April 2011: Jewel Cave National Monument

Custer, South Dakota

Jewel Cave was first explored around 1900 when prospectors began poking around holes where they heard whistling from the ground. They found jewel-like calcite crystals but no valuable minerals. Efforts to develop a commercial cave failed and in 1908 Jewel Cave was created to protect what was thought to be a small, beautiful cave. Not so. A half century later Herb and Jan Conn, rock climbers who started caving as a diversion, visited Jewel Cave and fell under its spell. Over a span of two decades the couple made 708 trips totaling more than 6,000 hours into the cave, mapping its secrets. They eventually discovered 65 underground miles of passages. Today 144 miles of large rooms strewn with boulders, tight crawlways and dark fissures have been mapped - with more unknown. Jewel Cave is now the second longest known cave in the world.  

Unlike its nearby cousin, Wind Cave, this is a rather compact park with only about 1,200 Ponderosa pine-covered acres. There are two tail-friendly trails at Jewel Cave, one for the more casual canine athlete and the other a sterner test. The Walk On The Roof Trail at the Visitor Center is exactly what it advertises, with views of the surrounding forest and canyon around you on this easy half-hour ramble. The Canyons Trail drops into Lithograph Canyon on a gravel path and then follows Hell Canyon to the Historic Area and loops back in 3.5 miles. Your dog will notice the moderately steep inclines, especially on a hot day. A deeper exploration of Hell Canyon can be had on U.S. Forest Service Hell Canyon Trail, conducted mostly on a level two-track road after a pitched descent for a half-mile. The full loop covers 5.5 miles.

Your best trail pal will have to wait in the car but you can tour Jewel Cave - the Lantern Tour involves walking up and down over 700 steps.

Jewel Cave National Monument is located thirteen miles west of Custer, South Dakota and 24 miles east of Newcastle, Wyoming on U.S. Highway 16. The Monument is about 53 miles from Rapid City, South Dakota via U.S. Highway 16 / 385.