Replete with caves and caverns to explore, South Dakota is a spelunkers dream. The state’s abundance of underground caves is partially due to its geology.
A geological history that includes years of being submerged under tepid, Cretaceous Period primordial seas, coupled with a massive layer of Paha Sapa limestone running through the state makes it ripe for rare calcite crystal caves.
In fact, the calcite crystal caves are so rare that there are only seventy-two of them in the world today, sixty-eight of which are located in South Dakota.
Of those caves, seven are considered to be show caves that are commercially open to the public. Two of them are within National Parks and the other five are privately owned and operated.
Visitors wishing to explore the lesser known caves will need to employ the services of local experts, such as “Intense Tours.”
If you are a big fan of shows like “Mission Impossible” or “Man vs. Wild” and have an adventurous spirit to boot, “Intense Tours” is the tour operator for you.
They take visitors to little explored, off the beaten path caving locations for an adventure experience that one will not soon forget. “Intense Tours” offers two different types of guided adventures that last on average four or more hours depending on the visitor’s stamina.
Tour option number one is a strenuous trip that takes spirited spelunkers into little known areas of “Custer State Park.” As part of the tour there is private exploration of lesser known caves, hidden pioneer graves and historically significant landmarks such as the old school house at “French Creek.” All of which are not seen by regular park visitors, thus making it a truly special day trip.
Those that partake of the day tour will be given use of special equipment such as helmets, knee pads, snake chaps and 30×125 mm binoculars. Snacks and beverages will also be provided.
Tour option number two is a night trip that focuses on the region’s wildlife and night time sky. Visitors who partake of tour number two can expect a less strenuous trip than those that take option number one as it is primarily done by motorized vehicle.
Special night vision equipment such as digital intensifier, night vision goggles and a hand held imager will be made available for those on the evening tour.
“Intense Tours” operates excursions year round and it should be noted that they keep the number of people that go on any one tour to a minimum. Therefore it is best to call well advance of one’s trip to secure a spot on what is surely the most unique caving tour in South Dakota’s Badlands.
3213 West Main Street #16
Rapid City, SD 57702
Jewel Cave National Monument
With one natural entrance and over 151 miles of tunnels, “Jewel Cave” is presently the second longest cave system in the world. The entire depth and breadth of the cave has yet to be fully explored at this time.
The cave’s natural entrance is located within “Hell’s Canyon” and runs for miles underneath both “Jewel Cave National Monument” and the nearby “Black Hills National Forest.”
At present elevation within the cave ranges from 4,771 feet to 5,408 feet about sea level with the deepest known section being a whopping 749 feet below ground.
Sure to satiate any spelunker’s appetite for crystals, at least temporarily, “Jewel Cave” contains several rare and unusual cave formations like the fragile and silvery one inch round orbs known as hydro-magnetite balloons. These orbs resemble iridescent and ethereal Christmas ornaments.
In addition to the balloons “Jewel Cave” is known for “Moon Milk” which upon closer inspection resembles a funky form of cottage cheese. Unlike most mineral deposits found in caves, “Moon Milk” does not harden and tends to take one of three forms.
The first form is the cottage cheese like form. The second form is a thick, viscous like fluid that flows like a surreal stream. The final known form occurs when the “Moon Milk” becomes arid, which results in a substance similar to powdered milk or talcum powder.
Note that certain sections of the cave are for serious spelunkers only and require the fortitude to cram oneself into dark and diminutive crevices. Those sections are not part of the regular guided cave tour.
There must be a minimum number of people for a guided cave tour to take place. This is usually not a problem as tours tend to sell out. As such tickets are sold as much as seven days in advance of each tour.
Park rangers provide four different types of year round tours with tour type, hours and availability varying by season. The four types of guided tours are; discovery, scenic, lantern and wild caving.
The 20 minute discovery tour is the easiest and best tour for those who are curious about the cave but do not have the physical ability for a more in-depth exploration of it. The discovery tour involves use of the elevator at the visitor’s center and the climbing of 15 stairs. The tour takes place in one room of the cave so physical excursion is mild.
As of 2010 admission to the discovery tour is $4.00 per person ages 16 and older. Children under age 16 and senior citizens are admitted for free.
The 80 minute scenic tour is the more moderate of the three tours but does involve ½ miles of walking including a great deal of stair climbing, 732 steps to be exact.
Admission to the scenic tour is $8.00 per person over age 17 and $4.00 per child between the ages of 6 to 16. Children under the age of 5 are admitted on the scenic tour for free. There are also discounted tickets for senior citizens and pass holders.
The 105 minute lantern tour transports visitors back to the days of early cave exploration. The strenuous ½ mile evening tour begins at the “Hells Canyon” entrance and involves a good deal of physical excursion and dexterity.
Due to the nature of the lantern tour, children under the age of 6 and those with health impairments are not permitted to participate.
Admission to the lantern tour is $8.00 per person over the age of 17 and $4.00 per person between the ages of 6 to 16 years.
The most extreme of the four tours, wild caving, is explicitly for those over age 16 who are in good health and able to stand the rigors of the experience. Not for the faint of heart, this four hour 2/3 mile tour involves scaling over rocky debris, using repelling ropes to climb steep vertical inclines and slithering on one’s belly through 8 ½ by 24 inch crevices.
Those that accept the challenges of the wild caving tour will need to provide some of their own caving equipment such as caving boots, knee pads, and other forms of protective clothing. The park does provide an experienced guide, head lamp and hard hat for this tour, but that is all.
Admission to the wild cave tour is $27.00 per person. Additional details about each of the four tours including a list of suggested equipment for the more extreme tour can be found on the National Park Service’s website.
Advance reservations for any of the four tours can be made between the hours of 8:30 am until 4:00 pm Mountain Standard Time by calling 605-673-8300.
It is imperative to note that due to the extreme nature of the wild caving tour advance reservations must be made up to one month in advance and requires additional information from the ticket purchaser.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Highway 16 Building B12
Custer, SD 57730
Wind Cave National Park
Considered to be the fourth largest and most multifarious caves in the world “Wind Cave” is a replete with distinctive cave formations such as frostwork, popcorn, and box work or honeycombs.
It is located inside “Wind Cave National Park” which has the celebrated distinction of being the first national park in the world to have been created for the purpose of protecting a cave. Open year round, it is also the seventh oldest park in the National Park System.
The “Wind Cave” is so aptly named for the mysterious, whistling winds that escape from it. It was actually the distinct sound of the cave’s wind that drew early 1881 explorers to come across it. Prior to that time the cave is believed to be only known by the region’s early Native American inhabitants.
The park rangers offer a whopping six different types of cave tours that range in availability, price, and duration and skill level. The six different cave tours are; natural entrance, Garden of Eden, fairgrounds, candle light, wild and special.
The special tour is for handicapped or those who are otherwise limited in their physical abilities. The tour takes visitors to wheelchair accessible areas of the cave.
Admission to the special tour for those ages 17 to 61 is $5.00 per person. People between the ages of 6 to 16 are admitted to the special tour for $2.50 per person. There is no charge for children ages 5 and under.
After the special tour, the 1 hour, 1/4 mile long Garden of Eden walking tour is one of the easiest tours available. It includes the navigation of 150 steps and mild exertion.
Admission to the Garden of Eden tour is $7.00 per adult and $3.50 for children between the ages of 6 to 16. Children under the age of 5 are admitted for free.
The 1 ¼ hour, ½ mile long natural entrance tour is for those individuals who are reasonably fit and feel that they can safely manage 300 stairs.
Admission to the natural entrance tour is $9.00 for adults and $4.50 for children ages 6 to 16. Admission includes entrance into at least 6 unique cave rooms such as the “Devil’s look Out”, the “Cathedral” and the “Blow Hole.”
Admission to the two hour, 1 mile candlelight tour is $9.00 for those between the ages of 17 to 61 and $4.50 per child between the ages of 8 to 16. Due to the nature of the candlelight tour, no one under the age of 8 will be allowed to participate.
Both the wild tour and the fairgrounds tour are the more strenuous of the 6 tours and range in length from 1 ½ to 4 hours. No one under 16 years of age or with limited mobility and health problems will be allowed to participate in the grueling 4 hour wild caving tour.
Admission to the wild caving tour is $23.00 per person and admission to the fairgrounds tour is $9.00 for adults and $4.50 for those ages 6 to 16.
Additional details about each of the six remarkable “Wind Cave” tours are available on the National Park Service’s website.
Wind Cave National Park
U.S. Highway 385
Hot Springs, SD 57747
Believed to contain the largest array of diversified cave formations in the Mid-west, the privately owned and operated “Wonderland Cave” is open daily for tours from May 1st through October 15th. Tours run daily from 8:00 am until 7:00 pm.
Altogether there is said to be 16 different types of formations within the “Wonderland Cave.” Formations specific to the “Wonderland Cave” include the renowned formation known as the “bird bath.” There is also countless, eye pleasing, awe inspiring crystal and fossil lined grottos that envelope visitors with their natural beauty.
Lasting for approximately 40 minutes, an expert tour guide leads visitors through a myriad of the cave’s natural phenomenon under temperatures that tend to hover at a brisk 47 degrees Fahrenheit.
Afterward there is an on-site gift shop, rock shop, eatery and a series of hiking trails that guests can enjoy.
Prices of the tour can vary and advance reservations are suggested. Those wishing to make reservations may do so by calling the tour operator at 605-578-1728. Would-be callers should note that the reservation telephone line is only open during the summer months.
P.O. Box 83 – Vanocker Canyon
Nemo, SD 57759
Black Hills Caverns
Perhaps one of the more curious features of the “Black Hills Caverns” is that it is comprised of two different types of limestone that come from two separate time periods. The two distinct types of limestone are manlius and coeymans.
The manlius limestone is said to have been formed in the Pre-Devonian era and contains the fossilized remains of early sea creatures such as mollusks and corals.
The coeymans limestone is from the early Devonian period and contains the fossilized remains of more complex corals, mollusks, brachiopods, flora and fauna.
In addition to the two different types of limestone, the caverns contain rondout waterred rock from the upper Silurian age, helictites, logomites and much, much more.
The cave was originally used by the Lakota Indian tribe as a place of great spirituality. They were known to harvest and employ the cave’s amazing crystals in their spiritual ceremonies and rites. It went virtually unnoticed by European settlers until the 1882 gold rush.
“Black Hills Caverns” are open daily from 8:30 am until 5:30 pm with the last cave tour leaving at 4:30 pm.
There are currently two tour options offered at “Black Hills Caverns.” They are the crystal tour and the adventure tour. The adventure tour is the longer of the two and lasts one hour whereas the crystal tour lasts ½ hour.
The adventure tour covers all three levels of the cave. The crystal tour, on the other hand, only covers 1,500 square feet of the cave’s first level and focuses on the viewing of the cave’s most prolific crystal formations.
Admission to the adventure tour is $9.75 for adults and $6.50 for children ages 6 through 12. Admission to the crystal tour is $7.50 for adults and $4.50 for children ages 6 through 12. There is no charge for children under the age of 6 for either of the two tours.
Visitors can opt to add on a gemstone mining activity for the discounted price of $5.00 per person. There is also the option of forgoing the cave tours and just engaging in the gemstone mining activity for the price of $7.00 per person.
Black Hills Caverns
Highway 44 – 2600 Cavern Road
Rapid City, SD 57702
Discovered by early European settlers in the late 1800’s “Crystal Cave”, as its name suggests, is awash in crystals. An estimated 80% of the cave’s surfaces are encrusted with them.
Tours of the cave are traditionally 45 minutes in duration and are considered to be suitable for most age groups and skill levels.
Tour prices are subject to change through the year so it is best to verify the current price in advance of one’s trip.
The “Crystal Caves” are open from 8:00 am until 8:00 pm from June through August and from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm May, September and October.
Highway 44 – 7700 Nameless Cave Road
Rapid City, SD 57702
The local lore surrounding “Rushmore Cave” centers around one Walter Jenny. A learned man, Jenny was said to be examining a rose bush in the area when he stumbled upon the entrance to “Rushmore Cave.” Jenny’s discover was said to be the impetus for the gold rush in the Keystone area, hence the name “Rushmore.”
Said to have the largest column formation in the Black Hills region, “Rushmore Cave” is also known for its “Post Office Room”, “Big Room”, “Image Room” and “Floral Room.”
The more sedate, family-friendly, guided tour of “Rushmore Cave” covers a ½ mile and encompasses 1 hour. It is not considered to be a particularly arduous tour and is thus suited for people of all skill levels.
Admission to the basic tour is $13.00 for adults age 13 and up. Admission for children between the ages of 5 to 12 is $7.50. Children under the age of 4 are admitted at no charge.
There is also a more intense caving experience available that is entitled the “Xpedition Tour.” The “Xpedition Tour” is for the more rugged cave enthusiasts who are age 14 and older. Participants must also be willing and able to get dirty and crawl in dark, dank, 10 x 22 inch crevices.
The reward for going through such lengths is a chance to view the stellar “Bookworm Alley”, “Rouge Room” and “Arrowhead Room.”
The tour provider will supply knee pads, elbow pads, helmets and headlamps for use during the “Xpedition Tour.” The tour is offered from 10:00 am until 3:00 pm daily.
Admission to the “Xpedition Tour” is $35.00 per person and is inclusive of a souvenir photo and a 20 percent discount on a souvenir t-shirt.
13622 Highway 40
Keystone, SD 57751
Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns
Celebrated for having the world’s most far-reaching cache of dogtooth spar crystals and fossilized oceanic remains, “Sitting Bull Caverns” was in use by the Lakota tribe long before 1876 when the early pioneers first noticed it.
The cave’s notable features include the pristine “Diamond Lake” with its crystal laden ceiling and the “French Chandelier Room” replete with dogtooth spar crystals that measure upwards of 16 inches in length.
In 1929 the caverns were named in honor of the famed Hunkpapa Holy man, “Chief Sitting Bull” who frequented the area surrounding the cave throughout the 1800’s.
The Hunkpapa’s, whose name literally means “Head of the Circle”, were one of the most respected of the seven recognized Lakota Sioux tribes. “Chief Sitting Bull” was best known for his participation in land battles with European settlers in the 19th century.
“Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns” maintains seasonal hours of operation. It is open daily from 8:00 am until 6:00 pm from May through September and from 8:00 am until 8:00 pm during the months of June through August. It is best to call in advance of one’s trip to verify both tour hours and tour prices.
Cavern tours leave every 20 minutes and are 45 minutes in duration. In addition to the tours, the site also features a large gift shop that specializes in Native American artifacts as well as geology based souvenir items.
Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns
US 16 and Mt. Rushmore Road
Mt. Rushmore, SD 57730
Those would be spelunkers who wish to learn more about the amazing caves and caverns of South Dakota should log onto the state’s tourism website.