A Complete Guide For A Day Trip To Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave National Monument can be found near the small, but charming, town of Custer, South Dakota.
The cave system contains it’s namesake, Jewel Cave, which is currently the third longest cave in the world with around 209 miles of mapped passageways.
President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Jewel Cave a National Monument on February 7, 1908.
The cave was discovered by Frank and Albert Michaud in 1900. The natural entrance they found was too small so after enlarging it with dynamite they were able to start exploring. They built walkways and opened the cave up to tourists until they sold their rights to the government.
In 1933 the National Park Service took over management of the monument and began offering tours in 1939.
The monument is surrounded by a Ponderosa Pine forest, with areas of grassland scattered throughout. This supports a wide variety of life within the monument. A large variety of mammals from chipmunks to bobcats can be seen roaming around.
Nine species of bats and nine species of snakes also call the area home.
Several bird species frequent the monument throughout the year making it a popular destination for bird watchers. Red-headed woodpeckers are a common sight along the Canyons Trail and we saw a couple on our hike.
The visitor center, park Store, surface trails, and picnic areas are open everyday 8 AM to 5:30 PM Mountain Time. They are closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s days.
Times may vary throughout the year so call ahead at (605) 673-8300 for more information.
Though the visitor center is a bit small they do have multiple exhibits and displays to check out. They also have a gift shop to purchase souvenirs. Rangers are on hand to answer any questions you may have.
Restrooms, trashcans and potable water can be found here and the parking area is large enough for any size rig.
Unlike a lot of national parks and monuments Jewel Cave is not open 24/7. The monument closes the main entrance gate at 5:30 PM so plan out your visit here accordingly.
Also, pets are not permitted in the caves or hiking trails.
The Jewel Cave Historic Area is located a mile west of the visitor center. The parks first ranger station was built here in 1935 by the Civilian Conversation Corps (CCC). The cabin was restored and can still be found here.
A trail starting at the cabin will take you to the caves historic entrance.
Fees are only charged for cave tours so you may enter the monument and hike for free.
Tickets are required to enter the cave though and the cost varies depending on which tour you would like to take. Advanced reservations are highly recommended during the busy season.
Tour times and group size are limited so if you want to guarantee a spot you can make reservations at at recreation.gov. Tickets are also sold on-site on a first come first serve basis on the day of the tour. These are not guaranteed though and may be sold out for the time you want.
All ticket sales are final and they only accept credit/debit cards.
Purchase or pick up your tickets at the ticket booth located in the parking lot at the top of the stairs before the visitor center.
There are a few different tours offered at the monument to choose from. They are all ranger led and offer different perspectives of the cave. Below is a list of the tours available with a short description.
Discovery Tour: Adult $6, Ages 6-15 and Seniors 62 years and older $3, Children 5 & under free. You enter and exit the cave through an elevator at the visitor center and there is a 20 person maximum limit.
This 20-minute program takes place inside the Target Room. The rangers give a brief introduction on the history of Jewel Cave National Monument. You also get to see nailhead spar and dogtooth spar which are the calcite crystals considered the “jewels” of the cave.
This is the tour we did and you can read by blog post here.
Scenic Tour: Adult $16, Ages 6-15 $8, Children 5 & under free. You enter and exit the cave through an elevator at the visitor center and there is a 30 person maximum limit.
This hour and half tour is 1/2 mile long on a paved trail and is considered moderately strenuous. Children cannot be carried and must do the entire hike on their own including the 734 stairs along the way.
You will explore multiple chambers in the cave checking out calcite crystals called nailhead spar and dogtooth spar. You will also learn about other formations including boxwork, cave popcorn, flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, and draperies.
Historic Lantern Tour: Adult $16, Ages 8-15 $8, no one under 8 is permitted. Visitors enter and exit the cave through the historic entrance and there is a 20 person maximum limit.
This one hour and 45 minutes long tour travels along a 1/2 mile undeveloped cave trail and is considered strenuous. You must navigate 600 steep and narrow stairs and a lot of bending and stooping is required.
Visitors carry lanterns along the trail though and get to experience the cave in a whole new light.
Wild Caving Tour: You must be at least 16 for this tour and it cost $45. There is a two person minimum and 5 person maximum limit. Tickets MUST be reserved online.
This 3-4 hour tour is 2/3 of a mile long and extremely strenuous. It is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights or tight spaces. During the tour you will encounter Hurricane Corner, Martha’s Kettle, the Roller Coaster, and the Brain Drain.
You must scramble over rocks, belly-crawl through tight passages, and climb a nearly vertical wall, with the assist of a rope of course. This tour is for the ones seeking a real caving adventure.
Check the website or call ahead at (605) 673-8300 to confirm tour times before visiting the monument.
Check out their website for all the do’s and don’ts during your cave tour. Be sure to wear closed-toed shoes, because you will not be allowed in the cave without them (speaking from personal experience here)!
There are three hiking trails available at the monument which you can hike before or after your cave tour. I’ll list the hiking trails below along with a short description. We did the Roof and Canyons Trails you can read about here.
Roof Trail: This easy 1/4 mile loop trail circles the visitor center and takes you through the ponderosa pine forest.
Canyons Trail: This 3.5 mile loop trail is located near the visitor center and has around 430 feet of elevation gain. The trail takes you through Lithograph and Hell Canyons and then into open meadows and rocky outcroppings. During the hike you’ll also pass the historic entrance of Jewel Cave.
A fire in 2000 did take out a lot of the trees in a section of this trail.
Hell Canyon Trail: This 5.5 mile loop trail has about 500 feet of elevation gain and is open to hikers, horseback riders, and bicycles. It is located in the gorgeous Black Hills National Forest one mile from the visitor center. The hike has you following a limestone cliff with views of Hell Canyon and the surrounding area.
You can easily do a cave tour and a hike in a one day visit to Jewel Cave National Monument, which is what we did. We love South Dakota so we will definitely be back in the area again and will visit this monument one more time. I really want to hike the Hell Canyon Trail.
I also want to do an actual tour of the cave this time.
The Discovery Tour is fine if you’re short on time or have small kids. It’s a great overview on the history of the monument and you get to see some cool things, but it’s only one room.
I really want to go on a tour that explores a much larger part of the cave. I can hear the Historic Lantern Tour calling my name!