Nestled in the Black Hills, just west of Custer, lies a hidden treasure by the name of Jewel Cave. A staggering 143 miles long, Jewel Cave, is currently the second longest cave system in the world. Jewel Cave was initially discovered in 1900 by brothers Frank and Albert Michaud and a friend, Charles Bush. The trio found the entrance to the cave when they felt cool air and heard wind rushing through a small opening in the rocks of Hell Canyon. The Michauds enlarged the opening with dynamite, and crawled into a cavern lined with glinting calcite crystals.
The Michauds filed a mining claim dubbing the site “Jewel Tunnel Lode.” Recognizing that the real treasure of the cave was its beauty, the Michauds opened the site to tourists. By 1902, the Michaud brothers developed the site by adding a lodge and trail to the cave in an effort to attract tourists. The population of the area was low, and poor traveling conditions resulted in a poor turnout to the remote location. As a result, the Michaud’s attempt at tourism was a less than successful venture.
By 1908, the news of Jewel Cave reached Washington. In an effort to protect the beauty of the site, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Jewel Cave a National Monument. Later that year, the Michaud brothers sold their claim to the site to the government for $750.
The Jewel Cave Corporation, founded by local businessmen, offered tours of Jewel Cave from 1928-1939. Throughout the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the site, adding sewage and water, a cabin and campground, walking trails, and a stone stairway to the cave entrance. In 1939, a National Park Service Ranger was stationed at the site, and cave tours and visitor services began.
Although the cave was remarkable in its beauty, the passageways were short, offering a tour route of approximately two miles. The beauty awed visitors, but some began to question whether the site warranted national significance.
In 1959, geologist Dwight Deal and husband and wife rock climbing and cave enthusiasts Herb and Jan Conn began exploring and mapping new discoveries in Jewel Cave. Over the next 21 years, the Conns spent 12-14 hour days exploring the caves and mapping an additional 64 miles of passageways. The Conn’s naming of passageways such as “Contortionist’s Delight” and “The Misery” is indicative of the difficulty of their endeavor. In 1980, the Conns retired from their venture of mapping of the site, stating, “We are still standing on the threshold.”
Modern-day travelers continue to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel Cave is open year round, and offers three tours to visitors: the Scenic Tour, a moderately difficult ½ mile, 1-¼ hour tour containing 700 stairs; the Lantern Tour, a ½-mile, 1-¾ hour tour following the path of early Jewel Cave explorers, also of moderate difficulty; and the Spelunking Tour, a strenuous 4-hour tour exploration of the depths of Jewel Cave.
The surface of Jewel Cave features three hiking trails, ranging in length from ¼ to 5.5 miles. Guided walks, wildflower and plant viewing, bird watching, and Black Hills wildlife can all be enjoyed on the 1,273-acre terrain of Jewel Cave National Monument.
Visitors to Jewel Cave National Monument can find lodging at nearby campgrounds and enjoy close proximity to other local points of interest. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cove National Park, Devil’s Tower National Monument, and Badlands National Park are all located less than three hours from Jewel Cave National Monument.
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