south dakota: mount rushmore & jewel cave national monument

As I drove toward Mt. Rushmore, I passed through a thunderstorm with lightning striking all around, but in the distance, blue skies beckoned. On the way, I passed the Reptile Gardens and the Founding Fathers Exhibit, a Stagecoach West bus, and Bear Country USA.  There are so many tourist attractions around Rapid City: House of Scandinavia, American Buffalo Resort, Naked Winery, and Rush Mountain Adventure Park are just a few.  

Prairie Berry Winery advertised “Red Ass Rhubarb Wine.”  The holidays were on perpetual hold at The Shops at Christmas Village.  Old McDonald’s Farm Petting Village and Putza Glo mini-golf called out to families. I was in the Black Hills National Forest, where ads for Zipline Tour in Keystone and Candyland were in evidence, as well as the Alpine Slide and Black Hill Glass Blowers. Finally, blue skies appeared as I dipped into Miner’s Gateway Tunnel. 

By 9:45, I was at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial.


Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

In 1923, South Dakota State historian Doane Robinson proposed carving Old West heroes in the Needles, spirelike granite formations in the Black Hills.  He approached Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), who chose Mt. Rushmore as the site because of its size, orientation to the morning and midday light, and its fine-grained granite.  He proposed U.S. Presidents as subjects to appeal to a national audience.

Borglum began carving in 1927.  He would carve George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.


Gutzon Borglum

George Washington (served 1789-97) was a natural first choice to be carved.  He commanded the Continental Army in the American Revolution, building a cohesive fighting force that won independence from Great Britain.  Unanimously elected first U.S. President, he served two terms and laid the foundation for today’s democracy. His was the first figure started, and because his face is in higher relief than the others, it remains the most prominent. 

Thomas Jefferson (served 1801-09) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  This document continues to inspire our nation today and encourage democracies around the world (that is until our current occupier of the White House).

Abraham Lincoln (served 1861-65) took office on the eve of the nation’s greatest trial and devoted his presidency to ending the Civil War and restoring the Union.  In 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the first step toward ending slavery.  His 1863 Gettysburg Address is still one of the most compelling American speeches. Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, shot by an assassin. Widely considered one of the greatest Americans, Lincoln was a favorite subject for Gutzon Borglum.

The youngest man to become president, Theodore Roosevelt (served 1901-09) led the nation into the 20th century.  He was instrumental in negotiating the construction of the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  He earned the nickname “Trust Buster” for his work abolishing corporate monopolies and ensuring the rights of ordinary citizens. He championed conservation legislation and set aside millions of acres of public lands. Borglum greatly admired the 26th president and considered him a friend.

President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927. On March 6, 1941, Gutzon Borglum died and Lincoln Borglum oversaw the carving until its completion on October 31 of that same year.

The original cost of the carving was $989.992.32; about 85% was paid for by federal funds. The 1990s redevelopment was $56 million.

About 400 laborers, mostly from the ranks of the unemployed, worked on the memorial. There were few injuries and no deaths.

About 450,000 tons of rock were blasted from the mountain.

The presidents’ noses are about 20 feet long, eyes about 11 feet wide, and mouths about 18 feet wide.

Ponderosa Pines dot the Black Hills, which takes its name from the illusion of darkness and density the pines create when viewed from a distance. The forest is not really dense though; its open understory is ideal for pine saplings. Besides Ponderosa Pines, common trees are birch, cottonwood, spruce and aspen.


Ponderosa Pines at Mt. Rushmore

Because of a major renovation through May 2020, several places were closed, as well as some trails. The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center was closed, as was Grand View Terrace and amphitheater.

I took the Nature Trail to the Sculptor’s Studio, the Borglum View Terrace, and then the Presidential Trail, which was 0.6 miles and 422 steps.

In 1959, Mt. Rushmore was the site of a dramatic scene in the movie North by Northwest.  The filming was actually in a studio.


Mt. Rushmore National Memorial


George Washington


Mt. Rushmore National Memorial


Mt. Rushmore National Memorial


I bit adieu to the four presidents and was on my way to Jewel Cave National Monument.


profile view of George Washington

I saw the Wrinkled Rock Climbing Area and the Horse Thief Lake Trailhead, and then was welcomed to Four Mile.  At Comanche Park, I grabbed an egg salad sandwich and a Reese’s cup.

All information is from a pamphlet distributed by the National Park Service.


I arrived at Jewel Cave National Monument at 12:20.  I watched a video about the cave. Jewel Cave National Monument was established in 1908.  Less than a mile was documented at that time. We now know it’s over 180 miles long, but no one knows its full extent. Airflow studies indicate much more cave is yet to be discovered.

It is the third longest known cave in the world.

The quest to map the cave has led to some amazing discoveries.  Scientific studies have shown that Jewel Cave could connect with Wind Cave. They are about 20 miles apart on the surface, but no direct caving route is possible.  If a connection exists, hundreds of miles will need to be mapped before it is discovered.

Exploring Jewel Cave is more important than just trying to break records.  Surveying, mapping and measuring the cave helps us learn even more about the underground frontier.

Explorers go into the caves for days at a time and camp in order to keep probing into the far-reaching cave. They’re excited when they find new things like pools (Jewel Cave is usually dry) or large rooms or new formations.  They continually map the cave as they probe deeper.


mapping the cave

South Dakota prospectors Frank and Albert Michaud discovered the cave in about 1900 when they heard wind rushing through a hole in the rocks in Hell Canyon. Enlarging the hole, they entered an underground world of sparkling crystals. The brothers and their friend Charles Bush filed a claim on the “Jewel Tunnel Lode,” then tried to turn a profit by attracting tourists. Although their business never thrived, they brought national attention to the caves and the need to protect them. In 1908 Jewel Cave became a national monument.

Nearly 60 years later, rock climbers Herb and Jan Conn joined an expedition into the cave. Over the next 21 years, they led 708 caving trips.  A typical Conn expedition spent about 12-14 hours underground. Having charted over 65 miles of cave, the Conns retired in 1981, and a new generation took up the challenge.

Today’s cave explorers are mostly volunteers. Exploration trips are typically 16-18 hours underground. On multi-day trips, groups make a seven-hour trek to an underground base camp, then depart from there to various sites.


How to explore a cave

The elevation of the known cave ranges from 4,740 feet to 5,408 feet above sea level.  It is 668 feet from its lowest to its highest point. Jewel Cave extends beneath about 4 square miles of surface area.  The only known natural entrance is in Hell Canyon.


How deep is Jewel Cave?

Beautiful calcite crystals gave Jewel Cave its name.  Some of the cave is further decorated with formations created by dripping water. 

Water picks up carbon dioxide from the soil and becomes a weak acid.  As it seeps through the rock, it dissolves calcium carbonate from the limestone.  Upon entering the cafe, it deposits the calcium carbonate as calcite.

There are numerous formations in the cave: moonmilk, and hydromagnesite balloons are just a couple.

Popcorn formed when calcite was precipitated during evaporation of seeping or splashed water.

Dogtooth Spar is made of small 6-sided calcite crystals formed underwater with sharp points, like a dog’s teeth.  In Jewel Cave, they are not as common as the larger nailhead spar. 

Frostwork includes fragile formations resembling ice crystals.  They grow in areas with lots of air movement.

Rimstone Dams are calcite ridges, also known as “microgours.” They once captured tiny pools of water as it moved down a flowstone slope.

Scintillites are made of tiny quartz crystals on fingers of eroded chert.

Gypsum formed in drier areas of the cave.  There are different types of gypsum formations such as needles, beards, flowers, and spiders. Gypsum “flowers” have bizarre shapes and seem to defy gravity. 

Draperies, also called curtains, are curved pieces of calcite formed on inclined walls and ceilings. A Bacon Drapery inside the cave is over 20 feet long.

Jewel Cave has one of the world’s largest colonies of hibernating Townsend’s big-eared bats.

The elevator was broken, so only the strenuous 1/2 mile Historic Lantern Tour was available.  It didn’t start until 2:15 and was 1:45 long. I had to leave to get to the Crazy Horse Memorial, so I was actually relieved I didn’t feel compelled to do it.

All information is from exhibits in the Visitor Center and a pamphlet distributed by the National Park Service.

Here are my cancellation stamps for Mt. Rushmore and Jewel Cave.

After leaving Jewel Cave, I headed to Crazy Horse Memorial.

*Friday, September 20, 2019*