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
After we’d breakfasted on Monday morning, September 8, we drove the short distance from Elk Mountain Campground to the Wind Cave National Park visitor center. We were hoping to take the 9am Natural Entrance Tour, but we were too close to its starting time. Ranger Andrew sold us the final two tickets for the 9:45am tour. He informed us that there would be a group of middle schoolers on the tour with us, but it should be fine, since there had been others from the same large group on tours the day before without any problems.
As we waited the forty-five minutes for our tour, we watched the twenty-minute park introductory film and explored the exhibitions in the CCC-era visitor center. We also stopped by the bookstore.
Wind Cave National Park is possibly the most important little-known park in the entire system. It became the seventh National Park in 1903 when Congress passed legislation, subsequently signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, to protect a small, but beautiful cave in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. (Starting here with Wind Cave, all five park units we’d visit would have some connection or indebtedness to Roosevelt.) It was the first National Park to protect a cave, and it also happened to protect an important transition zone between the mixed grass prairie of the South Dakota plains and the Ponderosa Pine forests of the Black Hills.
The quiet importance of the park would grow. What had been assumed to be a small cave is now known to be the fourth longest and among the oldest in the world. On the surface, a reintroduction program for the American Bison, begun in 1913, has yielded one of the most important, purest herds in the United States. It is a herd vital to reintroduction programs across the prairie.
Yet even many of those who have visited the Badlands or Mount Rushmore haven’t necessarily heard of this unassuming, intensely beautiful park. Perhaps that’s for the best.
It was Sunday morning, September 7, and although we had already broken camp at Sage Creek Campground, we weren’t quite finished exploring Badlands National Park. Instead of immediately exiting the park via the west entrance, we drove east on the Loop Road one more time to see a few more sightsnear the eastern entrance of the park that we’d skipped the previous day.
While we’d finished striking camp, we’d noticed some cloud cover moving in. Now on the road it added some drama. Although a few raindrops fell on the windshield, we could see that it wouldn’t last. (Note the Black Hills in the far right along the horizon in the image below.)
Image: Sean M. Santos
After visiting the Notch, we were ready for more hiking. We drove to the Saddle Pass Trailhead west of the visitor center area on the Loop Road. Saddle Pass Trail was only 0.2 miles, but it climbed directly up the Badlands Wall. Saddle Pass then connected to a relatively flat loop combining a portion of Castle Trail with Medicine Root Loop Trail. Ultimately it would be a 4.5-mile loop hike.
After lunch, it was time to finally get out of the car and begin exploring some of the Badlands landscapes close-up. We began with the Notch Trail, a 1.5-mile out and back near the eastern entrance to the park. It begins at a major trailhead parking area for trails both short and long. It is also one of the first stops on the Loop Road for those entering the park from the east. On this Saturday afternoon, September 6, it was busy with retirees, families, and couples of various ages.
The Notch Trail is the most demanding of the three short trails starting at this parking lot. The trail began by winding its way into a wall of Badlands formations to the east.
The Badlands Loop Road, which is not actually a loop, twists for over twenty-five miles above and below the Badlands Wall, offering an almost overwhelming density of scenic views, both from the windshield and at a series of interpretive overlooks and pullouts. It is a classic example of making the wonders of a park easily accessible to motorists, a philosophy that dominated the Park Service’s thinking in its first half century. On my previous visit, Lisa and I had motored along the road from east to west. This time, Sean and I would take the drive from west to east.