Lisa Brainard: ‘Get down’ with special cave events in the Black Hills

PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM Jewel Cave is having its Scenic Tour route updated.

PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM A drone is used in recording scenery in Jewel Cave.

PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM Two cave explorers are in a long passageway deep in Wind Cave.
By : 
Lisa Brainard
Journey vs Destination

We are all about caves and karst topography here in southeastern Minnesota. Another area graced with caves is the Black Hills of South Dakota. Big things are happening there with two caves contained in units of the National Park Service (NPS). They are Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park, near the towns of Custer and Hot Springs, respectively.

Both caves have been closed to commercial group tours to some extent this year. Jewel Cave looks to remain closed for most tours into 2020 for work including elevator and tour route improvements. Wind Cave is looking to reopen in November after elevator updates.

Jewel Cave

A new film of the cave – and a new theater where it will play – will soon be officially introduced at Jewel Cave National Monument. In fact, there will be a ribbon cutting and open house Saturday, Oct. 19, from 1 to 3 p.m., to highlight the new film and theater.

Aperture Films and Harpers Ferry Center completed the park film in July and provided the final production to Jewel Cave National Monument for immediate showing. But, due to some lighting issues within the new theater, the monument “held off” on the release. However, when the elevators went offline in early August, the new park film started showing – using hands-on volunteer assistance to handle the lighting needs.

The new park film showcases some incredible scenery inside Jewel Cave, as well as on the surface of the monument. Most noted is the fact that the park film includes drone footage from inside the cave. That’s a first for cave-related parks in the National Park Service.

Overall, it’s been shared that visitor comments and feedback have been very positive, with many guests asking about a sales copy. The Black Hills Parks & Forest (BHPF) tourism organization is currently working on this product and expects to have the park film available for sale soon in the park store.

Jewel Cave National Monument will temporarily suspend ranger-guided cave tours from October until early May 2020 in order to make necessary improvements along the popular Scenic Tour route. The visitor center, park store, and surface trails will remain open during the closure.

“The cave construction project recently entered Phase II, and multiple crews will be working inside the cave through early May of next year,” said Michelle Wheatley, superintendent of Jewel Cave. “Phase II of the construction project will continue to address safety concerns and improvements along the Scenic Tour route.”

Work includes the removal of existing sidewalks, stair treads, guardrail and handrails, installation of new guardrails and handrails, stair treads, concrete sidewalks, lighting upgrades and other improvements throughout the Scenic Tour route. The monument selected the off-season for the project, due to minimal visitation; fewer visitors will be impacted during the winter months.

For more information on the cave closure, call the visitor center at 605-673-8300. For additional information about off-season programs and services at the monument, visit Jewel Cave online at

Wind Cave

Currently the seventh longest cave in the world, Wind Cave passed the 150-mile mark of explored passages earlier this year. This milestone will be celebrated Saturday, Nov. 2, with special programs and tours.

Talks will be presented throughout the day by past explorers telling the story of the cave’s exploration. These talks are free and given in the park’s visitor center auditorium beginning at 8:30 a.m. The last talk will begin at 3 p.m. A tracing of the map of the cave’s first systematic explorer, Alvin McDonald, will also be displayed at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Extra cave tours will be offered, including trips through the Blue Grotto, an area seldom seen. The BHPFA will have lunch available for purchase.

The event will conclude with a banquet at the Mueller Civic Center in Hot Springs. The keynote speaker is Rachel (Cox) Tso. As an 18-year old National Outdoor Leadership Student (NOLS) in 1989, she was lost in the cave for 36 hours, generating the largest search and rescue effort in the park’s history. She will tell her story and how the experience changed her life.

“This is a great opportunity to meet and listen to some of our cave explorers tell their stories of exploration,” said Park Superintendent Vidal Dávila. “Rachel Cox’s name is well known in the Wind Cave caving community, and we’re looking forward to hearing from her about her experience.”

For a full schedule of events, and to purchase tickets for the special tours or for the banquet, visit and click on the Wind Cave partner tab, or call 605-745-7020. Reservations for dinner can be made through Oct. 27 and cost $30 for adults.

Lisa Brainard still enjoys lifelong pursuits of the outdoors, history and travel as able following a serious accident and stroke in September 2012. She’s written this Journey vs. Destination column weekly for over 15 years.