America the Beautiful. That name exists for a reason. There are so many stunning places right here in the US and in this National Park Series I am going to share some of our favorite parks and experiences in our own backyard. This week I will highlight Wind Cave National Park, and it’s neighbor Jewel Cave National Monument.
When I was a kid we took a family road trip to South Dakota and I don’t remember if we camped or stayed in a hotel. I am sure we went to Mount Rushmore, but I have no memory of seeing the actual faces. I am not entirely sure what time of year we went, although I assume it was summer, as most trips are when you are a kid. Basically I remember nothing from that trip, except for the caves. Which were mind-blowing. After a trip to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky earlier in the summer, Logan and I were hooked on caves and decided to sojourn up to South Dakota specifically to check out two of the coolest caves in America.
After a six hour drive from our home in Boulder, Colorado we set up camp at Comanche Campground. We camped in a spot outside of the town of Custer, South Dakota. Custer is very centrally located between the caves, Mount Rushmore, and Custer State Park; which is famous for its Needles Highway. We drove the highway and went to Mount Rushmore, but we were really there for the caves.
Jewel Cave National Monument
While not technically a National Park, I decided to include Jewel Cave in this National Park Series because of its proximity to Wind Cave. It would be silly to be in this neck of the woods and not go to both. The formations are very different and Jewel Cave is the second largest cave system in America, so there is a lot to see.
There are a couple different tour options, each one taking you to a different part of the cave. They vary in difficulty, and are not generally recommended for small children or anyone who has difficulty with stairs. First up was the Scenic Tour, the most common at Jewel Cave. Our group was large (around 30 people) and the guide was honestly pretty bland, but there are a lot of cool structures on this loop and if you can handle the nearly 800 stairs it is worth the time and money.
We also took the Historic Lantern Tour, which was super cool. Our group was smaller with a guide who was witty and sarcastic; two of our favorite characteristics in a person. Every person had a lantern and I burned myself more times than I should have, but we felt like real adventurers.
There are two paths for this tour “Heaven” or “Hell” and our group collectively decided to go the “Hell” route. We followed a narrow path so we had to squat, and duck, and wiggle our way through. The tour was long and had no electric lights and no pavement. I really felt like we were caving. The Historic Lantern Tour is only offered in summer months, and is not for the faint of heart. If you are visiting in summer and have an adventurous spirit then I highly recommend it.
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave is smaller than its neighbor Jewel Cave, and despite the two being very close together they look very different. We were running short on time, so we only took one tour at Wind Cave, but it was super awesome. We chose the “Fairgrounds Tour”, which is the most strenuous of the regular tours and did not feel like a typical cave tour. Our guide was super relaxed and the group moved at a slow pace so we got to do a lot of exploring.
In my experience South Dakota is a totally worthwhile destination. In general we saw families and retired couples during our time there, but there is plenty to do for the young and the young at heart.
Dollars and Sense
Entrance: Getting into the area surrounding the caves is free, but the tours cost $12 per person. There are a couple of “Wild” Cave adventures that cost a bit more. Unlike Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, you cannot reserve tickets for Jewel Cave or Wind Cave ahead of time. In high season the groups do fill up, so plan accordingly.
Weather: The caves are naturally temperature controlled (50 degrees) so no matter what season you go you should pack a warm layer for going inside the caves.
If you have the time you could also head north to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Check out their website for more detailed information on visiting.
Wind Cave National Park website
Jewel Cave National Monument website