An inside view of Jewel Cave in South Dakota shows stalactites on the ceiling on a morning spelunking adventure.

Spelunking in South Dakota: The Most Intricate Caves in the U.S.

An inside view of Jewel Cave in South Dakota shows stalactites on the ceiling on a morning spelunking adventure.

Spelunking in South Dakota: The Most Intricate Caves in the U.S.

For your next adventure, head to South Dakota. Take a tour through Jewel Cave, the longest in the U.S., or hit the trails with amazing views of Mt. Rushmore.

Certain parts of South Dakota attract a special brand of tourist: the spelunker, or cave explorer. With intricate cave systems throughout the southwest corner of the state, spelunkers enjoy hours upon hours of exploration and discovery. Some of the most magnificent caves and caverns of South Dakota include Jewel Cave National Monument (with nearly 192 miles of mapped passageways), Wind Cave National Park, Black Hills Caverns, Rushmore Cave, and Wonderland Cave.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Subterranean wonders in the form of dazzling colors and fascinating cave formations await visitors at Jewel Cave National Monument, home to the world’s longest cave, found beneath South Dakota’s Black Hills. Visitors descend 234 feet to the cave by elevator, exploring it via guided tours, with four tour levels offered.

The fence post sign reading: Jewel Cave National Monument sits beneath a cloudy sky on a summer afternoon with tall green trees in the background
Source: it0693.JPG by Mark Goebel used under CC BY 2.0

The cave’s largest room is called ‘The Big Duh,’ measuring 570 feet long, 90 to 180 feet wide, and 30 feet high. The cave’s tallest passage, known as ‘Wall Street’, soars 136 feet high. For travelers who might be feeling a little claustrophobic despite the cave’s high ceilings, guided tours aren’t necessary to trek the park’s hiking trails, which offers different levels of ease.

Rushmore Cave

One-hour scenic walking tours take subterranean explorers through Rush Mountain’s Rushmore Cave, where, through gaps in the cave walls, they can glimpse views of George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s faces carved into Mount Rushmore. Pathways wind through stalactite rooms, including the cave’s Big Room, which features more stalactites than any other cave room in the Black Hills, and the Floral Room, where formations create patterns mirroring the shapes of flowers and leaves.

A view of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s faces on Mount Rushmore through a rock window in Rushmore Cave in South Dakota on a cloudless afternoon.
Source: Inside The Cave by Dave Fulmer used under CC BY 2.0

Wind Cave National Park

Tucked away beneath the South Dakota prairie, formations with evocative names like popcorn, boxwork, and frostwork cover cave walls and ceilings at Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave, the world’s fourth largest cave, gets its name from the cool, forceful barometric winds that blow from its natural entrance and switch directions, blowing in and out. The cave is also famed for its intricate, paper-thin calcite formations known as boxwork or honeycomb. It is believed that less than 10 percent of this intriguing cave has been discovered.

The rocky entrance to a cave at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota awaits to be explored on a spring morning.
Source: Wind cave_DSC5846 by Lodahln used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Black Hills Caverns

The limestone caves of Black Hills Caverns were first discovered by the Lakota Indians and later rediscovered by fortune hunters seeking gold during the late 19th century. The caverns’ fascinating rock formations include rare frost crystal, soda straw stalactites, and nailhead spar crystal. Visitors can choose from two types of tours — a shorter one, the Crystal Tour, remains on the caverns’ first level, while the Adventure Tour takes spelunkers to several levels of the caverns.

Wonderland Cave

In 1929, two loggers stumbled upon Wonderland Cave‘s upper room while looking for a lost dog. Now well-lit paths and stairways lead visitors through the Nemo, South Dakota cave’s impressive variety of formations, including calcite lily pads, column formations, and flowstone. Highlights found within the more than two dozen rooms include the cave’s bird bath formation, a reflecting pool, and a 40-foot-high stalactite wall. Of the many explorers and millions of visitors to Wonderland Cave, no one has found where it culminates yet.

Are you a serious spelunker, smitten with South Dakota’s caves? Share your favorite South Dakota caverns with us on Facebook.