Jewel Cave National Monument protects Jewel Cave, currently the second longest known cave in the world with over 160 miles of discovered passageways and several new miles of cave discovered each year. Jewel Cave got its name because many of its walls are covered with calcite crystals. Shown above are “dogteeth,” which are bright white spar crystals in the shape of a dog’s tooth.
Many of the cave walls are covered with darker and more rounded versions of spar crystals. Although these jewels are pretty to look at, they are quite worthless on the open market. In fact, a truckload of calcite crystals will yield a net profit of about one dollar. Yet stealing one of these “worthless” jewels is a federal offense because this cave resides in a national park.
This four-foot hollow “soda straw” on the left was formed when water slowly leaked through a tiny hole in the cave’s ceiling. Notice the drips on the right.
Jewel Cave is mostly a dry cave, though there are a few wet sections in which large flowstones are found. These tend to look like Jabba the Hut.
Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Jewel Cave a national monument in 1908. As recently as 1959, less than 2 miles of cave had been discovered. That’s when two experienced rock climbers, a married couple named Herb and Jan Conn, reluctantly explored the cave at the request of the Park Service. They quickly fell in love with the discovery of this vast underground wilderness, and by 1979, the couple had discovered and mapped more than 64 miles of passageways. Many of these new passageways laid outside the boundaries of the monument at the time, so land was swapped with the surrounding national forest to eventually protect 1,273 acres and all of the cave in the national monument. We didn’t explore the surface because the only two hiking trails were closed the day we visited due to nearby construction.
Some of the drips are multicolored and still forming. Notice a drop of water on the bottom of each drip.
Jewel Cave was formed by stagnant, acid-rich water that gradually dissolved a thick layer of limestone. The water expanded a network of cracks in the limestone that formed when the Black Hills uplifted 60 million years ago. Then water containing calcite flowed through the cave and formed the calcite crystals that cover much of the cave walls. Some of the flowstone formations reminded me of the movie Aliens. Fortunately, no aliens descended from the ceiling nor burst out of anyone’s chest, at least on our visit.
One of the most famous formations in Jewel Cave is called “cave bacon.” This is a calcite flowstone that formed in a thin sheet called a “drapery.” With just the right amount of yellow and brown coloring, the drapery became a strip of bacon. This impressive cave bacon was over a foot wide and 20 feet tall. Mmm, bacon.
Jewel Cave offers a 4-hour “Wild Caving Tour” during which visitors climb, crawl and slither through two-thirds of a mile of dark passageways off the beaten path. All those who wish to join the tour must first pass a test where they must crawl (and fit) through a block of concrete that’s only 8 inches high and two feet wide. Theresa had no trouble as shown, but I nearly got stuck on my upper chest. This is not as tight as another part of Jewel Cave called “The Miseries.” It’s open only to professional cavers who are helping to map the cave. A half day walk and crawl underground is required just to reach The Miseries. Then you must slither your way through an 1800-foot long slot that’s so narrow you must first choose which way you’ll turn your head for the entire crawl before entering the slot, then remain in that position the entire time because it’s too narrow to turn your head.