This is a tough choice!
Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park sprawl for miles beneath the Black Hills of South Dakota. Though within a few miles of each other, they are different experiences. One or both caves are a great addition to any Black Hills itinerary.
Do you love caves? If so, there's an easy answer: SEE BOTH!
If lack of time or other circumstances force you to choose one, here are the differences between the two to help you decide.
We entered Jewel Cave by an elevator that dropped us deep into the earth and from there, exited onto a metal platform in a spacious cavern. True to its name, the walls of Jewel Cave sparkle.
Jewel Cave also has a nice collection of one of my favorite features: Cave Bacon! If you haven't seen it, cave bacon is a translucent ribbon of minerals growing from the walls of the cave. The variation in color looks a lot like bacon fat. Cave Popcorn follows the same logic and can also be found in Jewel Cave.
If that makes you feel hungry, get a snack before the tour because there is no food or drink allowed in these delicate caves. Just touching the walls can damage them and stop the natural processes that make these caves beautiful and unique.
There are no bathrooms in the caves. We knew this and made sure the whole family answered the call of nature beforehand, but our four-year-old still announced fifteen minutes into the eighty-minute tour that he had to go. He had to hold it.
A while later, the ranger guide approached us and whispered that she had noticed the potty dance and had a special bag for such emergencies. She handed it to my husband and said, “I carry it in. You carry it out.” He and our son hung back far enough to take care of the situation privately and he did carry the bag for the rest of the tour.
Outside of Jewel Cave there is a small visitor center where you can stand on the patio and appreciate the view of the forested hills. There are some hiking trails that start from the visitor center as well.
There is no fee to enter the monument, but there is a per-person fee for the cave tour. There are several different tours with different lengths and fees. We took the Scenic Tour.
Children under age 6 are free, and I was glad that my kids were both old enough to walk it on their own. There are many stairs, but they mostly go down and there are frequent opportunities to stop and listen to the ranger. Our four-year-old was fine.
There is a free Junior Ranger program for children. Pick up the information at the ranger desk before the tour to earn a souvenir badge at the end.
We did not originally plan to see Wind Cave, but pouring rain changed our plans. The weather is always the same in a cave! We enjoyed our tour of Wind Cave just as much as Jewel Cave, and were not able to choose a favorite.
We took the Natural Entrance Tour at Wind Cave, so instead of taking an elevator down we walked in at ground level and walked down stairs into the depths of the cave. After walking mostly down for the duration of the tour, we exited the cave by elevator into the visitor center.
Though we were much closer to the surface, Wind Cave felt smaller than Jewel Cave. The caverns were not nearly as spacious. The colors were different and so were the features.
Wind Cave has one of the best collections of boxwork formations – crisscrossed lines of minerals sticking out from the ceilings and walls – in the world.
Wind Cave is a national park instead of a national monument because it also protects an abundance of wildlife and beautiful scenery above ground. It borders Custer State Park.
We saw a herd of bison on our drive to the visitor center. There are also elk, prairie dogs and other wildlife. There are hiking trails and campgrounds. The visitor center is larger than at Jewel Cave and features more exhibits.
Children under age 6 free, but I recommend only taking young children who can walk 300 stairs – mostly down – on their own. Our children also participated in the free Wind Cave Junior Ranger program and happily added another gold badge to their collection at the end of the tour.
Before You Go
Reservations are no longer accepted for most tours at Jewel Cave or Wind Cave (updated May 2016). Summer is peak season, and all tours may fill by noon on busy days.
Both caves offer different tours, including ADA accessible, candlelight and adventurous tours. Both caves are about fifty degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so bring a jacket no matter the weather outside Large purses, food, baby backpacks, and strollers are not allowed in the caves. Soft front loading carriers for infants are allowed.
If I had to choose just one, I'd pick Jewel Cave. I liked the spaciousness of those deep underground caverns and I'm really that geeky about cave bacon. Really though, it's such a close call that you really can't go wrong with this decision!
How else can we help?
There is a lot to do in the Black Hills! Check out our ULTIMATE Black Hills itinerary for families for a list of top family attractions, grouped by location. Naturally, it includes both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave.
Need a place to stay? Rapid City, South Dakota is a good base for your Black Hills trip. We liked Howard Johnson Rapid City, but there are lots of good options, including vacation rentals. Check rates and read reviews at TripAdvisor, Hotels.com or HomeAway.