A Day at Jewel Cave National Monument

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Jewel Cave National Monument is an often-overlooked attraction in the Black Hills and is often compared with nearby Wind Cave National Park. The site itself is smaller and is a bit more remote but Jewel Cave is the third-largest cave system in the world, versus Wind Cave’s seventh-largest system. Additionally, the two caves contain different very types of formations.

While Jewel Cave is large, it is most likely a lot larger than cavers have explored! Scientists estimate, using volumetric studies, that as much as 95% of the cave remains undiscovered. It might even connect with Wind Cave!

Having done tours in both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave, I can firmly say they are both very different in terms of what you will see and it is well worth your time to visit both.

You will have to forgive the lack of pictures from inside the cave. We originally visited here in 2012 and toured the cave then. On our return trip, COVID-19 shut down the cave tours. Unfortunately, we have lost many of our pictures from 2012.

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What to Do in Jewel Cave National Monument

Check out the Visitor Center

The visitor center has a bunch of cool exhibits on the history of the cave and the creation of the cave. You can also pick up hiking guides for the park’s trails. 

Jewel Cave exhibit
Jewel Cave exhibit

We always recommend hitting the visitor center before you do anything else in the park.

Easier Cave Tours

The most obvious answer to what to do at Jewel Cave National Monument is to go on a cave tour! The park offers four tours: the Discovery Talk, the Scenic Tour, the Historic Lantern Tour and the Wild Caving Tour.

The Discovery Talk is a brief, but accessible, tour of a large cave room. It covers the basics of the cave but not much else in 20 minutes.

Back in 2012 when we did our cave tour, we opted for the Scenic Tour. This tour takes about 90 minutes and takes you through some of the prettiest parts of the cave. You will get to see a lot of the “jewel” formations that earned the cave its name, like my favorite, Cave Bacon!

Cave Bacon in Jewel Cave National Monument.
Cave Bacon in Jewel Cave National Monument.

The tour is over a paved surface and and has about 700 steps on metal staircases to climb. It’s not tough but it’s not easy. 

Both of these tours are offered year round. 

Tougher Cave Tours

If I only had time to do one cave tour between Wind Cave NP and Jewel Cave NM, I would choose one of the lantern tours. We chose to do a lantern tour in Wind Cave when we visited back in 2012 and it was amazing. Were it not for COVID-19, we would have chosen the Historic Lantern Tour at Jewel Cave for this trip. 

This is the only tour that starts at the Natural Entrance to the cave and follows the route the early cave explorers used. It is more strenuous, requiring bending and stooping to get through the tour and it lasts almost two hours. 

The Natural Entrance to Jewel Cave is a bout the size of a door in a reddish-gray cliff with a paved sidewalk heading up to it.
The Natural Entrance to the cave is still used for lantern tours. It has a grate to keep random folks out and to allow the bats that roost in the cave to fly out.

One of the best parts about a lantern tour is being in an area with no lights other than the ones you are carrying… and then putting them out! There is something so amazing about sitting in total darkness. It is a bit terrifying but liberating at the same time.

The most strenuous option the park offers is the Wild Caving Tour, which only covers a half-mile underground but takes three to four hours! This requires significant equipment: soft knee and elbow pads, gloves and ankle-high boots with lug soles. The park provides helmets and headlamps. 

Bonnie Sinclair squeezing through the concrete test at Jewel Cave National Monument.
Anyone going on the Wild Cave Tour has to be able to squeeze through this box. While Bonnie could with difficulty, Grant said, “Nope!”

The kicker on this tour is you have to be able to squeeze through an 8.5” by 24” opening in order to go on the tour. Bonnie could only barely make it through. I was not about to even try. That is too tight for me!

Both of these tours are offered from mid-June to late August. The Wild Caving Tour requires reservations.

You can buy tickets for all of the tours up to 28 days in advance and we recommend getting the tickets before you visit the cave because they can and do sell out in the summer.

One thing to note if you are planning on visiting Wind Cave is that the clothes you wear in Jewel Cave cannot be worn in Wind Cave to help contain the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a disease that affects bats. That said, you can wear the clothes you wear in Wind Cave in Jewel Cave.

Check Out the Jewel Cave National Monument Historic Area

Just down the road from the main visitor center is the Historic Area, where the visitor center used to be. Here, you will find the original cabin visitor center, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a path that leads down to the natural entrance to the cave. 

This was the original ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s. It was restored after the new visitor center was created a little ways to the east.
This was the original ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s. It was restored after the new visitor center was created a little ways to the east.

The walk down to the Natural Entrance takes you along the wall of Hells Canyon and has some nice views. There are several entrances to the cave along the side of the canyon wall and the Natural Entrance remains grated to allow bats that nest in the cave the ability to come out in the evening. 

Lastly, there is a pleasant picnic area and, maybe, the herd of bighorn sheep ewes will come join you for lunch like the did with us!

A herd of bighorn sheep in the picnic area at Jewel Cave National Monument.
A herd of bighorn sheep came to join us for lunch.

Go for a Hike

Jewel Cave National Monument is small but it does offer two trails inside the park and one just outside the park in the Black Hills National Forest. The three trails offer a very different experience for hikers depending on what you want to do.

The easiest trail is the Roof Trail. This quarter-mile loop is a perfect walk through the woods just outside the visitor center. It loops back to the parking lot, making it quite convenient. While it is not wheelchair-accessible, it is quite easy and perfect for small kids. The views aren’t bad either! While it was quick, we enjoyed this hike.

The view of the Black Hills from the Roof Trail.
The view of the Black Hills from the Roof Trail.

The Canyons Trail is a 3.5-mile moderate loop going through Hells Canyon and the Historic Area before looping back to the visitor center. It has a 436-foot elevation gain and there are some ups and downs along the trail.

We opted to hike the Hells Canyon Trail just outside the park. This hike was about 5.5 miles and took us about 2.5 hours to complete. 

Bonnie hiking up the steep first part of the trail.
Bonnie hiking up the steep first part of the trail.

We highly recommend doing this hike clockwise, getting the brutal uphill out of the way first. While that puts the 800-foot elevation gain in the first couple miles, the rest of the trail is a sloping downhill from there. It also gets the area where there are no trees leftover from the 2000 fire out of the way first, which is nice on a hot day.

The views of the canyon at the top were gorgeous and we truly enjoyed the gradual hike down through the canyon. A couple of caveats: 1) Spray down with DEET before doing this trail. The trail through the bottom of the canyon has plenty of ticks. 2) Bring a pair of dry shoes and socks in your car. The creek crossings can be a little dicey getting across dry. In all, though, it’s a great hike!

Grant admiring the view on the Hells Canyon Trail.
Grant admiring the view on the Hells Canyon Trail.

Looking for more hikes in the Black Hills? Stay tuned for our upcoming articles on some of the great hikes we did plus more in-depth information on this hike.

Final Thoughts on Jewel Cave National Monument

Unlike Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument is pretty small above ground but is huge underground. While you can find a couple of good trails and some good exhibits, the real treat is getting underground. 

Read more about visiting Wind Cave National Park.

I highly recommend signing up for a cave tour (in advance so it is not sold out!) and exploring this underground wonderland. 

This small cave provides a place in the shade along the trail to the natural entrance.
This small cave provides a place in the shade along the trail to the natural entrance.

While this park is often overshadowed by nearby Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the rest of the Black Hills, this place is truly special and worth a day on your trip to South Dakota.

Check out our full guide to visiting the Black Hills.

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