Exploring Jewel Cave National Monument

Riley crawls through the Brain Drain, a hole only 8 inches tall, in Jewel Cave
Crawling through the Brain Drain on Jewel Cave’s Wild Caving Tour

Nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota is Jewel Cave, the third longest cave in the entire world. It is currently measured at 192 miles long and is still being explored. Furthermore, it’s estimated that only 3% of the cave passages have been found. There are a lot of secrets that this cave is still harboring. Thanks to park rangers, you can go inside.

Jewel Cave National Monument offers a few different tours to visitors who wish to enter. Due to the cave’s delicate nature, you must be with a park ranger to go inside. You cannot explore on your own like you can at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. These tours also fill up very quickly and are only offered on a first-come, first-served walk-up basis at this time. Get there early to get your tickets!

A formation inside of Jewel Cave called cave bacon
Jewel Cave has one of the largest known cave bacon formations in the world. You can see it on the Scenic Tour

Ranger Programs

Every day in the summer, there are ranger programs on the cave surface throughout the day. This offers an activity for you to partake in while waiting for your tour to begin. Additionally, there are ranger-led hikes on one of the Monument’s trails. There are also various special events that take place throughout the year, so check their official website for details on upcoming programs.

There are also, of course, the guided cave tours. No visit to Jewel Cave is complete without going inside the cave. Your ranger will tell you unforgettable stories about the brothers who found the original entrance, the early exploration completed by Herb and Jan Conn, current exploration, and more.

Calcite crystals shine on the walls of Jewel Cave
Jewel Cave is named for the calcite crystals that grow on the majority of its walls, shining like diamonds

Cave Tours

The Scenic Tour is the most popular. This takes you on a 1/2-mile walk through the cave on metal walkways and over 700 stair steps. It’s not for everyone and is considered moderately strenuous. But if you are physically capable, this is the best way to see the cave’s highlights. The tour takes about 90 minutes.

The Discovery Talk is Jewel Cave’s accessible option. You’ll descend in the elevator to one large room in the cave and remain there for about 20 minutes as a ranger discusses the history with you. This is one of the larger rooms along the tour route, and still worth it if you have no other way to see the cave.

The Historic Lantern Tour is a very fun, unique tour to take part in. You’ll visit the original cave entrance found in the early 1900’s. This part of the cave does not have lights, so you’ll find your way via a hand-held lantern. Your park ranger is also dressed in historic uniform. You’ll crawl up wooden ladders to get around inside the cave. On the surface, you’ll also get to see the historic ranger cabin.

The Wild Caving Tour is for the truly adventurous spirits. You will crawl through less than a mile of Jewel Cave over a period of about four hours, discovering many of its nooks and crannies. You’re required to crawl through “the block” beforehand, which is a concrete remodel of The Brain Drain, a crawl space in Jewel Cave that is only 8 inches tall.

Riley stands in front of the Jewel Cave National Monument welcome sign in her NPS uniform
My first job as a park ranger was at Jewel Cave!

Hiking Trails

There are three trails at Jewel Cave that range from easy and short to long and steep. The Roof Trail is only about 1/4-mile and takes less than an hour. My favorite trail is the Canyons Trail, which takes you from the main visitor center over to the cave’s historic entrance in a scenic loop. This trail is about 3.5 miles and takes 2-3 hours. Last but not least is the Hell Canyon Trail. This is just across the street from Jewel Cave’s historic entrance on U.S. Forest Service lands. It’s the most strenuous trail at a length of 5.5 miles and takes about 3-4 hours to complete.