Nestled within the Black Hills of South Dakota, hides a place of wonders deep within the dark bowels of the earth. Brilliant colored rocks and crystals line the walls of tunnels and cavernous spaces. Even in dim lamplight the many of the rock formations shimmer like gems, giving this cave its name: Jewel Cave.
Into the Dark
In 1900 on Halloween Day, Frank and Albert Michaud filed a mining claim within Hell Canyon, providing us with the earliest written account of Jewel Cave. Thinking they had found quartz crystals, the brothers then dynamited the entrance, since the original opening was too small for humans. Upon further detailed inspection, they discovered that the formations were common calcite crystals. They then decided to develop the cave as a tourist attraction. They built a lodge on the canyon rim and organized a “Jewel Cave Dancing Club” in 1902. Unfortunately, lack of population in the area and the long travel time made it a tourist venture failure. Regardless, Frank continued his exploration and assessment of Jewel Cave.
Jewel Cave National Monument
On 1908 of February 7th, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Jewel Cave as a National Monument due to the efforts of locals who loved the natural wonder. The brothers, on the other hand, sold their lands to the federal government and moved away.
In 1928, the Jewel Cave Corporation provided tours to the public for about four years. Then in 1933, the National Park Service began administering the monument, then started tours six years later after building several improvements to accommodate tourists. In 1956 the National Park Service finally sunk a 300-foot elevator shaft to a remote cave area, then built concrete walkways and metal stairs with platforms creating a half-mile loop.
By 1959, only two miles of Jewel Cave had been explored. That same year, Herb and Jan Conn, local rock climbers, began investigating, and within two years had mapped 15 miles. By 1979, Herb and Jan discovered, named, and mapped more than 64 miles of passages before retiring.
It now takes several days for modern cavers to explore the tunnels. According to our ranger tour guide, they can spend no more than four days in the cave at a time. Four days worth of human waste and garbage is about how much a person can hold before it becomes difficult to move around in the tight passages.
Today, Jewel Cave now has 181 miles of mapped passageway thanks to its volunteer cave explorers, which makes Jewel Cave the third-longest cave in the world after Mammoth Cave System in Kentucky and Sistema Sac Actun in the Yucatán Peninsula.
Jewel Cave Guided Tours
On the day we visited Jewel Cave, we quickly learned that you can’t make reservations; tours are first-come-first-served and must be bought the same day. There is a tour you can reserve, but it sold out months ago. There are four ranger-guided tours:
The Discovery Talk – a 20-minute lecture about the cave’s geology and history. It’s really intended for those who can’t climb the stairs or don’t have much time to visit.
Historic Lantern Tour – for almost 2 hours, the ranger in period costume guides you through the old historic entrance and into passages with only an oil lamp in your hand. Sounds exciting, but alas all the tickets for the day were sold out.
Wild Cave Tour – This tour is for small, skinny, 16-and-older, brave-of-heart tourists. For up to four hours, the rangers guide you through twisting tunnels as you crawl, shimmy, and squeeze along the “trail.” At the front of the visitor’s center, there is a cement structure with an opening 8 1/2 inches tall and 24 inches wide. If you can fit through space, you can go on the Wild Cave Tour. We, of course, do not fit.
Scenic Tour – Our final and only option, we take this tour and prepare ourselves for 1.5 hours of fun in the dark and 723 steps.
After a quick primer on the cave rules (no food, no drinks, no gum, and no touching, what is white-nose ), our ranger takes us down 300 feet in the elevator to the platform. Outside the weather was rainy and the barometric pressure low, so as she opened the door we got a gust of wind.
The discovered areas in the cave account for only about 3 to 5% of the estimated total air volume of the cave. The volume can be estimated by measuring the amount of air that the cave “exhales” when the outside air pressure drops and “inhales” when the outside air pressure rises.
Much of the lecture included history, but occasionally we would stop and talk about my favorite subject and the reason why I like caves so much: cave formations!
The mineral decorations here in Jewel Cave are composed of calcite crystals, and unlike most of the other mineral decorations, were presumably formed under water. This means at one point and time, much of Jewel Cave was submerged and underwater.
Here are some of the unique formations found in Jewel Cave:
Dogtooth & Nailhead Spar – A calcite crystal layer often appears as large as knobs, accentuating the differential solution of the cave walls. The sharper crystals are generally referred to as “dogtooth spar” and the blunter ones as “nailhead spar.”
Speleothems – The most common kind of formations found in Jewel Cave are speleothems. Probably the most common types of speleothems are the various forms of travertine. Travertine speleothems are calcium carbonate deposited by dripping of flowing water. They include the familiar stalactites, stalagmites, domes, columns, flowstone, and draperies.
Frostwork – These are needle-like crystals usually found in radiating clusters for as much as three or four inches. The crystals may be clear, white, or tan in color and may be coarse as broom straw or finer than a human hair.
Gypsum Flowers – Water containing calcium sulfate slowly evaporates and forms Gypsum crystals in long parallel structures. These formations are rare and only form in caves that are dry and are usually small and hard to spot.
Popcorn – This common pale colored cave formation resembling popcorn, and can be made out of calcite, aragonite, or gypsum.
There are more wondrous cavern decorations found within Jewel Cave, but they can’t be seen unless you go on the Wild Cave Tour. I really enjoyed our visit to Jewel Cave. It is awe-inspiring to stand in a place that took millions of years to form, buried in darkness, and unvisited by man until only the last hundred years. It is thrilling to know that down in the dark beneath the earth there are vast labyrinths yet to be discovered, chambers holding new wonders that brave explorers can view for the very first time.