2011 Jewel Cave, South Dakota

This was part of a larger driving vacation well outside of Utah, but the second longest known cave in the world is not to be passed up when it is conveniently along your route. Over 150 miles of documented passage have been mapped in Jewel Cave as of the time of this post. The fine folks mapping out the cave are still adding miles per year, and are primarily limited now simply because of the lack of easy access points to the far reaches of the cave. Mapping and exploration trips now often require several days of camping in the cave, simply because it takes most of a day to get out to the known edges to explore. (A great caving description of Jewel Cave from a few years ago by someone who is now a Utah based caver.)

Another fun fact is that this cave has been outfitted with the tallest elevator in South Dakota at 234 feet, which beats my normal access route into caves.  The ½ mile loop that we toured is hard to even find in the sprawling maps you look at on the wall in the visitor center. There is only one known natural entrance, and now an elevator entrance about a mile away. It is incredible to think that something this large has only been proven to connect to the surface in one place.

Having experienced the convenience, I now believe most caves should be outfitted with elevators, and aluminum walkways before I visit. It would greatly stimulate the economy with job creation, and make travel through the caves much easier and safer. I am fairly certain if more Utah caves had elevators and walkways, our local caves would become considerably larger as well.

Overall the tour was great. We had signed up for the “scenic tour” and lucked out by being before the main tourist season. Even on a Saturday only really had about 15 people in the whole tour group.  So we had a little time to look around and ask questions between major stopping points.  I resisted the urge to go look around corners, knowing that I could spend days wandering around and never see it all.

The items I found fascinating as a caver used to wild caves:

  1. The elevator — After spending many hours of my life climbing thousands of feet to get to cave entrances, I have long argued caves should come with a parking lot and elevator. The fact that they had decided to install these 30-40 years ago is incredible. Most of us that ridgewalk can only dream of finding a cave worthy of tours, let alone elevators.
  2. Aluminum walkways — The sheer amount of aluminum used to make the walkways, stairs, and railings along the tour route was breathtaking in places. When you start out in the target room, you are standing on a massive platform that will easily hold entire tour groups. Comparable to a good sized set of aluminum bleachers in area. As you look over the railings while listening to the initial spiel, you realize there are small stairways and pathways down in the darkness below you. And you proceed to take a tour along aluminum walkways and stairs that even left my wife commenting on how much time and effort it would have taken to build. Then you factor in the concrete…
  3. Formations — The walls are absolutely coated in spar. As you are walking, you eventually notice that the small broken chunks of rock they lined the concrete path with are actually chunks of spar encrusted bedrock. There isn’t anywhere I remember on the tour that you aren’t able to stop and look around and see some sort of formation.  Beautiful soda straws, stalactites and stalagmites are the other things you will see. Some boxwork can be seen on the tour, as well as some small rimstone dams, and even flowstone draperies.

Overall the cave is well worth visiting if you are in the area. Anyone with even a remote interest in caves would enjoy themselves. It is a spacious tour, with only a handful of places you need to duck and watch your head. Most of the time you are on pathways in large rooms and passageways. I hope to come back and spend some time on wild tours or other projects in the future. At the very least plan to bring your own little light with you and you will see many more of the hidden corners and details. And recognize how big the rooms are, most cameras don’t have enough of a flash to light up a room.