Travel – Wind Cave and Jewel Cave


Our family loves visiting caves – we’ve been to several across the United States!  When we visit South Dakota back in 2004 we were excited to visit not one, but two caves.

Wind Cave National Park

Established in 1903, Wind Cave National Park is located 11 miles north of Hot Springs, South Dakota and was the first cave to be designated as a national park.  Wind Cave has the sixth longest cave system in the world with almost 140 miles of explored cave passageways, on the average four new miles of cave passageways are being discovered each year.  Wind Cave is known for a rare calcite formation known as boxwork.

The Lakota Native Americans that lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota had known for centuries about the unique cave that blew air out of a hole in the ground.  They consider the site scared and an old legend explains that they believe it was the place where they first emerged from the underworld where they lived before the creation of the world.  In 1881, the first documented “discovery” of the cave was by two brothers, Tom and Jesse Bingham.  The story is that they heard the wind blowing out of a 10×14 inch hole in the ground, and when Tom looked into the hole, the wind was blowing with such a powerful force that his hat blew off his head.  When Jesse returned a few days later to show some friends, he looked into the hole, found that the wind had changed directions and his hat was blown into the cave.


This unusual phenomenon of a cave that “breathes” is created by the atmospheric equalizing pressure of the air both in and outside the cave.  Rapid weather changes accompanied by rapid barometric changes are common in this area of South Dakota.  When the air pressure inside the cave is higher than the outside, the air flows out.  When the air pressure outside the cave is lower than the outside, the air flows in.  This phenomenon in smaller caves with several large openings will go unnoticed, but Wind Cave is a large cave with very few openings and that is why the “breathing” of the cave is so obvious. It is possible on the day the Bingham brothers were at the site, a storm was approaching and the atmospheric pressure would have been dropping fast outside the cave causing the cave’s higher air pressure to rush out of the cave opening creating the wind, hence the name of Wind Cave.


As previously mentioned, Wind Cave National Park is known for a rare calcite formation known as boxwork.  Boxwork is an uncommon mineral formation formed by erosion rather than water evaporation.  As the walls of the cave begin to erode, the most resistant veins form thin blades of calcite that emerge from cave walls or ceilings intersecting at various angles which form honeycomb or box-like patterns.  95% of the boxwood formations in the world are found in Wind Cave.

In 1890, the South Dakota Mining Company took control of the Wind Cave site hoping to find valuable minerals, after a brief time the mining proved unsuccessful and no substantial and profitable minerals were found.  Then, a local family, the McDonalds, began to develop the cave for tourism.  In 1892 the cave was opened for visitors, the tour fee was $1 which was a very significant amount for that time.  The guides would take the tourist down into the cave and explore by candlelight but these early tours were very physically demanding and the tourists sometimes had to crawl through very narrow passages.  Eventually the cave passages were widened, wooden staircases were added and a hotel was built near the entrance to the cave.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill creating the Wind Cave National Park.  The surrounding area above Wind Cave proved to be an excellent prairie habitat and in 1912 a national game preserve was established and fourteen bison, 21 elk and 13 pronghorn sheep were transferred from other areas of the country.  The interest in the cave and the wildlife attracted an increasing number of visitors to the park and in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) made major improvements to the cave system by adding concrete walkways, stairs and an elevator, roads and other building structures were also built in the area.


Today the Wind Cave National Park’s mission is to preserve and protect the natural resources of the 33,851 acre park.  In the process of exploring additional areas of the cave system, park management has concluded that the cave is not an isolated environment.  What happens above on the land in the surrounding area can greatly influence the cave and the way it continues to form, an example is that if the topography of the land is altered even slightly it might change the flow of water through the cave which will change the cave formations.

The Wind Cave Visitor Center is opened year round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  During the summer months, the visitor hours are expanded.  All cave tours are ranger guided and there are several different types of tours that explore various parts of Wind Cave.  Tickets are available at the visitor center and during the summer months there can be long lines and wait times, to avoid this inconvenience arrive early in the day to purchase tickets.  Time can be spent waiting for a tour to start by a visit to the Visitor Center, there are many exhibits concerning the process of the cave formations, discovery and exploration of the cave and an 18-minute movie, “Wind Cave: One Park, Two Worlds” which is shown several times throughout the day.

For additional information regarding hours, available tours and prices please see the Wind Cave National Park page at the National Park Service website at

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument is located 13 miles west of Custer, South Dakota and it is currently the third longest cave system in the world with over 166 miles of explored cave passageway.  Jewel Cave was formed when the limestone in the cave was gradually dissolved by water, the water served to enlarge the cracks that were formed when the Black Hills were formed approximately 60 million years ago.  When the water that created the cave drained, the calcite formations started to form on the walls and ceilings of the cave, such as stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and frostwork.



In 1900, Frank and Albert Michaud filed a mining claim and the brothers found a very small cave entrance, the hole was too small to get through and was enlarged several dynamite charges.  When they finally entered the cave, cave passages with very low ceilings were covered with beautiful calcite crystal formations that sparkled like jewel by their lantern lights, hence the name of Jewel Cave.

When the calcite crystals proved to have little commercial value, it became apparent to the mining company that the cave was a great natural wonder and they turned their attention to creating to creating a business venture that would profit instead by making it into a tourist attraction.  Over the next ten years, a wooden trail was constructed inside the cave and a hotel was built nearby.  Unfortunately, few people visited this area of the Black Hills of South Dakota.  (remember this was long before Mount Rushmore was built)

Eventually the hotel closed and they Michaud family sold the claim to the federal government for $750.  Meanwhile, a local organization was working to having the cave protected from further development and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation naming the Jewel Cave National Monument.  In 1933, the National Park Service began administering the monument in 1933 and park rangers from the nearby Wind Cave would lead cave tours during the summer months.  In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) made major improvements to the cave system by adding concrete walkways and stairs, improved roads and a public campground were also built in the area.

As of 1959, less than 2 miles of cave passageway were discovered.   Then, in 1961, a geologist named Dwight Deal hired a husband and wife team, Herb and Jan Conn, with the specific purpose of exploring and mapping out new sections of the cave.  With the discovery of the “Scenic Area” of the cave and an additional 15 miles of cave passageways mapped, the National Park Service became very interested in developing more tour routes for public and the original boundaries of Jewel Cave were expanded.  As a result, more cave passageways were explored, the cave tour routes was extended and additional ones were added.  Further trail improvements were made to the existing walkways, new ones were built, an elevator was installed and a visitor center was built.  Exploration continues today and more information has been discovered regarding cave formations and efforts are being made to preserve and protect this natural wonder.


Jewel Cave is open year round, expect for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  The National Park Service offers three different ranger-guided tours: the scenic tour, the historic tour and a special spelunking tour through an undeveloped section of the cave.  Tickets are available at the visitor center and during the summer months there can be long lines and wait times, to avoid this inconvenience arrive early in the day to purchase tickets.

For additional information regarding hours, available tours and prices please see the Jewel Cave National Monument page at the National Park Service website at

Travel – Mammoth Site, SD


When we were planning a trip to South Dakota in 2004 and looking for things to do in the area, I found the Mammoth Site located in Hot Springs, SD.  I thought this would make a great place to visit and it was located near our hotel at the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park.  (Please check out last month’s Travel post, Custer State Park, for more information)

The Mammoth Site is located in Hot Springs, SD and it the world’s largest mammoth research facility.  A building and museum are built over the site of a massive sinkhole where a vast collection of preserved mammoth bones from the Pleistocene era were found in 1974.  The exciting part is that research and excavation at the site is still ongoing by a team of paleontologists and volunteers.


About 26,000 years ago there was a large cavern located in this area of South Dakota that collapsed.  The result was a deep-sided sinkhole which was about 65 feet deep and 120 by 150 feet wide.  A pond formed which attracted the wildlife in the area that came to feed on the plants and drink the water; among those animals were the Colombian Mammoths.  The animals that ventured too far into the deep pond where unable to escape the steep sides and died.  Then, over the next 350 to 700 years the pond filled with sediments.  The remains of these animals found at the site are technically not fossils since they were not mineralized but preserved by the clay and sand.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1974, during construction of a housing development for a subdivision in the area, a worker with earth-moving equipment exposed the bones.  Someone recognized a mammoth tooth and construction at the site completely stopped.  Professional paleontologists were called in for further investigation and a complete mammoth skull and tusk were also found.  Donations led to building over the site to protect and allow the additional work to be done in a climate controlled environment and the site was designated in 1980 as a National Natural Landmark.  Run by a non-profit organization, the ongoing excavations are staffed by scientists from around the world and volunteers with an adjacent museum open to the public.  The bones and other fossils found are identified, numbered, cataloged and preserved with almost all remaining “in-situ”, which means that they remain where they are found in the sinkhole and not removed.  As of 2012, at least 60 mammoths have been identified with the majority being Colombian Mammoths but three Wooly Mammoths have also been found which marks the first time both species have been found in the same area.  Over the years researchers have determined by measuring the pelvis bones that most of the mammoths are young males.  The hypothesis is that based on the observations of current matriarchal elephant groups in which competing males can be frequently expelled from a group, these young mammoths were likely to be involved in taking risks and this behavior led to their entrapment in the ancient pond.

The Mammoth Site is open year-round and most visitors begin with a 30 minute guided tour.  After the tour, visitors can walk along area on the sidewalks located above the dig area.  This is very exciting because you get to see exactly where the bones were found.  The other areas in the museum include several exhibits and a window view into a working paleontology laboratory in the Ice Age Exhibit Hall.  There are also numerous films in the theater which cover the geology and history of the Mammoth Site and the people and animals that lived here during the Ice Age.  When we visited, our daughter was pre-school age and her attention span was very short.  We highly recommend a visit with school-age or older children, especially boys will love the Mammoth site.  We would suggest that you allow at least an hour or two to tour the site and see the exhibits and films.

Please check ahead for further information on hours and prices at the Mammoth Site website,


The Black Hills of South Dakota has so many historic places to visit and the scenery is absolutely beautiful in this area of the United States.   When we visited in 2004, we stayed for a week because there was so much to see and do.  Custer State Park was our “home base” with daily trips to see several nearby attractions.  Please see last month’s Travel post, Custer State Park, and this month’s posts on Mount Rushmore & Crazy Horse, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave for reports on the other sites to see in Black Hills of South Dakota.



Travel – Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse

Mount Rushmore 2004 1    Crazy Horse 3

Both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are located less than 20 miles from each other in the Black Hills of South Dakota and both of these monuments have many similarities but also there are some distinct differences.  Both monuments honor our American history, Mount Rushmore is carved with the faces of four very recognizable U.S. presidents while the Crazy Horse monument honors a Native American Lakota chief who is largely unknown with no photographic evidence of what he looked like.  Both monuments were carved into the mountains of the Black Hills over a long period of time; Mount Rushmore was carved in fifteen years while the work on Crazy horse was started in 1948 and is still a work in progress and far from completion. Mount Rushmore was built using Federal funds and the Crazy Horse monument is being built with funds generated from tourism revenues and donations.

Both sculptors of these iconic monuments were born to immigrant parents, both carved the mountains in the Black Hills to honor our American history and both died before the projects were completed and the work was taken over their children.  Mount Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was the son of Danish immigrants, grew-up in a Mormon household and later became involved with the Ku Klux Klan.  The sculptor of Crazy Horse, Korczak Ziolkowski, was the son of Polish immigrants and he originally came to South Dakota to work with Borglum on Mount Rushmore but soon quit when there were disagreements between the two men and Ziolkowski left to serve in World War II.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we visited Mount Rushmore in 2004, there was a book signing event for one of the last surviving workers, Don “Nick” Clifford, on the day we were there.  We had the opportunity to meet him and have an interesting conversation about his experiences back in the late 1930s carving Mount Rushmore.  Then the next day, when we arrived at the Crazy Horse Monument they were still actively blasting the mountain!  It was very exciting and we were able to take a short bus ride up to the base of the mountain.  Our personal opinion is that Mount Rushmore, while being extremely patriotic, had an atmosphere that was very commercial while the Crazy Horse monument seemed to have a purpose of using their revenue to provide scholarships to the Native Americans.  Both are very iconic monuments carved into the Black Hills that teach important cultural as well as historical lessons of our country and are definitely worth a visit to South Dakota.

Mount Rushmore 2004 2   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is carved from a mountain known by the Lakota Native Americans as the Six Grandfathers.  This area of the Black Hills of South Dakota was perpetually granted to the Lakota Native Americans with an 1868 treaty guaranteed by the U.S. government but when gold was found in the area in 1874 the land was seized and the Lakota were forced to relocate elsewhere. In 1923, the idea for the Mount Rushmore project was originally conceived by a local historian as a way to increase tourism to the area.  After securing federal funding, construction on the memorial began in 1927, and the presidents’ faces were completed between 1934 and 1939.  Gutzon Borglum, a prominent sculptor, led a team of 400 workers between 1927 and 1941 who carved the granite mountain using dynamite and hand tools. The work was extremely difficult and dangerous, the wages were low and employment was uncertain but astonishingly there were no worker fatalities.

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial covers over 1,278 acres and is 5,725 feet above sea level.  The 60 foot high carvings of the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt represents the first 150 years of American history.  In 1933, while the memorial was still under construction, the U.S. National Park Service took control of the memorial.  Upon Gutzon Borglum’s death in March 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum took over the construction team. Although the initial concept for Mount Rushmore was to depict each of the four presidents from their head to waist, with the U.S. involvement in World War II and lacking the funds to complete the project the construction was forced to end in late October 1941 with only the heads being carved.  In 1966, Mount Rushmore was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1991, President George Bush officially dedicated Mount Rushmore and currently the monument attracts nearly three million visitors annually.


Mount Rushmore trivia and interesting facts

  • The Lakota, called the mountain the Six Grandfathers, but officially in 1885 it became known as Mount Rushmore and was named after New York attorney Charles Rushmore who came to this area of South Dakota to check on the legal titles of properties located in the Black Hills.
  • About 90% of the mountain was carved by dynamite blasts and 450,000 tons of granite was removed from the mountain to carve the four Presidents.  Geologists have estimated that the granite will erode at a rate of only one inch every 10,000 years.  Currently, maintenance teams use silicone sealant to fill any cracks in the faces on Mount Rushmore.
  • The nose on George Washington is longer than the other three, it measures 21 feet and the others measure 20 feet.  Thomas Jefferson was originally intended to be on the right side of Washington but after 18 months of work the granite was deemed unsuitable and was blasted off the mountain and work was restarted on the left side.
  • Borglum had originally planned a large room within the mountain to hold the documents and artifacts that shaped the history of America.  Construction of the Hall of records started in 1938 and by 1939 a 70 foot tunnel was blasted into the mountain.  In 1941, with Borglum’s death and World War II, all work on the memorial including the hall stopped and idea was eventually abandoned.  Then recently in 1998, a teakwood box inside a titanium vault covered by a granite capstone was placed on the floor of the entry hall.  Inside were sixteen porcelain enamel panels, inscribed on the panels are the story of Mount Rushmore explaining why and how it was carved, why these four Presidents were chosen and their biographies, the text of the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution, and a brief history of the United States to be preserved for the future generations.
  • The Avenue of Flags was established during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial.  There are 56 flags that represent the 50 states, the Washington D.C. district, three U.S. territories and two commonwealths.  The flags are arranged in alphabetical order, if you cannot locate your state’s flag just ask a park ranger for assistance.
  • Mount Rushmore has been used as the location of several movies, including the dramatic chase scene in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie “North by Northwest”.  Recently, the monument was used in the 2004 movie, “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”.  According to the fictitious plot, the monument was constructed to hide the City of Gold.

Crazy Horse 1

Crazy Horse Monument

Crazy Horse was a Lakota chief who defeated General Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.  He never signed a treaty with the U.S. government, never learned English and when the other Native Americans were forced onto reservations he never left his home on the Plains.  The Crazy Horse monument is being carved out the Thunderhead Mountain on land that is sacred to the Lakota and honors the famous chief Crazy Horse and also the culture and traditions of the Native Americans.  Originally the monument was commissioned in 1929 at the request of Chief Standing Bear to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski.  In his letter to the sculptor Ziolkowski, Chief Standing Bear said that in response to the carving of Mount Rushmore the Lakota would like “the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too”.

When looking for an area to start the massive project, Ziolkowski briefly consider a location in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, but Chief Standing Bear was determined that the monument should be built in the Black Hills of South Dakota, an area which is very important to the Lakota.  Before Ziolkowski started work on the project the federal government offered $10 million in funding but he turned it down stating that he feared his ambitious plans for an educational and cultural center adjacent to the memorial would be rejected if the federal government was involved in the process.


The Crazy Horse monument was blasting was started in 1948 by Ziolkowski, his wife and seven of their ten children.  The memorial will show Crazy Horse sitting on his horse with his arm outstretched and pointing to the land of the Lakota and when completed it will have the final dimensions of 641 feet wide by 563 feet high.  But Ziolkowski did not live to see the memorial’s competition and died in 1982, since that time work has been continued by the Ziolkowski family.  The head of Crazy Horse was completed in 1998 and is 87 feet high as compared with Mount Rushmore and the heads of the four U.S. Presidents which are each 60 feet high.  When the horse’s head is completed it will be 219 feet high.   Since financing of the project is uncertain and because of the challenges associated with the mountain’s carving, no completion date has been estimated for the Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is visited by more than one million people annually.  The visitor complex currently consists of the monument, the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center and is run by the private non-profit organization, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, and receives no federal or state funding.  Eventually, the Crazy Horse memorial will be the centerpiece to a Native American educational and cultural center.  The University and Medical Training Center for the North American Indian will eventually be a satellite campus of the University of South Dakota and will have educational classrooms and a residence hall.  In 2007, T. Denny Sanford made a $2.5 million donation with an additional $5 million paid over a five year period.  In 2010, Paul and Donna Christen announce an additional $5 million donation paid as an endowment to support the operation of the campus and the memorial is also funded by the tourist revenue from admission fees and gift store purchases.  Since 1978, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation has awarded more than $1.2 million in scholarships going to Native American students with South Dakota.


Interesting facts about the Crazy Horse Memorial

  • The Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation sponsors many Native American cultural events and educational programs. Each June, the memorial hosts a Volksmarch festival when visitors are permitted onto the mountain and attendance has grown to be over 15,000.
  • Much of the earth-moving equipment used on carving the Crazy Horse monument is donated by corporations with the work primarily supported by visitor fees and gift shop revenues.  Periodically the memorial publicizes blasting events, which attract thousands of people from all over the region. They may wait for hours but can see numerous detonations as rocks and dust are blow from the mountain.  The visitor center contains many pieces of rocks blasted from the mountain and the rocks are available for a small donation.  (My husband, the “Rock Guy”, was very excited about gathering his Crazy Horse rocks and we took several home as souvenirs of our visit!)

The Black Hills of South Dakota has so many historic places to visit and the scenery is absolutely beautiful in this area of the United States.   When we visited in 2004, we stayed for a week because there was so much to see and do.  Custer State Park was our “home base” with daily trips to see several nearby attractions.  Please see last month’s Travel post, Custer State Park, and this month’s posts on Mammoth Site, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave for reports on the other sites to see in Black Hills of South Dakota.