Detour: Jewel Cave National Monument


Jewel Cave National Monument was established by President Theodore Roosevelt on February 7, 1908 as the nation’s thirteenth National Monument. It was intended to protect what at the time was assumed to be a small, but distinctly beautiful cave. Jewel Cave now stands as the second longest on Earth at over 166 miles of explored passageways.

After our morning tour of Wind Cave, we had planned to do a couple short hikes and then visit Jewel Cave for the 2pm Scenic Tour. The unexpectedly busy tours at Wind Cave (particularly for a Monday after Labor Day) made us a little anxious about getting the tour we wanted that afternoon. (The ultimate plan was to come back to Wind Cave to do some hiking in the late afternoon.) So we started out on the 35-mile drive to Jewel Cave

As our route took us through the town of Custer and into the heart of the Black Hills, we began to see granite outcrops indicative of the center of the Hills.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Another reason for the decision to head to Jewel Cave immediately was that there were postings about road construction, which we hit in the midst of Black Hills National Forest west of Custer and near Jewel Cave. The road was being repaved and that Monday afternoon was reduced to one lane. As we sat waiting for the leader vehicle that would escort the westbound traffic through the construction, we were able to survey the effects of the Jasper Fire from August 2000. The wildfire burned over 83,000 acres of forests in the Black Hills, including ninety percent of the surface area of Jewel Cave National Monument. As the fire approached the visitor center, important documents and historical artifacts and records were taken into the cave to keep them safe.


After about a fifteen-minute delay, we were moving again and soon had turned into the Monument and arrived at the parking lot, which was also under construction.


We arrived moments too late for the 12:40pm tour, but we got tickets for a 1:20pm Scenic Tour, still earlier than we’d originally planned. We passed the time looking at exhibitions, browsing in the bookstore, stamping our passports, and eating a lunch of peanut butter and potato chip sandwiches on the visitor center’s deck. The section of the Black Hills Jewel Cave lies in (surrounded by Ponderosa Pine forest) is much more dramatically rolling than where Wind Cave is located.

After the CCC-era charm of Wind Cave’s buildings, the 1960s-era pseudo-Modernist design of Jewel Cave’s buildings was something of a letdown. It reminded Sean of suburban Detroit Catholic churches of the same period.


Although the cave was first discovered and began to be explored in 1900 by pioneer brothers Frank and Albert Michaud, who had staked a claim on the cave because they thought it was filled with precious gems (it’s not), it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the full extent of the cave was realized. When the husband and wife team of Herb and Jan Conn began exploring the cave in 1959 it was still thought to be a small cave. The Conns are responsible for increasing knowledge of the cave to a huge extent. Most of the Scenic Tour now accessible via elevator from the visitor center includes passageways they discovered.


Our tour was led by Ranger Melissa, originally from Milwaukee. This time there were no kids and about twenty adults. Most were straight couples in their forties, fifties, or sixties. Sean and I were amused by two guys who appeared obviously to us to be a mixed race (Asian and White) gay couple in their late thirties or early forties. But they were very sporty butch. Very sporty butch but also with a veneer that said, “This is something of an act because we’re uncomfortable being obviously gay here in South Dakota.” At this point, Sean and I also had a veneer, but ours was more like, “We’ve been camping for three nights already and don’t really care all that much what we look or smell like.”

Soon we were hundreds of feet below the surface.


As soon as we entered the cave, the differences between Jewel Cave and Wind Cave were striking. We were in a huge room called the Target Room which was far larger than anything we’d experienced that morning at Wind Cave. Dozens of feet above the platform on which we were standing, another room, Surprise Loft, opened from the ceiling of Target Room (visible in the image below).

Dogtooth spar

Immediately Ranger Melissa began to point out features. Crystals blanketed the walls in two main types, nailhead spar (which was blunt) and dogtooth spar (which was pointed). It was these crystals that had tricked the Michaud brothers into believing that they’d struck it rich.


After orienting us in the cave, selecting someone to take up the rear to make sure no one was left behind, and establishing that at low sections we were to pass the warning “Duck!” back up the line, Ranger Melissa led us single file down a staircase and along a narrow passage called Rum Runner’s Lane.

Nailhead spar
Nailhead spar
Dogtooth spar
Nailhead spar
Nailhead spar and some of Jewel Cave’s tiny amount of boxwork
Black manganese oxide surrounded by red iron oxide
Dogtooth spar

Eventually we reached a large room, the Formation Room, which boasts an array of cave decorations. It was here that Ranger Melissa turned off the lights to show us the intense darkness of the cave. She used the opportunity effectively to then, by flashlight or targeted bulb, point out various formations in the room.

Nailhead spar
Flowstone and dripstone. Image: Sean M. Santos
Nailhead spar and flowstone
Flowstone (this formation is probably twenty feet high and commands one end of the Formation Room)

We continued through a portion of the cave much wetter than we had seen. Flowstone, caused by eons of water flowing over rock and depositing new minerals, was much more prevalent.

Jewel Cave’s history is much the same as Wind Cave’s. It began forming around the same time 320 million years ago in the same Pahasapa Limestone as Wind Cave. It was buried beneath the earth and uplifted at the same time (65 million years ago) as the Black Hills formed. And like Wind Cave, estimates are that only five percent of the cave is known.

But Jewel Cave is wetter and consequently boasts more dynamic, wide ranging formations than Wind Cave’s delicate boxwork.

Nailhead spar, quartz, and flowstone
Nailhead spar
Nailhead spar and flowstone
Nailhead spar

We descended a series of long staircases into Spooky Hollow, a room that had been originally discovered on Halloween.

Nailhead spar and quartz

Ranger Melissa told us that she likes to see the face of a cave troll in the formations on one of the walls in Spooky Hollow.

Ranger Melissa’s “Cave Troll” (the width of the image is about fifteen feet)

Out of Spooky Hollow and around a corner we encountered the “Cave Bacon,” a stunning piece of flowstone drapery.

“Cave Bacon” (the height of the image is about eight feet)
Nailhead spar and flowstone

After the “Cave Bacon,” we began generally to climb upward through a series of huge rooms. The scale of the spaces was of an entirely different magnitude than what we’d experienced at Wind Cave.

Video: Sean M. Santos


Ranger Melissa was forthcoming about her own excitement as a Jewel Cave explorer, getting to go along with other volunteers on long, exploratory journeys into the cave. When she asked who else would like to be a cave explorer, her question landed with something of a thud. No one in our group indicated that they would…

The final stop on the tour was the New Drip Room, a large, wet room filled with nailhead spar. The wetness from seeping surface water (you can see a continuous drip in the image below) is an unfortunate mistake on the part of the Park Service. When they installed the elevators in the 1960s, they opened new cracks that caused new water seepage into this room. Ranger Melissa was straightforward about its being at odds with the Park Service’s mission to preserve and protect.

New Drip Room

A quick elevator ride (from a lower level than we’d entered the cave) brought us to the surface. We chatted for a bit with Ranger Melissa about Chicago and Wisconsin and cheese curds and some of the off-season realities for Park Service employees. Her enthusiasm for Jewel Cave was infectious. We also talked about the impending cold weather bearing down on the Dakotas. She recommended some places in Custer, Hot Springs, and Rapid City to get some more warm clothes.

In front of the main entrance to the visitor center is a concrete container. In order to participate in the Wild Cave Tour, you must be able to pass through the space. Sean tried, but he didn’t fit.

Above ground at Jewel Cave National Monument

On the highway back to Custer and then Wind Cave, road work (and the smothering smell of tar) continued.

Image: Sean M. Santos
Image: Sean M. Santos

In addition to the many interpretive installations at the visitor center, much of the information in the post comes from Ranger Melissa’s tour and this book:

Jewel Cave, A Gift from the Past by Arthur N. Palmer

3 thoughts on “Detour: Jewel Cave National Monument

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