What better way to escape the summer heatwave than to explore a cave. But Leah and I were literally at a subterranean crossroad of epic proportions. South Dakota’s Black Hills boast two of the most highly respected holes in the ground anywhere in the world, and we only had time to explore one of them. Would it be Jewel Cave National Monument or Wind Cave National Park? Which cave deserved our business?

The driving distance didn’t matter since only 30 miles separated both locations. But there were other factors to consider when evaluating which cave is the better cave. When it comes to status, Wind Cave wins hands down, since it’s a National Park, and everyone knows that a National Park can’t be Trumped. On the other hand, Jewel Cave is only a National Monument, and monuments can be Zinked at any time.

We had to consider how Jewel Cave’s grand viewing rooms are endowed with a stunning collection of traditional stalactites and stalagmites, while Wind Cave holds 95% of the world’s rare boxwork formations.

As for whether size matters, Jewel Cave ranks third worldwide–four places ahead of Wind Cave at number seven in the world. However, Wind Cave has the most complicated and concentrated matrix of any cave system in the world, with new veins still being tapped.

And then there’s temperature. Jewel’s thermostat is set at 47°F, whereas Wind turns up the dial to 53°F, registering “six degrees of separation”.

And both caves offer an extremely popular assortment of tours that always sell out early on a first come first serve basis.  Such a dilemma!

What’s an amateur spelunker to do?

Social media was consulted in deciding the matter, but there was no clear winner. While Jewel seemed to win the popular vote, Wind was preferred by the experts for its unique characteristics and wall structure. Yet, neither side could come together to form a coalition of consensus or compromise. And whose to say if there was voter tampering, or how many were fake views?

If travel maven and cave cognoscenti couldn’t figure it out, then how were Leah and I going to manage.  We gave consideration to caves previously visited since starting out on our trip: Mammoth Cave in KY, Kickapoo Cave in TX, and Carlsbad Cavern in NM. But in the end, we settled it by tossing a buffalo head nickel. We figured, either way, we couldn’t go wrong, as long as we got there early!

And the winner was tails…

tailsno passing zone

We were on our way to Wind Cave, and time was of the essence, but try explaining that to the road hogs (bison) blocking the road.

As expected, the Visitor Center parking lot was filled to capacity. I dropped Leah at the entrance crosswalk where she made a beeline for the ticket counter–beating out a Medicare couple, an escort pushing a wheelchair, and a busload of boy scouts.

And it paid off. We scooped up the 11:20 am Natural Entrance Tour (shown in red),

map

which officially started at a marked clearing, featuring a hole in the ground the size of a ranger hat. Ranger Lisa demonstrated the barometric possibilities with a yellow ribbon: if pressure rose inside the cave, the ribbon would blow outward from the hole; but if cave pressure was low, the ribbon would be sucked inward–making this a cave that “breathes”.

Ranger Lisa punched her secret code into the keypad, and the steel door buzzed open, like a scene from “Get Smart”. We followed a dimly lit channel of steep stairs that snaked through a claustrophobic passage of popcorn-coated walls,

popcorn.jpg

until we reached the Post Office. I can only surmise that its name comes from the butterfly of boxes stretched across the ceiling…

Room 2 ceiling

with the names of past generations of visitors posted inside the boxes

artifactceiling graffitiwall

We followed Ranger Lisa down another set of meandering stairs along a poured concrete walkway that took Civilian Conservation Corpsmen eight years to complete, hauling inner tubes filled with sixty pounds of wet cement around their necks. We reassembled as a group at Devil’s Lookout to examine a ceiling dominated by intricate boxwork and delicate needle-like growths of calcite called frostwork.

looking up

That’s when Lisa cut power to the lights and the cave went dark. We were instructed in advance to turn off all phones and shutter all cameras. Children with glow shoes were warned to stand still or risk an extra minute of darkness away from mom or dad.

The darkness brought giggles and Halloween howls from some of the kids, but for many it was a minute to imagine what it was like to be led by Alvin McDonald on a candlelight tour during the 1890’s, when it only cost a $1.00 to crawl through the dirt.

The tour concluded in the assembly room with a brief discussion about the geologic timeline–when the cave was born between 40 to 50 million years ago as determined by sedimentary layers of rock pressurized in the cave walls.

collapse

Finally, the fastest elevator in all of South Dakota whisked us to the surface, and the tour was history.

elevator

Dear Trip Adviser, I believe that going to Wind Cave National Park was a good call, ’cause there was lots of really neat stuff on the walls and ceiling, and especially ’cause I got to pinch Leah’s ass when the lights went out.

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