Welcome to Cave Country: Exploring the Caves of South Dakota

The Black Hills of South Dakota are known for a few things including Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial (insert link) and some of the most beautiful scenic drives in the country. What most don’t know about Western South Dakota is that it is home to not just one, but two MASSIVE cave systems. We took the plunge (see what I did there?) and took tours at both Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, both near Custer, SD. 

Wind Cave National Park

During our time in the Black Hills, we had a day with really bad weather in the forecast so we opted to visit Wind Cave National Park, about 22 miles south of Custer, SD. Arriving at the park from the North, we were greeted into the park by a regularly occurring herd of bison near the park entrance. The Wind Cave herd is one of only 4 bison herds in North America that is relatively pure and walks freely on public land. The number of bison in the Wind Cave herd are 250-400 strong and a large portion of the herd spends most of the summer along Highway 385, near the Visitor Center. It is rumored that the herd will even perform a “South Dakota Car Wash” of your vehicle in the spring if your vehicle is carrying delicious salt on the exterior of your vehicle, by licking the salt off of your car.

Bison grazing in the grassland of Wind Cave National Park

The park Visitor Center is very mild and boasts standard amenities such as bathrooms, a gift shop, and a small naturalists display of wildlife and history from the area. Despite the beauty of the grassland above and the size of the bison herd, the main attraction to the park actually lies below ground, within its 150+ miles of discovered cave passageways. 
The passageways of Wind Cave are unique for a couple of reasons.

First, Wind Cave contains over 95 percent of the world’s boxwork formations. Unlike formations in other popular cave systems that rely on water to drip down the rock and deposit minerals, boxwork was already present in the rock and was simply refined by the water of a once present underground lake. The result, a beautiful lace-like mesh network of sediment that makes Wind Cave one of the densest caves in the world. 

Detail photo of boxwork formation

Second, Wind Cave is the 7th longest cave in the world even though the footprint of the cave system is contained within only a couple of square miles. While navigating the passageways you realize the scale of the cave and how the distance is accomplished, tunnels veer in every direction from the main tunnels and rooms. It is easy to understand why some of the cave is still not explored even to this day. 
The best part about a visit to Wind Cave National Park is getting to tour the caves themselves!

For more information on tours, visit the National Park Service website.

The largest room on our tour of Wind Cave

We chose the Fairgrounds Tour and were really happy with our choice. Our tour guide, Ranger Justin was excellent and had a very well-rounded knowledge of the cave and its history. On our tour, we meandered around the cave, crouching but never crawling, and had the opportunity to see the infamous box formation and multiple instances of frostwork. This cave was pretty tight in some places, so those that get claustrophobic should probably stay about ground. Interestingly enough there was a major lack of the two things that I expected to see in the cave: bats and water. The bats apparently hang out around the natural entrance because food and navigation is easy. Water is missing from the majority of the cave due to the lowering water table and at one point, the entire cave was filled with water.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Different from Wind Cave in about as many ways as two caves can differ that are in the same county, Jewel Cave was a very different experience after visiting Wind Cave. Jewel cave is longer and much more cavernous than Wind Cave. Jewel Cave is also longer than Wind Cave at a length of over 200 miles of discovered caves passageways. The National Park Service hosts tours that allow you to explore different areas of the cave and you can check those out on the NPS website

Boxwork formations line the ceiling of Jewel Cave

The cave was discovered in 1909 when prospectors felt cool air blowing out from the cave and tours began in 1939, hosted by the NPS. 
The geologic features are not nearly as rare as those that occur in Wind Cave, but there is still a few instances of box work and frost work. The most predominant crystal feature on the walls of Jewel Cave is the Spar Crystal. The Spar Crystal formations cover most of the cave that we saw on our tour with the occasional appearance of flowstone, frost work, and box work throughout. We even got the chance to see some “Cave Bacon” which is a cave feature often found in caves in the Eastern US.

Cave Bacon is prominent in one section of the cave tour.

Our tour guide was exceptional and had a deep knowledge (see what I did there) of the cave and it’s history. We took the Scenic Tour that lasts approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes and navigates 723 stair steps. The tour is listed by the park service as moderately strenuous, which translates to easy if you are in decent physical shape. 

Okienomads Travel Tip- Arrive at Jewel Cave when it opens to purchase your tour passes first thing for later in the day, then take off to Hell Canyon (Black Hills National Forest) just down the road for a pleasant stroll through the canyon that lies above the surface of Jewel Cave. 

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Crazy Horse…a Crazy Monument Indeed

What is the Crazy Horse Memorial?

The Crazy Horse Memorial is an ongoing sculpture, the largest in the world, that began in 1948 to honor Sioux legend and hero “Curly” Crazy Horse. The project, a massive stone sculpture depicting Crazy Horse atop his steed facing East, dominates the hillside of the Black Hills North of Custer, South Dakota very similarly to Mount Rushmore National Monument nearby. Once completed, the monument will stand over 600 feet long and over 500 feet tall, making it the largest sculpture in the world by far. You will be able to fit Mount Rushmore inside of it with room to spare!

Work began in 1948 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and even though Ziolkowski passed away in 1982, work has picked up in recent recent years with support from the non-profit organization Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The foundations is a registered non-profit 501(c)3 organization that manages the monument as well as the The Indian University of North America and The Native American Educational and Cultural Center whose vision is to educate tribal youth and the public at large on the history of the Black Hills and Native Americans in general. To read more about the educational efforts taking place please visit the websites for both organizations at https://crazyhorsememorial.org/dream.

Fun Fact- Crazy Horse is historically understood to have never had his photo taken, which might make carving a giant sculpture of his head a matter of interpretation.

Who was Crazy Horse and Why Does He Get a Monument?

Crazy Horse was a famous Oglala Sioux warrior most known for his part in defeating General George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Curly led a fascinating life of pushing the tribal status quo in an effort to protect his homeland from encroaching white interests under the guise of manifest destiny.

The Black Hills in Western South Dakota were designated by the U.S. Government as Sioux land in the Treaty of Laramie in 1851. As long as the native population allowed safe passage of travelers on the Oregon and Bozeman Trails, the land would remain theirs and protected from interference from whites. As is the case with nearly every treaty signed during the plains wars, the US did not keep its side of the bargain and sought gold interests in the Black Hills, despite its sovereign status. 

Crazy Horse fought the encroaching whites for most of his life as needed to protect his tribe. Crazy Horse went to battle under Oglala Chief Red Cloud from 1865-1868 and served  as a decoy in the Battle of the Hundred In The Hands where 81 U.S. soldiers were defeated in an ambush in 1866. Crazy Horse is perhaps most known for his bravery and fighting skill in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Crazy Horse led a group of troops to flank famous U.S. General George Custer. Custer was unable to secure high-ground and was cut-down by Crazy Horse and his troops when it is reported that Custer fired his last shot. 

To learn more about the relationship and similarities between Custer and Crazy Horse, check out the Stephen Ambrose book, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parellel Lives of Two American Warriors. Ambrose is the award-winning author of Band of Brothers and provides an unbiased account of the converging lives of Custer and Crazy Horse throughout the 1800’s.
Crazy Horse was one of the last of the Indians to be arrested after most of his land and nearly all of the wildlife had been removed from the area surrounding the Black Hills. Crazy Horse was lied to repeatedly as a captive and was eventually run through with a bayonet in a jail-cell struggle. Crazy Horse embodied bravery and courage and generations will look to his memorial for centuries and remember his fight for freedom. 

How Can I See the Crazy Horse Memorial?

The Crazy Horse sculpture is massive and beautiful and arguably the best way to see the monument up-close is to participate in the semi-annual two-day event called Volksmarch. The Volksmarch is a semi-annual hiking event hosted by the American Volkssport Association (AVA) that takes place in the Spring (June 1-2) and the Fall (September 29th). Thousands of hikers flock to the monument to participate in one of the largest volksmarches in the world and it is truly a sight to see. We don’t normally enjoy hiking with a large number of people, but the crowds at Crazy Horse are manageable and not annoying in the way that National Parks can be. 

Admission to the Volksmarch is 3-4 non-perishable canned goods per hiker, as a donation to the local food bank and a $3 hiking fee paid to the AVA Black Hills chapter. Both donations are small and help these organizations in a HUGE way, so we were happy to donate. Don’t pack any water and instead bring some cash in small bills to purchase water, gatorade and snacks from the various organizations fundraising at the 4 checkpoints along the way. The Boy Scouts were marking our tickets and selling goodies and the Custer High School Volleyball team was taking our money for delicious baked goods and gatorade just before the top of the monument. 

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