Black Hills: Wind Cave vs. Jewel Cave

There are lots of places to visit caves in the Black Hills, some touristy, some not. Two of these are public parks, Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park.

Visiting Jewel Cave turned out to be much more difficult than expected, as it took us two visits to actually get down into the cave. On our first visit, we were informed that the cave was closed because the elevator was broken. Had we gotten there just a little while earlier, we would likely have been on the tour that was in the cave when the elevator broke, and that had to walk out the service tunnel.

Supposedly, the problem was being worked on so we decided to hand around a while and take the 3.5 mile hike around the park.

Here’s Reen standing in a small cave we passed along the trail.


The Black Hills have had lots of problems with pine beetles, as well as the typical fires. Its not uncommon to see large areas with mostly dead trees.


The cave was still closed after we got back from the hike so we moved on. As it turned out, the cave remained closed for most of the week, but opened just in time for us to get in a visit a day or so before we left.

We had a very good tour guide who gave a more dramatic than usual verbal presentation. Maybe this is where drama majors get jobs.

Unlike most caves, this one was not formed by surface water seeping down from above so it didn’t have many of the typical cave formations. Instead, the cave was flooded from below, and remained flooded for extensive periods with water supersaturated with minerals. The result is a cave that is almost entirely lined with a thick layer of crystals. The formations are called dog-tooth spar and nail-tooth spar. In some areas the bumps are more crystal looking than others. In this area, things look more rounded off.


Here, a large section of the crystal layer has broken off. It was almost a foot think.


An excellent example of Maureen’s favorite cave formation, Cave Bacon! This is probably the biggest one we’ve seen, at least 6 feet tall and close to a foot wide.


Between our unsuccessful and successful attempts to see Jewel cave, we visited Wind Cave National Park. This is our tour guide showing us the original entrance that was discovered. The cave is so named because of the strong wind that flows in and out of this opening as the cave pressure equalizes with the outside. It is that small dark hole on the back wall of the pit. People actually crawled through there to get into the cave. I guess people were a lot thinner in the past.


Wind cave also doesn’t have many of the typical cave formations. The unique feature of Wind Cave is its “box work”. Box work looks like a thin delicate grid of boxes on the surface of the cave, mostly noticeable on the ceiling.


Close up view of a good example.


Beginnings of some box work. Unlike most cave formations, this is not formed directly by water. The box work is already in the rock before the cave is formed. Cracks in the rocks (typically limestone) get filled with harder minerals. Then, when the cave is formed by acidic water dissolving the limestone, some of the harder minerals in the cracks remain, revealing the box work.


While the official tour was not quite as entertaining as Jewel Cave, some of the other visitors on our tour made up for the difference. There were a half dozen or so “hipster dudes” who looked around 40 years old but were dressed and acted as if they were in their early twenties. They were accompanied by a slightly more mature acting woman. Since they all seem to be travelling together in a large van, we decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they were a travelling band looking for something interesting to do between gigs.

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