Jewel Cave is even longer than Wind Cave, its perhaps more famous sister located about 35 miles to the west. In fact, it is the third-longest cave after Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and the Sac Actun/Dos Ojos system in Mexico. More than 180 miles of cave have been mapped here so far, yet scientists believe this figure represents less than five percent of what exists.
It also contains one of the world’s largest colonies of hibernating Townsend’s big-eared bats. Park staff worry greatly about the fungal disease White-nose Syndrome spreading to Jewel Cave and wreaking the same havoc that has befallen colonies in the eastern United States since appearing in 2006. As with Wind Cave, park staff asked us if we had visited other caves in the past six months. We had — Mammoth Cave — but because there they decontaminate the shoes of all visitors who enter the caves, we were allowed to enter Jewel and Wind caves.
Here we took the 80-minute guided Scenic Tour that covers a half-mile loop through various caverns and passageways. Jewel Cave feels entirely different from Wind Cave, principally because of the pointy dogtooth spar crystals encrusting nearly all of the cave’s surfaces, except in places where a large chunk of rock has broken off to reveal the limestone beneath it.
These calcite crystals resemble bumpy barnacles, and the billowing shapes of the cave made us feel like we were walking through the intestine of some enormous creature. Talk about being in the bowels of the Earth! Much of the surface has a thin film of silt, giving the crystals a dull rather than sparkly appearance. Some patches lit from behind, however, reveal the translucence of the crystals.
One large room had an array of draperies, flowstone, soda straws (those skinny formations that connect a stalactite to a stalagmite), and another section had an incredible example of cave bacon that made our mouths water. We were simply awestruck by the cave’s interior.
Yet we knew there was more to see above-ground, so after the tour, we went for a hike along the 3.5-mile looping Canyons Trail from the Visitor Center through the southern part of Hell Canyon. Much of the path followed a valley whose ponderosa pines trees burned in the enormous Jasper Fire of 2004. Happily, though, because woodpeckers favor burned areas for breeding habitat and the insects plentiful in dead wood, we saw dozens of the birds flitting among the blackened trees.
The next day we hiked the northern end of Hell Canyon across the road in U.S. Forest Service land that abuts the park. We began this 5.5-mile looping walk by ascending steeply through a mostly open hillside, the trees having toppled from the one-two punch of mountain pine beetles and the Jasper Fire.
We arrived at a plateau that afforded fantastic views and then followed a ridge near the top of the canyon. We eventually came to a side canyon that funneled into Hell Canyon and entered a patch of forest that the fire and beetles had spared. We descended into a cool, heavily vegetated draw lined with cave-filled limestone walls.
As we looped back around toward the mouth of Hell Canyon, lush grasses grew tall near a gurgling creek, and the late afternoon shade provided welcome cool air. Despite the name, we found this hike rather heavenly. In fact, from the underworld to canyons and forests above, this tiny gem of the National Park Service truly shines. No trip to western South Dakota would be complete without a stop here.