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Caving in South Dakota

Caving in South Dakota
By Candyce H. Stapen

On a caving adventure you discover such subterranean secrets as “curtains” of crystals, vast underground chambers and columns created by the joining of thousands of years-old stalactites and stalagmites. South Dakota’s Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park rate as two of the U.S.’s top caves. Both cater to those in search of a wild spelunking journey as well as a mild walk.

The Jewel Cave National Monument with more than 141 miles of passageways is the world’s second longest cavern. The complex also gains fame for its balloon-like clusters of hydromagnesite, formations documented in only a relatively few of the world’s caves.

On the three to four hour guided spelunking tour, you see hundreds of the hydromagnesite clusters. They shine silvery white in the beam from your helmet, the only illumination. Rarely seen scintillates, chert coated with quartz crystals, glow sparkly red.

To get to these and the other cave delights, you must creep on your belly, crawl on your hands and knees over slick rocks and hoist yourself up a nearly vertical wall by holding onto a line. At one point, the passage narrows to an opening just 24 inches wide and 8 ˝ inches high.

To demonstrate that you can wiggle through the real thing once underground, park rangers require you to squeeze through a similar-size cement practice block before the tour. You must be at least 16-years-old for this reservation-only experience.

If you don’t want to work so hard, you can still enjoy the cave on the 80-minute scenic tour. The half-mile path takes you down 723-steps (about 40 flights of stairs). En route you view the “jewels”-- the dogtooth spar and nail head spar—calcite crystals for which the cave was named.

Wind Cave is the highlight of the 28,000 acres of grassland and pine forest of Wind Cave National Park. With more than 127-miles of known passageways, Wind Cave is often ranked within the top ten of the world’s longest caves. The cave is also celebrated for its abundant boxwork, a series of honeycomb-like formations.

Spelunkers, age 16 and older, can creep and wriggle through Wind Cave’s numerous passages on a four-hour, mostly hands and knees and elbow and belly guided tour. Walkers may choose from a variety of options. On the 60-minute Garden of Eden tour, one of the easiest, step down 150-stairs as you pass the intricate boxwood and other interesting cave formations.

Whatever cave or tour you choose, be sure to wear layers of warm clothing. No matter how mild the weather is above ground, the temperature in the caves hovers around 49-degrees Fahrenheit.

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