Planning a trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota?
It's one of my favorite destinations for families in the United States. And Jewel Cave National Monument is one of my favorite places to visit in the Black Hills. My family has visited Jewel Cave twice, several years apart.
Ranger-led tours are the only way you can visit Jewel Cave. These tours are popular – especially during the summer – so it's a good idea to make reservations online. Several tours are offered at Jewel Cave, but the Scenic Tour is the most popular.
Need a place to stay? The town of Custer is the most central to both caves and we stayed in a great VRBO cabin there. Rapid City is not as close, but with lots of hotels to choose from, it makes a good base for a Black Hills trip.
My family successfully got same-day Jewel Cave tour tickets during our 2018 family reunion in the Black Hills. You can also reserve tickets online. Here are my tips for getting tickets, and making the most of your Jewel Cave tour.
Jewel Cave opens about half of its Scenic Tour times for online reservations. Reservations close 72 hours before the tour, to create more opportunities for the many walk-up visitors who come to Jewel Cave. The ranger told me that many people are confused by the 72-hour rule.
Online reservations are the most convenient, guaranteed way to get Jewel Cave tickets for the time you want. Just be sure to book at least three days in advance. Book farther in advance for best availability – up to 30 days. Otherwise, you'll need to use the same-day method.
Arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your tour. There is no way to catch up with your group once the tour has started and there are no refunds for missed tours.
Get tickets online at recreation.gov.
You can get tickets for Jewel Cave tours on a first come, first served basis on the day of your tour. During the busy summer season, tickets often sell out by noon. We were there the first week of July, and tickets sold out around 10 AM. Our group arrived early – around 8 AM – and were able to get tickets for a mid-morning tour.
There are several ways to fill the time between purchasing your tickets, and your tour, if needed.
- There is a small museum with some good interactive exhibits inside the Visitor Center.
- The Junior Ranger program is available for kids ages 5-12.
- There is a short nature trail near the visitor center.
- Buy playing cards at the visitor center, and play card games while you wait.
The weather inside Jewel Cave is always the same – cool and dry. Same-day tickets may be a good option if you see rain or snow in the forecast.
Jewel Cave is much less crowded during the fall, winter, and spring. However, fewer tours are offered during these slower seasons. Visit the Operating Hours and Seasons page at the Jewel Cave official website to get complete tour schedules for the year.
More Tips for Your Tour
Wear sturdy shoes – Sandals, flip-flops and other loose shoes are not allowed inside Jewel Cave. My kids showed up in flip-flops and we had to drive 20 minutes both ways to change their shoes before our tour.
Wear a jacket – The weather inside Jewel Cave is always 49 degrees F (9 C). It's just right with a jacket or hoodie, but chilly without.
White Nose Syndrome – If you have visited other caves, don't wear the same shoes or clothing to Jewel Cave. They could transmit White Nose Syndrome to the bats in Jewel Cave. If you're squeamish about bats, don't worry. I saw no bats on either of our Jewel Cave tours.
Pack light – Backpacks, water bottles, snacks, tripods, selfie sticks, strollers, etc are not allowed in Jewel Cave. The minerals and formations inside the cave are delicate. Lock everything in your car except your camera.
Use the restroom – Have everyone in your family use the bathroom right before your tour. There is no bathroom inside the cave. We took the Scenic Tour when my son was four years old. He went before the tour but had to go again during the tour. The ranger handed my husband a special bag and said, “I carry it in. You carry it out.”
Age limits – The official website recommends the Discovery Tour for families with very young children. However, front carriers for infants and toddlers are OK on the Scenic Tour. Kids who will walk need to be able to navigate the 700+ stairs unassisted, with the group. My kids were ages 4 and 7 the first time we did this tour, and they did well. I wouldn't recommend it for kids who are much younger.
Be the caboose – The ranger will ask for a volunteer to stay at the back of the group for the whole tour to make sure nobody is left behind. I volunteered on our recent tour because it meant that I could take the stairs at my own speed (slowly), and take plenty of photos without anyone photobombing or having to wait for me. If your kids don't need all your attention, and you don't want to ask the ranger many questions, it's a good job.
My family enjoyed our Jewel Cave tour. My kids especially enjoyed going with their grandpa and cousins. If you enjoy cave tours – or are looking for an exciting first cave tour for your family – Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills is a good choice.
Good to Know
Where: About 13 miles west of Custer, South Dakota on Highway 16. About 54 miles from Rapid City. This is a mountainous area, with winding roads and busy traffic during peak season. Travel time may take longer than you expect.
When: Jewel Cave National Monument is open all year, but is busiest in the summer months. More tours are offered during peak season.
How Much: Prices vary, depending on the tour. For the popular Scenic Tour, prices are $12 per adult (age 17+) and $8 per child (age 6-16). Kids under age 6 are free, but must be able to navigate 700+ stairs unassisted, or be carried in a front child carrier.
How Long: 2+ hours. The Scenic Tour is 1.5 hours, plus time for the visitor center and nature trail.
Amenities: Visitor Center, gift shop, restrooms. There is no food service at Jewel Cave National Monument.
- Official Website – https://www.nps.gov/jeca
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