Many people who are planning a visit to southwest South Dakota know about Mount Rushmore, Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks and even Custer State Park. However, for those who are seeking beautiful public lands and love exploring in caves, just to the west is Jewel Cave National Monument, which is another great place to visit.
As the third longest cave system in the world, this incredible spot has over 200 miles of passages that have been discovered and explored. In the United States, only Mammoth Cave National Park is longer. Nearby Wind Cave is currently only about 75% as long (though still very impressive!).
While you may not find yourself in South Dakota by happenstance, if you are coming to this part of the country then you really do owe it to yourself to take some time to visit Jewel Cave National Monument. You won’t regret it!
There isn’t a lot of documentation out there about what to do in Jewel Cave, so we’ll do our best to give you an overview of what to expect and how to plan out your visit!
Ahead of your visit, we recommend downloading our itinerary for the Badlands, Wind Cave and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks. We cover what you need to pack, what to see and do in the parks and what to do in the area. We also cover the best hikes in each of the parks!
JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT HISTORY
Jewel Cave was first discovered (and documented as such) in 1900, about 18 years after nearby Wind Cave was discovered. It’s likely that locals familiar with the area have known about the cave for many years, but it wasn’t documented at all. Though the first people to discover the cave (who were miners) tried to capitalize on the discovery by blasting the opening and offering tours, they were unsuccessful.
Word of the discovery made it to the White House, and President Theodore Roosevelt established Wind Cave National Monument in 1908. Tours were first offered in 1939.
Exploration of the cave was slow. in fact, it’s believed that only two miles of cave were known as of 1959! That all changed, as 60 miles were discovered in the next 22 years, led by a couple of rock climbers named Jan and Herb Conn. Since then, exploration has become increasingly more difficult, but very productive. Most recently, in 2018, the park celebrated having more than 200 miles explored. Exploration continues today, and will for quite some time-it’s estimated (based on calculations of airflow) that the cave is over 2000 miles long.
Access to the cave has improved since the early years, with the addition of an elevator shaft, walkways, stairs and handrails being added to enable tours and further exploration.
JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT RESERVATIONS
There is no fee or reservation required to enter into the monument. However, if you want to go on a guided tour, you are required to get a ticket. Costs vary by tour, and you can find up-to-date tour costs on the Jewel Cave Tour website (run by the National Park Service).
You can book tours sixty days in advance, which is highly recommended. Additional spots open up two days in advance. As soon as you know the date(s) of your visit, we recommend getting online and booking a tour. Spots fill up fairly quickly, particularly as you get closer to your arrival date. You can book Jewel Cave tours online at Recreation.gov.
Of course, if you didn’t get the chance to book a tour in advance, you can get a spot at the last minute by going to the park and waiting in line. Same-day tour spots fill up fast on the day of the visit, so be sure to arrive early in the morning. On a weekend, that means getting there by 7 am, or by 7:30 am on a weekday. You’ll be waiting in line for some time before the park opens, but if you arrive when the park opens, you’ll likely be out of luck.
As mentioned earlier, if you are just going to check out the visitor center or plan on hiking, no reservations or park entry fee is required.
ACTIVITIES IN JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Jewel Cave National Monument area map, courtesy of the National Park Service
While the highlight of any visit to Jewel Cave National Monument is undoubtedly going to be your tour, there are a few other activities to enjoy in the park too. Be sure to bring a jacket on your visit, as it’s 49 degrees F in the cave at all times. Also, you need to be wearing footwear that is fastened to your feet, meaning that flip-flops are not allowed (for fear they may fall off your feet and end up in the cave). Our recommendations include the following:
- Jewel Cave Visitor Center. While you may be chomping at the bit to get onto your tour of the cave, you should stop in the Visitor Center first if you can. This will orient you with the layout of the park, information on the cave and the surrounding area as well as give you information about what you will see on your tour. The Visitor Center is open 7 days / week in the peak season (mid-May through mid-October) and closed on Sunday through Tuesday during the off season. The Visitor Center is full of great exhibits, a small store and of course access to the Park Rangers who will answer any questions you may have. It’s also a nice escape from the heat while you await your tour start time.
Jewel Cave Tours. Of course, if you can get a reservation, we highly recommend taking time to head down into the cave for a tour. There are a few options to select from, and all of them are guided by Rangers (there are no self-guided tours). The right tour for you really depends on how much time you have and how adventurous you and your group are. Tours range from 20 minutes to up to several hours in length. Each tour gets you underground. The tours have been going on for dozens of years, but for those who are afraid of the idea of being underground, we recommend you stay on the surface. For tours, here are the options you have to consider:
- Discovery Tour (ranger guided): If you are short on time or only want a taste of what the cave is like, then the Discovery Tour is for you. Accessed via elevator, this tour includes an introduction to the cave by a Ranger and checking out the cave from a viewing platform. You’ll check out the crystals and learn about how the cave was formed. The Discovery Tour starts at the Visitor Center and begins by heading down the elevator. The tour takes about 20 minutes total.
- Scenic Tour (ranger guided): If you are active, want to really learn about the cave and get a special experience, then the popular Scenic Tour is a great option. On this tour, you’ll see an amazing amount of crystalline structures as you walk up and down stairs (over 700 of them) and walk about 0.5-miles through a loop. Because of the stairs, you should be in solid shape before you take on this tour. The Scenic Tour begins at the Visitor Center and starts and ends by taking the elevator. The tour takes about 80 minutes total.
Scenic Tour in Jewel Cave National Monument, image courtesy of Murray Foubister
- Historic Lantern Tour (ranger guided): For a bit of a less industrial feel and to feel more like the first cave explorers but in a relatively short period of time, the Historic Lantern Tour may be for you. It enters in through the Historic Entrance. There are no lights or electricity in this part of the cave, so guests carry a lantern. You need to be nimble on this tour-there is quite a bit of ducking and moving around through narrow passageways. There is about 0.5-miles of walking, and approximately 500 stairs that you need to go up and down. The Historic Lantern Tour begins on the northwest side of the monument, off Highway 16, near the historic cabin. You should allow nearly two hours for this tour, and you must be at least 8 years old to take this tour.
- Wild Caving Tour (ranger guided): For an experience that you’ll never forget, the Wild Caving tour really introduces you to caving. On this tour, your squeeze through narrow openings, climb walls with a rope and crawl through narrow passageways. Ahead of your tour, you have to pass through a small crawl space as a test-it’s 24 inches wide and 8.5 inches tall. The tour is only about 0.65-miles long, but it’s hard. The tour takes up to 4 hours. You must be at least 16 years old to take this tour.
While you may not come to Jewel Cave National Monument for the hiking, it’s a great way to pass the time while you are waiting for your caving tour. The trails are also not very crowded at all, making it a great way to escape the crowds.
- The Roof Trail is an easy, 0.4-mile loop (round-trip). The trail winds through the pine forest behind the visitor center. During the summer you may find wildflowers. The trail is flat (only about 80 feet elevation gain) and great for families. The trailhead for the Roof Trail starts behind the visitor center.
- For a bit of a longer hike, take the Canyons Trail. This is a moderate hike that makes a loop as well. It’s 3.5-miles (total) and has just over 400 feet of elevation gain, which starts by going down in the first half-mile and heading up gradually for the remainder of the hike (if you go in the clockwise direction, that is). The trail is not crowded, as most do not come to this park to hike. However, there are older cave openings that you can see. The forest here was burnt during a fire in 2000, so the tree cover is pretty much non-existent, so be prepared to be exposed. The Canyon Trailhead starts behind the visitor center.
Historic cabin, image courtesy of Runner1928
WHAT IS THERE TO DO NEAR JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT?
This area of South Dakota is full of great public lands to visit. A few of our recommendations include:
- About 24 miles to the east of Jewel Cave is the amazing Custer State Park. This place is like a miniature Yellowstone. With tons of camping at Custer and amazing wildlife, you can stay here for days or make this as a home-base as you explore the area. There is a ton of great hiking here as well.
- Only about 35 miles to the southeast is Wind Cave National Park. This cave system is also really impressive, and features boxwork, which is really beautiful. You can also hike here and undoubtedly see bison.
- About 100 miles to the east is Badlands National Park. You could spend a few days here exploring, and we highly recommend it!
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial is only 35 miles away and worth checking out as well. It’s located to the north of Custer State Park.
JEWEL CAVE OR WIND CAVE?
Okay, this is hard to pick. Both offer great tours, the Rangers in both sites are amazing and in both cases you get a chance to go where you likely have never gone before.
Wind Cave is a bit smaller than Jewel Cave (#7 in the world in length vs. #3), but you’ll never know that as you only get to see about a half-mile or so of each cave on the tours that are offered. Both have good access via elevator and a natural (or historic entrance). Both caves are required to have guides with you, and both have tours that fill up fast.
inside the expansive Wind Cave National Park
Underground, you will see incredible formations of rock and deposits. We did feel like the boxwork in particular at Wind Cave was a bit more impressive.
Now, if you are looking to hike and see wildlife, Wind Cave is the park to go to. There are several hikes, and bison are all around.
Either way, if you have time to see both, we do recommend doing that!
HOW TO GET JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT AND OTHER TRAVEL INFORMATION
As we mentioned earlier, you likely won’t happen upon this area unless you plan to head to South Dakota for vacation. However, once you are in the Rapid City area, Jewel Cave National Monument is easy to get to.
- Directions from Rapid City, SD to Jewel Cave National Monument. This will take you about an hour without any stops, but you will likely want to stop on the way a bit to take in the sights.
- Directions from Custer State Park to Jewel Cave National Monument. This will take about 45 minutes, depending on where you are in the park.
- Directions from Wind Cave National Park to Jewel Cave National Monument. This will take only about 30 minutes.
You should expect to have some traffic as you head to the monument, but it won’t be too bad.
Jewel Cave National Monument, image courtesy of Murray Foubister
ENTRANCE FEES AND REQUIRED PASSES FOR JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT
There are no entrance fees for Jewel Cave National Monument unless you go on a cave tour (see above).
WHERE TO STAY WHEN VISITING JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Jewel Cave National Monument Lodging: There is no lodging inside of Jewel Cave National Monument. However, a good place to stay is in nearby Rapid City, SD or inside of Custer State Park.
Jewel Cave National Monument Camping: There is no camping inside of Jewel Cave National Monument. Our recommendation would be to camp inside of Custer State Park.
BEST TIME TO VISIT JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Since South Dakota gets a lot of snow, crowds are way down in the wintertime. The number of tours offered is also limited, but if you are only going for the Discovery Tour or the Scenic Tour, then you will be in luck. Since hiking isn’t too extensive here, you also won’t be missing much if you head here when the weather is a bit cold.
So, if you can visit in the springtime before the summer vacation sets in, you will have a great time and be without too many people.
If you also want to visit the surrounding area, then summer is best. That’s when Custer State Park is best (in our opinion) and the hiking around the area is great. Just be prepared to get up early in the morning to beat the crowds!
VISITING JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT IN THE WINTER
As mentioned earlier, there are limited hours offered during the winter months. The least is offered in between mid-October and the end of the year, when only the visitor center (Wednesday through Saturday) is open and there are no tours. Tours resume at the beginning of the year in a limited capacity (just the Scenic and Discovery Tours) until mid-May, when the park is fully open with the full set of tours.
Expect the park to be cold and snowy in the winter months. The hiking trails will require snow shoes or foot traction, at a minimum. Of course, it’ll be a comfortable temperature (if you like 49 degrees F!) when you head down into the cave!
ARE PETS ALLOWED IN JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT?
You may bring your pet, but your activities will be limited. Pets are only allowed on paved areas near the visitor center, near the picnic area or in the parking lot. They are not allowed on the hiking trails, and this is strictly enforced.
RELATED INFORMATION ON SOUTH DAKOTA AND THE SURROUNDING AREA FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Ahead of your visit, we recommend downloading our copy of the Badlands, Wind Cave and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks itinerary to help you plan your visit to the area.
- We have a number of articles on South Dakota and Wyoming that are worth checking out.
- After your trip, pick out a favorite image and send it to us so we can create a custom, vintage travel poster!