If You Can You Squeeze Through an 8.5 x 24-Inch Opening, You Can Take the Spelunking Tour at Jewel Cave National Monument

Hhydromagnesite balloon, a rare type of speleothem for which Jewel Cave is noted. Wikipedia photo..

Located in the Black Hills about 13 miles west of Custer, South Dakota, Jewel Cave National Monument is a place of surprises. Though it encompasses only 1,279 acres, it amply illustrates that a park need not offer sprawling landscapes to generate visitor excitement and scientific interest.

Jewel Cave has a fascinating history. Brothers Frank and Albert Michaud, two local prospectors, discovered the cave in 1900. The two men claimed that they stumbled across the cave entrance when they noticed wind coming out of a small opening. (Nearby Wind Cave was discovered by the same means.) Neither of the Michauds could wiggle into the cave, but they soon returned with dynamite, blasted a wider opening, and made discoveries that forever changed the course of life in this remote part of the country.

Jewel Cave, it turned out, is stunningly beautiful – a real delight to the eye. Everywhere you look you see interesting speleothems such as stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, frostwork, and in the drier parts of the cave system, gypsum needles. The abundance of sparkling calcite crystals is especially striking (the “jewels” of Jewel Cave are calcite spar crystals).

This remarkable cave also proved to have some very unusual characteristics. A conspicuous example (though not the most notable one) is the cave’s rare hydromagnesite balloons. These small rock balloons are formed when magnesium precipitates out of solution and is inflated by an unknown gas.

Jewel Cave’s most stunning feature remained hidden for decades. Until the late 1950s, Jewel was appreciated as “a small, but pretty cave.” Then, in the late 1950s, further exploration revealed additional lengthy passageways. By the early 1960s the world finally learned that the Jewel Cave system is astonishingly long – over 145 miles as of early 2009, to put a finer point on it. That makes Jewel the world’s second-longest cave, and a very special cave, indeed.

Jewel’s scenic appeal was immediately obvious to the Michaud brothers, so they moved swiftly to capitalize on it. With their partner Charles Bush, they set about to develop the cave as a commercial enterprise. They had quickly filed a mining claim, naming the cave the "Jewel Tunnel Lode." Though they had no intention of mining calcite crystals, which had little market value, they hoped to develop the cave as a tourist attraction. Within a few short years they had constructed a trail in the cave, built a lodge on the Hell Canyon rim, and engaged in various promotional activities (even organizing the "Jewel Cave Dancing Club").

These efforts yielded no appreciable success. By 1905 the area’s scanty population and remoteness had combined to make Jewel Cave a commercial dud, and its future as a public cave was in doubt. Seizing the initiative, local business interests and preservationists mounted a campaign to have the federal government set Jewel Cave aside as a preserve and manage it in the public interest. Unlike the attempt at commercialization, the preservationist efforts bore fruit. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Jewel Cave National Monument on February 7, 1908.

When you stop to think about it, that was a truly remarkable thing. Here was a place that had made the transition from unknown to national monument in less than eight years.

The Michaud brothers left the area and their family sold the claim to the government for a pittance (about $750). There being little government interest in developing the cave for public use, nothing much went on for quite some time. Visitors arriving at Jewel Cave, which was not in an easy place to reach, found a ponderosa pine forest above and a stunning cave below. Public facilities and services were inadequate, however, and this posed a considerable hindrance to visitor use and enjoyment. Finally, in 1928, a group of businessmen formed the Jewel Cave Corporation and offered cave tours, never very profitably, for the next 11 years.

Things changed fairly quickly, and much for the better, after Congress transferred Jewel Cave National Monument to the National Park Service (from the Forest Service) on August 10, 1933. Visitor facilities and services were dramatically improved, principally through the contributions of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program. By May 1935, the CCC had established a camp at Jewel Cave and a 25-main crew had set to work on a project that eventually demolished the Michaud’s crude cabin, replaced it with a three-room cabin (complete with water and sewer connections), and constructed comfort stations, a public campground, and other improvements that included an easier-access cave entrance, a surface trail, and a stone stairway. A visitor center and additional infrastructure elements were added later.

There were some changes in visitor services, too. In the summer of 1939, a park ranger from nearby Wind Cave National Park was assigned to guide cave tours and the Jewel Cave Corporation discontinued the cave tour operation it had offered since 1928.

Jewel Cave is now open year round, with the NPS offering an excellent cave orientation program as well as three distinctively different cave tours. Self-guided tours of the cave are not permitted.
The Jewel Cave Discovery Talk, a 20-minute introduction to the park’s Jewel Cave's natural and cultural histories, features a visit to one large room of the cave. As the NPS explains:

This easy cave visit enters and exits the cave by elevator in the Visitor Center, and involves walking up and down fifteen stair steps. This talk is also handicapped accessible for people who have trouble negotiating stairs. During the introduction, you see two types of calcite crystal, which are the jewels of Jewel Cave. You also see manganese and paleofill, which are not cave formations, but are important to the geology of Jewel Cave. You will learn how the cave was discovered as well as the theory on how Jewel Cave formed.

The most popular of the three guided tours is the Scenic Tour, a half-mile loop through a paved and lighted central portion of the cave that is conveniently accessible by elevator. If you have little time for your visit and want to make the most of it, this is the tour you’ll want to take. You’ll see lots of pretty speleothems – calcite crystals, boxwork, cave popcorn, flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and a long piece of cave bacon – and learn plenty of cave lore.

If you take the Scenic Tour or the Lantern Tour (described below), remember to wear low-heeled, rubber-soled shoes and bring along a light jacket or sweater. Allow about 80 minutes for the Scenic Tour, and be aware that you’ll encounter some tight spaces, high places, and mildly strenuous conditions. (The 723 stair steps distributed along the half-mile loop are the equivalent of about 40 flights of stairs.) Be sure to talk to a ranger before signing up for the tour if you have difficulty walking and climbing stairs. People who have heart or respiratory problems will want to be especially mindful of the risk. While some people who are unusually fearful of heights and/or claustrophobic have had difficulties on this tour, most people take these conditions in stride.

The second tour option, the Lantern Tour, features a 1930s-style visit to the earliest-discovered part of the cave. The guide wears a period uniform and each participant (limited to 20 each trip) carries a lantern. These features impart a most emphatically special character to the tour. You really get the sense of what it was like for the people who visited the cave before it was equipped with electric lighting, paved trails, sturdy metal stairways, and other amenities we take so much for granted today. The half-mile Lantern Tour lasts about 1-3/4 hours, visits passages bearing names like “the Dungeon,” and is considered strenuous. If you take the Lantern Tour, you’ll want to make sure you’re healthy enough and are in the right frame of mind. You’ll have to do a lot of stooping and bending and dealing with steep wooden steps. Parents aren’t allowed to bring along kids less than six years of age.

The last, but certainly not least, tour option is the Spelunking Tour. Because this is a “wild cave” type of tour that takes visitors through an undeveloped part of the cave (near the scenic loop), it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s just for adventuresome people (16 years of age and older) who are willing and able to undertake a 2/3-mile long, very strenuous trip of three or four hours duration through a cave in its natural state. Before embarking on the tour, you’ll have to demonstrate that you can squeeze through an 8-1/2 inch by 24-inch crawl space. Assuming you can do that, you’ll don a hard hat and headlamp and be on your way. Then the fun will begin. You’ll scramble over rockfalls (cave “breakdown”), handline your way up a nearly vertical wall, belly-crawl through tight passages, and squeeze through some spaces that normal people won’t even consider. In return for coping with these hazards and inconveniences, you’ll learn a lot about low-impact caving, expand your knowledge of caving techniques and safety methods, and see some wonderful things that other cave visitors do not. Among other things, you’ll see where hydromagnesite balloons were first discovered, view hundreds of them, and even see the most famous balloon of them all, “the Earring.”

Because Jewel Cave is a fairly popular park (visitation in 2007 was over 105,000), and is very busy in the summer (over half the annual visitation occurs in July and August), there are times when the demand for cave tours greatly exceeds the available slots. Each Scenic Tour, for example, is limited to just 30 participants, even though hundreds of people may be on hand and eager to go along. To avoid disappointment, be sure to plan ahead, check the daily tour schedule, and book reservations when necessary.

Though you’ll want to take a cave tour during your visit, you don’t need to go underground to have fun at Jewel Cave. There are two self-guided trails at the park as well as a Forest Service trail that begins about a mile the park’s visitor center. There are some easy, fairly level trail segments for short walks, but be aware that some trail choices involve traversing steep and rugged terrain.

Postscript: No one really knows how long the Jewel Cave system will eventually prove to be. Volunteers have been recently discovering and laser-mapping new passages in Jewel Cave at the average rate of three miles per year.

Employment opportunity alert: Openings for seasonal ranger employment at Jewel Cave were just announced. You'd better hurry if you’re interested, however, because the application deadline expires before the end of the month. Students are given special consideration for hiring, and all information pertaining to seasonals can be found in this pdf file.