Jewel Cave National Monument: These Caves are MASSIVE

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Jewel Cave National Monument is a set of limestone caves in southwestern South Dakota, USA, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of Custer. The Black Hills has 2 square miles (5 square kilometers). The caves are made up of several rooms connected by tiny passageways.

Famous for beautiful jewel-like calcite crystals, nailhead and dogtooth spar, Jewel Cave attracts tourists from all over the country. These incrustations glitter like gems when illuminated.

This article talks about the national monument, national park, and tours offered at Jewel Cave.

Jewel Cave Becomes a National Monument

On February 7, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt issued a presidential proclamation establishing Jewel Cave National Monument. It became the first national monument designated to conserve and preserve the environment.

The Jewel Cave Corporation organized tours from 1928 to 1939. In 1933, the National Park Service took over the administration of the monument and began sending seasonal rangers from Wind Cave there during summers.


The beautiful and peculiar cave and karst characteristics of Jewel Cave National Monument are well known. Since 1959, explorers have worked hard to map Jewel Cave, discovering that it is one of the world’s most extended cave systems. According to scientific investigations, the current expedition/cave survey represents only a portion of what needs to be discovered.

More than 175 miles of tunnels have been explored and documented as part of an active exploration program. More than half of the cave is located outside the park’s surface boundaries.

The first mention of Jewel Cave was in a mining claim filed in 1900. According to the story, the entrance was a hole too small for human access, with a blast of chilly air flowing out.

People entered the cave after enlarging it with dynamite, uncovering crawlways with low-ceilinged rooms covered in exquisite calcite crystals that shone like “jewels” in the lantern light.

The cave formed chiefly by slowly cycling acid-rich groundwater. Its one-of-a-kind narrative begins with the geologic history of the Black Hills. The rocks of South Dakota’s Black Hills are Precambrian-era igneous and metamorphic rocks that developed almost two billion years ago under heat and pressure.

The cave contains a variety of speleothems featuring calcite crystals, calcite rafts, cave popcorn, dripstone, frostwork, limestone formations, helictites, hydromagnesite balloons, and popcorn stalagmites.

The National Park

Jewel Cave is South Dakota’s largest known bat hibernaculum (a winter roost for hibernation) and the world’s largest known hibernaculum for Townsend’s big-eared bats and vulnerable Northern long-eared bats.

A single bat hangs from the ceiling in Jewel Cave National Monument's caves.

Many large animals, including white-tailed and mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, and bison, migrate through the park from the nearby Black Hills National Forest. Aspen, bur oak, and birch are the hardwoods in the park.

Although grassland prairie exists at lower elevations, the National Forest System lands cover most of the mountainous area recognized as the Black Hills of South Dakota in Wyoming.

Within the forest are Black Elk Peak, the highest mountain in South Dakota and the tallest peak in the United States and east of the Rocky Mountains.

The Black Hills have seen both black and grizzly bears. Cougars are becoming more common due to abundant herds of deer and elk. Visitors are also likely to spot coyotes, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats.

This woodland is home to bald eagles, osprey, hawks, osprey, peregrine falcons, and over 200 other bird species, particularly around streams and near water sources.

Although the Black Hills National Forest surrounds Jewel Cave, it is administered separately from that area by the National Park Service.

Tours at Jewel Cave National Monument

Any ranger-led tour can take you to Jewel Cave; however, group sizes have limits, and tours frequently sell out. The busiest months are usually mid-June to August.

Tickets for Discovery Talk, Scenic Tour, or Lantern Tour can be purchased at the visitor center or by phone at least seven days in advance. The Spelunking Tour requires reservations, which you can arrange at least 30 days prior by contacting the tourist center.

An image of the long stairways that have been built inside the caves at Jewel Cave National Monument.

Discovery Talk

This 20-minute, wheelchair-accessible tour of the cave’s cultural and ecological histories takes place in a single big cave room. It begins with an elevator journey inside the cave from the visitor center. Year-round availability. Maximum of 20 people.

Scenic Tour

This half-mile, 114-hour circular journey begins with an elevator ride into the cave at the tourist center. You walk along a paved, well-lit trail, climbing and descending nearly 700 stairs. Note that this tour is moderately difficult, but it’s available every day of the year. 30 people can attend at a time, max.

A caver peers down into a hole at a lake found inside Jewel Caves, during the Spelunking Tour of Jewel Cave National Monument.

The Lantern Tour

This half-mile one-hour, forty-five-minute trip follows early cave explorers’ footsteps. Lanterns illuminate the calcite-coated cave corridors. The journey begins at the Historic Ranger Cabin, located above Hell Canyon’s historic entrance.

It isn’t easy because the stairs are steep and require bending and stooping. It is available multiple times every day from early June to late August. Children must be at least six years old, and groups containing a maximum of 20 people.

Spelunking Tour

This half-mile, four-hour journey takes you into a remote, unspoiled area of Jewel Cave. The roundtrip tour starts with an elevator journey from the visitor center into the cave. It’s best to wear old clothes.

Soft elbow and knee pads, gloves, and ankle-high lace-up boots with lug soles are necessary. Helmets and headlamps will be provided by park staff. To qualify for this tour, you must crawl through an eight-and-a-half by 24-inch hole in a concrete block.

From mid-June to mid-August, the excursion is only available once daily, with a maximum of five people. This excursion is not suitable for children under the age of 15. Teens aged 16 and 17 must receive written authorization from a parent or guardian.


Though the tour guides tend to downplay it, Jewel Cave is a miracle of nature. All it takes is a quick trip through the cave to discover its many fascinating and mesmerizing sights to notice how this attraction was named aptly. This magical wonderland underground will leave you in awe, with or without its signature unicorn. So get your shoes on and grab a flashlight because the adventure is about to begin. Jewel Cave is unbelievably rough and rugged but captivating.

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