Jewel Cave National Monument
R.R. 1, Box 60AA
Custer, SD 57730
(605) 673-2288 The exploration of Jewel Cave began about 1900 when two South Dakota prospectors, Frank and Albert Michaud, and a friend, Charles Bush, happened to hear wind rushing through a hole in the rocks in Hell Canyon. Enlarging the hole, they found a cave full of sparkling crystals. They filed a mining claim on the "Jewel Lode," but they found no valuable minerals, so they tried turning the cave into a tourist attraction instead. The business was never a success, but the cave did attract attention, and in 1908 Jewel Cave National Monument was established to protect the small but extraordinarily beautiful cave. Fifty years later exploration of the cave intensified. Led by the husband-and-wife team of Herb and Jan Conn, modern-day cavers have discovered new wonders and explored many additional miles of passages. Today the cave is among the world's longest and is renowned for its variety of formations.
When Herb and Jan Conn were first persuaded to join a caving expedition in Jewel Cave in 1959, the couple responded without enthusiasm. Their passion was rock climbing, not crawling around in dark, gloomy holes. Little did they know they would spend much of the next 21 years in Jewel Cave, lured by the thrill of discovering the secrets of yet another mile of never before seen cave. The caving parties led by this husband-and-wife team would make 708 trips into the cave and log 6,000 hours exploring and mapping. "Our exploration of Jewel Cave, which started out as a mild diversion, quickly mushroomed into an all-absorbing interest," the Conns explain in their book, The Jewel Cave Adventure. On a typical day, the Conns and their fellow cavers spent 12 to 14 hours underground. Outfitted in hard hats, carbide lamps, gloves, loose fatigues, elbow and knee pads, and boots, the explorers squeezed, crawled, and climbed their way through Jewel Cave's complicated maze. The going was rough. During rest stops they often munched on mangled sandwiches and squashed fruit while massaging sore muscles. Names they gave to some passages, such as Contortionist's Delight and The Miseries, tell the story.
As years passed and more miles of cave were found, it became apparent that Jewel Cave was one of the world's most extensive caves, full of scenic and scientific wonders. The explorers found chambers with exquisite calcite crystals and rare cave formations. One much-decorated room discovered by the Conns - the Formation Room - is a highlight of the Scenic Tour today. They also found rooms as large as 150 by 200 feet, passageways as long as 3,200 feet, and a place where the cave wind blows at speeds of up to 32 miles per hour. The cave, they discovered, is truly a rare and precious jewel.
In 1980, after discovering more than 65 miles of cave, the Conns retired. A new generation of cavers has already pushed the known boundaries of the cave to more than 100 miles. But the mystery remains. As the Conns have said, "We are still just standing on the threshold."
Visiting Jewel Cave
You can explore Jewel Cave on any of the park's ranger-guided cave tours. Tickets for the Scenic Tour are sold at the main Visitor Center. Tickets for the Spelunking Tour are sold on a reservation-only basis. Reservations may be made up to one month in advance by calling, writing, or stopping by the Visitor Center.
Scenic Tour - This 1/2-mile, 1-1/4 - hour tour visits chambers decorated with calcite crystals and colorful stalactites, stalagmites, and draperies. The loop tour begins at the visitor center with an elevator ride into the cave. You follow a paved, lighted path and climb up and down more than 700 stairs on this moderately strenuous trip. The tour is conducted several times daily and is limited to 40 persons.
Historic Tour - This 1/2-mile, 1-3/4 - hour tour follows the paths of early Jewel Cave explorers. You see the cave's calcite coated passages lighted by old style candle lanterns. The round-trip tour begins at the cave's historic entrance in Hell Canyon. Moderately strenuous with many steep stairs, this tour requires stooping and bending. Wear old clothes. It is offered several times a week, mid-June to late August-limited to 25 persons. Children under 6 years old are not allowed. Historic tour tickets must be purchased at the historic cabin, one mile west of the main Visitor Center.
Spelunking Tour - This 1/2-mile, 4-hour tour gives you a taste of modern-day cave exploring in a wild, undeveloped portion of Jewel Cave. The round trip tour begins at the visitor center with an elevator ride into the cave. Old clothes and gloves are recommended; ankle-high laced boots with lug soles are required. The park supplies hard hats and headlamps. To qualify for the tour you will be required to crawl through an 8 1/2 x 24 - inch concrete block tunnel. This tour is offered several times a week, mid June to mid-August; limit 5 persons. Children 15 years old and younger are not allowed; 16 and 17 year olds must have a parent's or guardian's written permission.
Surface Activities & Information
You may take some time on your visit to Jewel Cave National Monument to experience the world above the cave. In the 2 square miles that make up the park you can have a picnic, take a nature hike and enjoy some of the plants and animals of the rugged hill country of the Black Hills. In the ponderosa pine forest which covers the park you may see mule deer, white tailed deer, elk, coyotes, porcupines, squirrels, marmots, several species of chipmunks, and several species of birds including the golden eagles and hawks. Plants of both the prairie and mountains grow here, and in spring and summer wildflowers color the landscape.
The visitor center has information on all aspects of Jewel Cave National Monument. Various books and brochures are available, and park rangers are on duty to assist you with planning your visit and answering your questions. Up-to-date cave information is also available. Rangers occasionally give informal talks at the visitor center. Nearby a short path leads to an overlook with a panoramic view of Lithograph Canyon. The visitor center is open daily.
The park has two picnic areas -- one near the visitor center and the other near Jewel Cave's historic entrance. Both have picnic tables and are located near drinking water and restrooms. Fires are permitted only in self contained camp stoves.
There are several hiking trails in the park for your enjoyment. Check with a park ranger for possible routes.
Neither campgrounds nor lodging are provided in the park, but they are available in public lands and communities nearby. The nearest campground is one of several in Black Hills National Forest; it is located 7 miles east of the park. The town of Custer, located 13 miles to the east, has several campgrounds with hookups for recreational vehicles. Other campgrounds in the area include several in Custer State Park and one at Wind Cave National Park. Lodging and visitor services such as restaurants, grocery stores, and gasoline are provided in Custer, in Newcastle, WY, 24 miles to the west of the park and other area communities.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication