing in that there was no cake, the ranger administering the standard Junior Park Ranger oath, helpfully throwing in a few extra lines about always helping your wife with laundry and dishes.

Back above ground, there is only one dog-friendly trail in all of Jewel Cave National Monument. On the Hells Canyon Trail, you actually trek on ground above the massive network of caves. Hells Canyon was indeed a little bit of hell, especially for 7-month-old puppy Finn, who is still building up her stamina. Half of the 5.5 mile loop is through the bottom of a canyon, which was fine, but the other half involved a lot of climbing and perching on very narrow ledges of the limestone cliffs … eeek! But the views from the top were phenomenal!

Jewel Cave also has a pretty cool free program to get young children excited about caving. They could craw into that little cave simulator, put on hard hats and be “lowered” (about 3 feet), etc. Seeing as I am 55, they would not let me crawl into the little pretend cave, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to!

Having previously spent time in Custer and Mount Rushmore in 2015, we did not visit other notable sites here, but did score big with a Fathers Day dinner at one of the best restaurants we’ve had in all our travels! Here’s a little food porn for you! If ever in Custer, don’t miss eating at Skogen Kitchen, but be sure you have reservations, because it’s a teeny tiny little place!

Leaving South Dakota, next we went to some cool stuff in Nebraska! If you think it’s just a “flyover” state, you might change your mind soon!

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