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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Blast into the Past at Jewel Cave

I don't necessarily seek out caves when I go to places.  I don't dislike caves, in fact I find them rather fascinating, I just don't search them out.  I do though LOVE and search out National Parks whenever and wherever I am.  We were on our way to Wind Cave National Park when we stumbled upon this jewel(pun totally intended) of the National Parks system.  Jewel Cave National Monument.  I'm not quite sure why it is a National Monument, but it was the surprise delight of our trip to South Dakota.
jewel cave sign
I had heard of Jewel Cave somewhat vaguely and I knew it was part of the parks system, but it was not on my list this trip because we had so many other National Parks, Monuments, etc., that we were trying to hit.  We stumbled upon this place when we realized that we had gone the wrong way on our way to Wind Cave.   The sign came up and it was a split second decision to stop on by.  Honestly I just figured we'd get out, walk around a bit and then jump back into the car and continue in the right direction towards Wind Cave.  I am so glad that, that was not what we did.

We ended up stopping not at the Visitor's Center, but at the parking lot for the historical entrance to the cave.  We ran into a very pleasant park ranger who was sitting in a rocking chair outside of an historic ranger station, yep you read that right, sipping on sweet tea and enjoying the beautiful day.  We started asking about the cave and found out that he was from southern Wisconsin, not too far from where I had grown up.  It was fun to shoot the breeze for a bit about the craziness of the Chicagoland area.  He suggested that we try the Lantern Tour, which happened to be the tour he was leading and was the next cave tour they had available.  It took us about two seconds to decide to try it.  We had no idea what the Lantern Tour was, but it sounded pretty cool.  We were told it was an historical tour.  We thanked the park ranger and went off to explore and hit the Visitor Center restrooms before we joined the tour.  It turns out we never made it past the Visitor's Center haha, before our tour started.  I was able to get my National Park stamp, but that was about it.
Jewel Cave National Park sticker

Our tour started at the Historical Entrance and you can only bring a camera that fits in your pocket.  We should have known then that this was a different kind of tour at that point.  The only camera I have besides my cell phone, which stinks in low lighting, that was pocket size was a my waterproof Olympus so that went into my pocket.  The park rangers then proceeded to tell us that the whole tour was done with lanterns only and that it was considered strenuous, just to make sure we were all ready for it.  My family and I eyed each other, it was only supposed to be a half mile tour, how difficult could it be?

I don't think I will ever be able to do another boring, walk through while the rangers talk tour again!  When we were told that it was an historical tour, I thought that meant we would walk along pathways while the ranger talked about cave exploration in the past and who had explored Jewel Cave, etc.  Which they did, but it was so much more than that!  This is the only tour that uses the historical entrance and it was quite the walk just to get to the entrance.
jewel cave stairs
Once we got to the entrance of the cave, we were told about the fact that this cave is a breathing cave which means that air flows through the cave.  That is in fact how it was found, two brothers looking for gold felt the breeze and went to investigate and found a tiny hole.  Thinking that maybe there could be gold or some sort of treasure in the cave they pick axed the hole and used some dynamite to see what they could find.  This was the late 19th century of course.  The brothers found no gold but decided that they were very interested in exploring the cave and thought they could make some money leading cave tours.  In the beginning it was believed to be a small cave, with very pretty formations in it.  Until 1959, only two miles of the cave had been discovered.  As part of the historical tour our guides wore 1930's ranger uniforms, lovely green pants, a white long sleeve shirt and green neck tie. 

We also learned about the bats and the white nose syndrom that kills millions of bats a year.  South Dakota's bats do not have it yet, but they are trying very hard to keep it away from their bats.  On our tour we saw several bats flying by us, too bad they were so fast and our lanterns were so dim that I couldn't catch any photos of them.  You can even find bat houses to put around your property to attract bats and help with your insect and mosquito population.  That is something my son and I might try and get. 

Finally we were allowed to enter the cave.  We said good bye to light and headed into one of the most fun cave tours I have ever been on.  I have always thought of myself as claustrophobic so when I heard that we were going to be squeezing through some tiny tunnels, with only lantern light to light the way, I thought I would get a little freaked out.  Turns out I am just people claustrophobic, meaning I hate being in crowds of people, because the tiny tunnels did not bother me in the least.  Below is an example of how closed in we were and it was AWESOME!
jewel cave tunnel
Our tour only went about 1/2 mile in but we had to duck walk, shimmy sideways, walk down some steep rock stairs, jump and straddle and sidestep our way through the tour.  It was not your common walking tour for sure!  We had to walk through tunnels called Fat Man's Misery and Tall Man's Misery, colorful words to describe, shimmying sideways through one tunnel and duck walking through another, being careful not to hit our heads on the rocks above us.  We ended up in the Dungeon Room which was where the bats were located.  Our park ranger then proceeded to have us all blow out our lanterns so we could feel what complete and utter darkness was.  You could not see your hand in front of your face.  She then lit up on lantern and held it up to show us that this was all the people had to light there way during the early explorations of the cave.  Let me tell you one lantern light does little to nothing to combat the utter darkness of the cave.  My hat goes off to the men and women who did cave exploration before the invention of and/or wide use of electricity and batteries.
lantern light
Us in the lantern light
I love that this kind of tour is small.  I've been on cave tours with like 50 people and you can't talk to the rangers or get to know them at all, like you can on these smaller tours.  It was really neat to hear about how the cavers used to measure the cave, basically with a string, line of sight, and markers.  Now they have special equipment and computers to help do a lot of the work.  Both of our rangers enjoyed caving and you could tell it in how they talked about the cave and the wealth of information they had for us.  Oh and then the guides proceeded to tell us that we had to go back the way we came in order to get out, haha!

jewel cave tour
Our group coming out of Tall Man's Misery
We did eventually make it to Wind Cave, but I hesitate to even count it because we stopped at the Visitor's Center, I got my stamp, but we just did a quick drive around of the park lands.  We had just done the cave tour at Jewel so we did not do Wind Cave's tours.  I would love to come back though to Wind Cave because they have a Wild Caving Tour that looks to be a lot of fun.  All in all it was a fabulous and spoiling cave tour and I hope to inspire fellow travelers to try this kind of tour if they ever get to a cave and its offered.

Jewel Cave Helpful Tips
1.  Jewel Cave is currently #2 longest cave in the world after Mammoth Cave down in Kentucky with at least 167 miles mapped out.  Most since 1959.
2.  There is some belief that there is a possibility that Jewel Cave could merge with Wind Cave, if that is true it would make it the longest cave system in the world!
3. Cost varies, but ours was $8 for adults 17 and older and $4 for youth
4.  Children must be 6 years old to do this tour and I would not try to fool them in this.  We had a just turned 6 year old(like a week ago) little girl on our tour and she got a little freaked out at different times during the tour.
5.  Paths are uneven and slick and you need to be able to move and bend comfortably.
6.  Make sure you were sneakers, closed toed shoes, or hiking boots.  They will not allow you on the tour in your flip flops or sandals AND it would be dangerous on this tour to wear them.
7.  Cave sits at about 49 degrees year round, make sure to bring a sweatshirt or jacket.
8.  If you are at all claustrophobic this would not be the tour for you.
9.  FYI if you have been to another cave that has the white nose syndrome(i.e. anywhere east of South Dakota), make sure you have washed your shoes thoroughly.  I would assume you would have washed your clothes.  They are pretty picky about this and its needed to help keep the SD bats healthy.
10. The lanterns are HOT to touch!  They give the younger kids LCD lights, but one lady in our group had accidentally burned her sister pretty badly with a lantern before.  Also you are on uneven ground in low lighting, so its easy to bang and hit the lantern on things.  Be Careful!
11.  They give you one lantern per pair, to get the best lighting so as not to trip, let your significant other, friend, or companion hold the light for you.  You can see lots better that way then holding it yourself!
12.  Make this National Monument a part of your trip, it is well worth the visit.
I hope that you have enjoyed reading about Jewel Cave.  If you would like to see more of my South Dakota pictures they will be on my photography page.  A few are on my Facebook page at Light of World Photo here!  You can follow me on Instagram @lightofworldphoto and this trip at #sdramble2013.
This post is part of Wanderlust Wednesday at Time, Travel, Plans and Budget Travelers Sandbox Photo Thursday.

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  1. This tour sounds like a lot of fun although I am a bit claustrophobic. I admire that you explore our National Parks. That's something that I want to do more of in my future travels. The U.S. is just so beautiful, but I often take it for granted! Last year we toured a former copper mine just outside of Vancouver, BC and the guide also turned off the lights to demonstrate what complete darkness is like, and you're right - it's amazing that cavers and miners used to work in those conditions with only candles or lanterns to light their way. Thanks so much for linking up for Wanderlust Wednesday. I will be tweeting your post!

    1. Thanks! Unfortunately I don't get to go out of the country very often so I must content myself with trips in the US. It's ok though because I agree with you that it is very beautiful. Yes you should check out the National Parks, such beauty.

  2. I do like caves, but not if I have contend with small spaces. I will live this one through you. It looks like you had a great time.

    1. It was a lot of fun! The whole tour wasn't through small spaces so it wasn't too horrible. But yes one of the other tours might work better for you. Its well worth the visit.

  3. I love spelunking and going into dark places and learning about the geology of a cave, thanks for sharing

    I'm inviting you to join us for Travel Photo Mondays, the link runs all week so I hope you can join us for the next installment?

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks! Just trying to show the feel of what the tour was all about :). Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Hi Sere,
    I'm so embarrassed, I claim to be a cave lover and I this is the first time I've heard of this amazing cave that is the 2nd longer in the world. Looks like fun going through dark narrow tunnel. I find it interesting that it "breaths." I'd love to visit this jewel someday. Thanks for letting me know about it.

  6. Cool. this sounds fascinating. I've never heard of Jewel Cave. My kids would love this tour, although my tall husband may not appreciate the short parts as much.

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