Calling All Spelunkers!

This is the third, and final post, in a series about our May, 2017 trip to South Dakota.

Jewel Cave National Monument, 13 miles West of Custer, South Dakota, is a spelunker’s delight. Let me rephrase that. I assume Jewel Cave National Monument is a spelunker’s delight. I have never voluntarily crawled through damp, dark, unholy spaces and slept on a bed of stone. I have, however, taken a guided tour of Jewel Cave.

From Flop to Public Gem

Frank and Albert Michaud discovered the cave in 1900 and turned it into a tourist attraction. A lack of visitors made the venture a flop, so in 1908, Albert sold the site to the U.S. Government for $750.

Today, this gem (pun intended) is part of the National Park Service. Park rangers offer four guided tours.

  • Discovery Talk: A wheelchair accessible 20 minute visit to a large room in the cave
  • Scenic Tour: A one hour and 20 minute walking tour of lighted passages and stairways
  • Historic Lantern Tour: A one hour and 45 minute tour of the historic entrance and trail by lantern light
  • Wild Caving Tour: A three to four hour caving experience for crazy people who enjoy crawling through 8.5 x 24 inch holes

We took the Scenic Tour. Although the tour involves 732 stairs, the elevator into the cave and lighted passageways make it a moderate option for those of us not inclined to squeeze through impossibly small crawl spaces.


Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world, yet only 3 to 5 percent has been explored. Since it is part of the National Park Service, Jewel Cave exploration is open to the public.

In other words, spelunkers can volunteer to explore, survey, and map unknown parts of the cave. The only requirements are prior caving experience and the ability to fit through tight spaces.

Oh, and the willingness to stay underground for up to four days and carry out your equipment, trash, and human waste.

That’s right, folks, at the end of four days of crawling, squirming, and fighting off insanity, you have to carry out your own pee and poop.

Mighty Zac was mighty red after squeezing through the test hole for the Wild Caving Tour. My mother made sure to hold down the loose top to prevent any cheating.

Visitors stand in the first “room” of the Scenic Tour. The 20 minute wheelchair accessible Discovery Talk takes place here.

The cave is made up of calcite crystals that sparkle in the light, hence the name Jewel Cave. The parasitic alien- looking formations (between the white formations) are called draperies in cave-speak.

The red ribbon formation at the center of the photograph is called cave bacon. These aptly named formations are mineral deposits formed when water flows down the walls.

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