West to Glacier N.P. 2015 travel blog

Devils Tower was visible for many miles as we drove south on...

Jewel Cave was worth touring for a few hours on the way...

From the double-sealed elevator entrance the Scenic Tour descends even further into...

Entire surfaces were covered with a thick layer of calcite crystals, often...

Smooth flowstone and delicate stalactites

It is understandable that the first cave explorers thought they had found...

Stalagmites and bumpy "dinosaur skin"

The colours made the "cave bacon" look very real

Little pockets of calcite crystals really showed the formation of layers

Back to South Dakota for the Labour Day Weekend

Friday, Sept 4: Devils Tower N.M. (Wyoming) to Jewel Cave N.M.(South Dakota)

Weather: ~62F, cool and calm, warming to ~90F, partially sunny and still calm

Route: WY-110 → WY-24 → US-14 → US-16

Trip Average Gas Mileage: 28.8mpg

- reserving a same-day campsite at Center Lake in Custer State Park

- spotting a convenient, clean laundromat in Moorcroft, WY

- finding all the supplies we needed at Decker's Supermarket in Newcastle

- taking the Scenic Tour of Jewel Cave N.Mon. during the hot afternoon

- getting showers (finally) at the Center Lake Campground

Our day started off well – waking up before the 6:00 alarm so we could call the South Dakota State Park same-day reservation number (a sweet idea) and getting campsite 18 at the Center Lake Campground. With a place to put the tent tonight we could enjoy the meandering 125 miles of driving along US-16.

We couldn't believe our good luck when we spotted an almost-new laundromat in Moorcroft. At 8:30 we were the only people using the large commercial washers ($2.50/load) and dryers ($1.00/45 min). We were able to get all the bedding, towels and hiking clothes from the last 7 days into two washers and two dryers. While waiting for the laundry Hubby used the brightly-lit bathroom mirror to have a proper shave and we charged his razor and the computer. We almost forgot the hangars again like last year in Joshua Tree, but remembered just in time. By noon we had found a grocery store in Newcastle – Decker's – and had stocked up on a few canned vegetables, some lettuce, hummus and sandwich bread (of course). We didn't know if Woody's Food Mart, down the street, would have had better prices or more choices, but the Decker employees were friendly and helpful. Newcastle is an oil refinery town with bad-smelling air – not scenic.

We drove on to Jewel Cave National Monument, arriving in time for the 13:20 Scenic Tour. Hubby had eaten his nut butter and banana sandwich at the laundromat and I ate mine during the drive. He had time for some nuts and a snack bar before the tour. Only cameras and very small bags were allowed in the cave – no food, water, gum or tobacco were allowed -- so we stuffed our valuables into Hubby's pockets. Our Ranger Guide requested that we not take the tour if we were wearing shoes not sanitized after visiting other caves. The tour group was quite large. After taking an elevator down 240 feet, the group moved slowly along the .5-mile path descending to a maximum depth of 379 feet before climbing stairs back to the elevators again (there were about 700 stairs on the entire tour). The cave had some features we had not seen before, such as dogtooth spar and sparkly calcite deposits under the dinosaur-skin-like outer coating of red paleofill deposits (remember the Red Hills layer at Devils Tower?), chert and a very realistically-coloured cave bacon specimen. Much of the flowstone looked like swarms of prehistoric jellyfish on the walls, another formation we had not seen in other caves. Our Ranger did a good job of pointing out the best features to both the front and back of the group. After being in the 56F cave temperature for 1.5 hours, the 90F surface temperature felt even hotter.

We enjoyed visiting Jewel Cave because it is a living cave -- still forming. The developed section was presented in a natural way, with some attempt to minimize the impact of 100,000 visitors every day. There wasn't the theatrical-style of lighting we had seen used in other caves and the Ranger explained interesting facts about the formations rather than simply putting on a show. After learning about the geology of Devils Tower and seeing the "Red Hills" layer there, it was interesting to see the red paleofill covering the walls and learn how it had been washed in during one stage of the cave's formation.

About Jewel Cave National Monument: In 1900, two South Dakota prospectors and their friend heard wind rushing through a hole in Hell Canyon. After enlarging the hole they found a cave full of sparkling crystals and quickly filed a mining claim for "Jewel Lode". The men never did get rich from jewels or the tourist business so the cave went mostly unexplored for the next 60 years. It became a National Monument in 1908 (remember Teddy Roosevelt's Antiquities Act of 1906?). In 1959 the Conns half-heartedly joined an expedition to explore a mile of the cave, then spent the next 21 years, often 10-14 hour days, absorbed in discoveries of rare cave formations, cave winds up to 35mph and chambers full of large calcite crystals. The Conns retired in 1981 with 65 miles of cave under their belt. After 708 caving trips, logging 6000 hours, caving parties have still not mapped this extensive system.

Many caves claim to be the longest or largest system in the world. Jewel Cave is said to be the 3rd-longest cave based on the 166 miles of mapped passages -- a number which is being extended each year as exploration continues. Scientists measure the possible volume of a cave system by measuring how much air the cave "inhales" and "exhales". Based on that measurement the discovered portion of the system is about 5% of the total volume of the whole cave system. Because so little of the cave system has been "tainted" by mining and tourism, it is a scientific wonderland for scientists, who have exclusive access to the majority of the system for research purposes. They know that this cave was not carved by underground rivers, as were many other caves. There is evidence that the cave formed in stages from the time when the area was covered with a shallow sea, through the upheaval of the Black Hills until today. In fact, its geologic history is very similar to what we learned about Devils Tower. For casual visitors, Jewel Cave has more and bigger calcite crystals than most other caves.

In 2013 the National Park System renovated the 1972-era Visitor Center to make it more interactive, more ADA-accessible and more immersive. A popular addition for visitors who would like to experience cave exploration without getting dirty is the crawl-through cave passage model. The $512,000 project was paid for entirely by Cave Tour ticket revenue. On-going project initiatives, such as earning Green certification through reduction of energy and water usage, will also be paid for by a proposed tour price increase.

There was no entrance fee to Jewel Cave N.M. when we visited. There were fees for each tour. Except for the Historic Lantern Tour, which starts at the original entrance, all other tours start with an elevator ride from the Visitor Center to the underground staging area. When we visited, the tour tickets were available as First Come/First Served except for the Wild Cave Tour, for which reservations were required. We understand the NPS is planning to implement a tour reservation system in the near future.

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