It had taken us about an hour and a half drive to reach the Jewel Cave National Monument Visitor Center from Rapid City. We arrived four minutes before the 12:40 walking tour of the cave, determined to get our spot on the earliest tour possible so we could spend the rest of the day exploring the Black Hills. The parking lot was almost empty except for a hoard of 15 tourists clambering out of two cars just ahead of us. I turned to John and said, “We got to get to the line first. There’s no way I’m going on a tour with all of them,” gesturing toward the cacophony emanating from the other side of the lot.
I grabbed my coat and made a beeline toward the visitor center. As I approached the ticket booth, I hastily withdrew my card from my pocket and asked for two tickets on the 12:40 tour.
“I’m sorry, that tour is now closed,” the ranger informed me. “The next tour is in forty minutes and you have to show up ten minutes early for a quick briefing.”
“And how many people are usually on a tour?” I asked in the hopes of avoiding the obnoxious group now approaching the booth. The man behind the counter immediately sensed my intention of the question and told me that there were two different tours and that usually larger groups take the shorter, less exhaustive of the two. He handed me two tickets for the longer walking tour of Jewel Cave and sent John and I on our way inside the visitor center.
We milled about the modest visitor center for half an hour reading various brochures and plaques regarding the history of the National Monument. When the time came, we gathered with our small group outside the elevator waiting for our tour guide. Void of the abhorrent chatter, I figured the tourists had indeed taken the shorter of the two tours. Thank you, Baby Jesus.
A slender, upright woman in the unmistakable green park ranger suit approached and cheerily informed us that her name was Dorothy and she would be our guide today. Dorothy was about 60 and had been doing tours of Jewel Cave for years. She encouraged us to ask questions and made sure to add that if she didn’t know the answer she would say so and look it up after the tour. She was smart, professional, excited to teach, and equally eager to learn – the perfect parks guide.
As we piled into the elevator, John shifted his eyes around looking increasingly uncomfortable. I later found out that he was seconds away from asking to be let out, a direct effect of his relatively newfound claustrophobia. When we reached the bottom of the elevator over 200 feet below the surface and walked into an open room, I could see the tension in his stance start to fade.
The room was enormous and sprawling in all directions. A metal platform created a level floor to the area with a walkway plunging deeper into the cave. Having been on a few cave tours before, I felt the familiar cool, damp air and still silence around me.
Dorothy proceeded to lead us on a winding path of stairways and tunnels through the cavern. She told us all about the cave ranging from stories of the original owners and the acquiring by the federal government to the monstrous ongoing effort of charting the extent of its depths. Due to continuous explorations of the cave by volunteers and parks service employees, Jewel Cave has become the third longest mapped cave system in the world. At 180 miles in total length (so far), it is bested only by Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and two caves that were recently discovered to be joined in Mexico.
After almost two hours of wandering through a half-mile loop, we reached another expansive room where a set of elevators brought us back up to the surface. We thanked Dorothy for her stellar performance as our tour guide and headed back out to the car.
We elected to take a different route on the way home and turned off onto the Needles Highway, a National Scenic Byway carving through Custer State Park. The road wound up switchbacks and around hills until we reached Needles Eye Tunnel, a well-known section of the route near the highest point on the highway. In 1922, a tunnel had been carved out of sheer granite just large enough for cars to drive through one by one. When I first looked at the tunnel, it didn’t seem large enough for my car to fit even though apparently a tour bus has made it through with just inches to spare.
The rest of the route was pretty akin to most scenic byways in that it was indeed quite scenic and a bit out of the way. We cruised past soaring spires of rock and through dark, wooded forests of pine.
As the elevation dropped and the road began to flatten out, deciduous trees shrouded us in layers of gold and orange. I felt as if we were in a movie speeding down an empty mountain road: leaves falling on the windshield, deer craning their necks as we sped past. If you ever find yourself in western South Dakota during the fall, take a drive through the Needles Highway as the leaves change. You will not be disappointed.
Low on gas and completely lost, the road eventually spat us out in a small town just east of the Black Hills. We turned onto Highway 79 and headed north back toward Rapid City. Dinner was approaching and we had only eaten bananas and nuts since breakfast. After having such a wonderful day exploring fabled caves and driving impossibly wild and winding roads, we pulled into town and met up with Sarah, who had been in class since 8 that morning.
“How was it?”
“It was amazing, how was your day?”
“Well, I was in class so…”
“Good point. We’re hungry,” John shrugged.
“How ‘bout Indian food?”
We found ourselves later that night discussing the unexpected cave in the middle of the mountains over cups of chai tea. With a basket of naan bread between us, we reminisced about our meandering highway journey. We were in the heart of the Great American West yet dining in the East. This idea that we could be in such a wild, unique place one moment and back home in comfort the next struck me later on as quite fantastic.
We are incredibly fortunate to be able to explore something so raw and mysterious as Jewel Cave or a modern marvel like the Needles Highway and end the day on our couches or in a tiny Indian restaurant downtown. It is amazing, truly awesome, that we have access to such an array of history and culture and activities and environments all at the tips of our fingers. Yet, millions of people take it for granted and don’t even consider visiting these parks or monuments that are right in their backyard.
A painting shoved in a closet. A door closed behind a child playing piano. A window curtained because the sun is too bright. A sprawling landscape ignored because there are errands to run and the kids have homework and it costs money to get in and the drive is just too long.
Inconvenience is a funny reason to ignore such beauty.
Perhaps those obnoxious tourists at the caves weren’t the ones that I should have been bothered by. They were out there enjoying what the earth had created and the Parks Service protected. Perhaps those were the people that actually got it right.