The Caves of South Dakota–Kid-friendly Underground Adventure

 

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, Badlands for kids
Wind Cave National Park offers more than a cave, along the scenic drive the buffalo graze. Photo Credit: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Caves and kids? Yes, my school-age kids love caves and can’t wait to take a wild cave tour. Cave tours offer kids a peak into an underground world where exploration and discoveries still happen daily. Since a large portion of the Wind Cave in South Dakota remains uncharted, my boy’s mind starts to race as he plots to discover the next new passage.

The Black Hills of South Dakota offer two caves within 31 miles of each other, centered around Custer, South Dakota. Cave tours are ideal for school-age kids who can scramble down the dimly-lit passages and not be intimidated by the dark.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Local prospectors discovered Jewel Cave in 1900 after blasting dynamite to enlarge the entrance and discovered a cavern covered with calcite crystals. Proclaimed a national monument in 1908, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) developed the area in the 1930s.

Jewel Cave National Monument Cave Tours

Jewel Cave National Monument offers two basic tours, the Scenic Tour and the Discovery Tour. During our visit, we took the Discovery Tour.

The Scenic Tour, the most popular and strenuous tour, features 732 steps up and down on metal scaffolding. Since kids must navigate the stairs, it’s advised than kids be at least six years old. Kids can’t be carried during the Scenic Tour either.

Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota, Badlands for kids,
Caves fascinate my son and he can’t wait to take a wild cave tour when he’s old enough.

The Discovery Tour offers an introduction to Jewel Cave where visitors climb 15 steps only. The park ranger explains the types of calcite have give Jewel Cave its name and how the cave was formed.

A Candlelight tour and a Wild Cave tour are available at Jewel Cave National Monument. Advance reservations are required for both tours. 

Where’s Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument, located 53 miles southwest of Rapid City, South Dakota, featuring a regional airport with commercial flights. The park is 13 miles west of Custer, South Dakota along South Dakota Highway 16.

Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota,
Inside of Jewel Cave National Monument, kids need to climb up and down 732 steps along metal scaffolding. Jewel Cave’s Scenic Tour isn’t advised for kids under 6.

Getting Around Jewel Cave 

Jewel Cave Visitor Center opens every day from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., mid-March to the end of November and closed on Thanksgiving Day, December 25. Free to enter and contains restrooms and a gift shop.

All cave tours depart from the Jewel Cave Visitor Center. Purchase tour tickets, grab maps, pick up Junior Ranger booklets and use the restrooms since none are located in the cave.

Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park, named after the barometric winds at the entrance of the cave use to predict the weather, features more than a cave. With hiking, camping and a herd of bison, Wind Cave National Park offers a hub for exploring the southern part of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, Badlands for kids,
Wind Cave’s original entrance looks like an animal’s home instead of one the world’s longest caves.

A national park since 1903, a pair of brothers discovered it in 1881 when the wind of the cave blew off their hats. Due to the vastness of Wind Cave, it features its own air pressure system that’s always trying to equal the air pressure on the surface.

With over 100 miles of passageways, portions of Wind Cave still remain uncharted; only 5 percent has been discovered. Wind Cave features exceptional boxwork, popcorn and frostwork, all cave formations, a draw for cave enthusiasts.

Don’t forget to discover the rolling grasslands of Wind Cave National Park. With herds of bison, pronghorns and prairie dog towns, my kids loved driving through the park. Take Highway 87 as an alternative scenic route to-or-from Custer, South Dakota.

Wind Cave National Park Cave Tours

Wind Cave National Park offers three basic tours, Natural Entrance Tour, Fairgrounds Tour and the Garden of Eden Tour. I’ve taken the Fairgrounds Tour and Natural Entrance Tour.

The Fairgrounds Tour, the most strenuous tour, lasts an hour and a half and includes 450 steps. For this tour we rode the elevator down and back up afterwards. My kids, 13, 12 and 8, loved the tour; all ages are welcome as long as they can walk the entire .6-mile route.

Wind Cave National Park,
Wind Cave offers the majority of the world’s box work.

The Natural Entrance Tour, less strenuous, but still features 300 steps, mostly down, and lasts an hour and a quarter and covers a .6-mile route. I entered the cave through a man-made entrance next to the original and rode the elevator out. I enjoyed walking down into the cave as the first explorers did, it added to the feeling of adventure.

The Garden of Eden Tour, the least strenuous tour, offers the best tour for younger children and visitors with health or mobility concerns. This tour uses the elevator to enter and leave the cave. It includes 150 steps covers .3 miles during the one-hour long.

Tickets for the Fairgrounds and Natural Entrance tours are sold first-come, first-serve the day of the tour. Wind Cave offers 26 cave tours daily during the summer season.

A Candlelight Tour or the Wild Cave Tour offer a unique way to discover Wind Cave National Park. Advance reservations are required for both tours. 

South Dakota, Black Hills with kids, Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park,
The Black Hills of South Dakota has two caves within miles of Custer, that offer tours.

Where’s Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park, located 58 miles south of Rapid City, South Dakota, offers a regional airport with commercial flights. The park is 10 miles north of Hot Springs, South Dakota, along U.S. Highway 385 N.

Getting Around Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave Visitor Center opens every day except Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer season. Free to enter and contains restrooms and a gift shop.

All cave tours depart from the Wind Cave Visitor Center. Purchase tour tickets, grab maps, pick up Junior Ranger booklets and use the restrooms since none are located in the cave.

Activities Outside the Caves

Wind Cave National Park offers numerous hiking trails through the prairie and the ponderosa pine. Horse-back riding is permitted, pick up a  permit at the visitor center. I found picnic tables located  a .25 mile from the visitor center.

I found camping at Wind Cave National Park in the Elk Mountain Campground ($18/night). It features 75 sites with fire grills, water and restrooms. Evening campfire programs during the summer.

Jewel Cave National Monument features two self-guided hiking trails.

The Black Hills of South Dakota offers several National Park Service sites, like Badlands National Park, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Mount Rushmore National Memorial,

Kids at Wind Cave and Jewel Cave

Earn a Junior Ranger Badge at Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. And cave tours aren’t required to earn a Junior Ranger Badge but kids need to attend a ranger program.

Know Before You Go:

  • Don’t try to visit both caves on the same day in the summer, tickets sell out for the day’s tours in the morning.
  • Tickets sold first-come, first-serve.
  • Take a jacket for the cave tours, I found temperatures in both caves around 50F.
  • NO Backpacks or purses on the cave tours, leave them in your car.
  • The Fairgrounds Tour at Wind Cave features 450 steps.
  • The Scenic Tour at Jewel Cave features 723 steps on metal scaffolding, kids under 5 are discouraged.
  • No Strollers on the tours in Wind Cave and Jewel Caves.
  • Caves feature dimly-lit and slippery walkways, wear appropriate shoes.
  • Help prevent White-nose Syndrome from spreading, clothes or shoes from other cave visits are prohibited, even if washed.

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