2006.07.13 Caving, Sliding and Riding


We started our day today at Jewel Cave National Monument. We had high hopes to be at the Cave in time for the 9:20 tour, but the quickest we could make it out there was in time for the 10:40 tour. (It seems like with every passing day, it takes a little longer to get going in the morning…)

Jewel Cave is the 2nd longest cave in the world, with a known recorded length of 135.61 miles of passages. The known length is increasing all the time as individuals explore more of the cave. The longest cave in the world is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky with over 300 miles of known passages. However, it has been scientifically estimated that there may be between 3,000 and 5,000 miles of passages in Jewel Cave!


Miles and Mallory chillin' in the cave


We had a great tour guide today, which if you’re a veteran of cave tours, you know that this makes all the difference in the quality of your experience. His name was Dusty, and he was from Custer, South Dakota (the town where we’re staying, and the town that Jewel Cave is closest to), however he was just home from the summer. (He is currently attending South Dakota State University – home of the Jackrabbits!) This guy reminded me a lot of my cousin Jeff Harper, in his looks and personality. He was a very outgoing fellow and was very good at telling his various cave jokes.

Marissa spent most of the 1 hour and 20 minute tour being carried by her parents. There are over 700 steps, both up & down, throughout the tour. Mallory talked the ears off the tour guide, and you could always find her and Miles following right along behind him during the entire tour, no matter where Mom & Dad might have been.


Miles crawls through an 8 inch hole, which spelunkers at Jewel Cave must do for over 700 feet!


Miles and Mallory both completed the Junior Ranger program at Jewel Cave, so next time you see them, please ask them about their favorite cave formations they saw at Jewel Cave. Possible correct answers include flow stone, bacon ribbon, popcorn, soda straws, stalactites, stalagmites, and columns!


Miles and Mallory getting their Junior Ranger badge from the Park Ranger.


Our second activity today was to ride an old train from the town of Hill City, over to Keystone, and back. We were shooting for a 1:15 departure, but our inability to get in and out of Jewel Cave in a timely manner set this back. We tried to get tickets for the 3:45 ride, but it was sold out. Luckily, they did have an evening train ride which left at 6:45 and we got tickets to that one. This left our entire afternoon free for the 3rd activity we had planned – the President’s Slide.

The President’s Slide would best be described as sitting upright on an oversized skateboard and flinging yourself down a 2,000 foot water slide. We had to sign a liability waiver in order to purchase tickets, so you know this is a quality ride! I was about to write that this was the first goofy thing we did on our trip, but I do remember about a week ago, I saw the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, so maybe it is the 2nd goofiest thing we have done.


Stephanie and Mallory on the President's Slide


We all got to go down the slide 3 times, and Miles got to go down 4 times. You actually ride a tram to the top, just like a ski lift. At the top of the “hill”, you can see Mount Rushmore, the town of Keystone, and a great view of the Black Hills. They also have a little outdoor burger place called George’s Grille (as in George Washington). We decided to eat dinner up there, so they fired up some more Buffalo Burgers for us. I am concerned that our trip to South Dakota may have a direct impact on the Bison population, as this is our 3rd meal we’ve had in South Dakota with Buffalo meat. We could see Mount Rushmore from our table, so you couldn’t beat the view, and the food wasn’t too bad.


Stephanie and Marissa on the President's Slide


After dinner, we hightailed it over to Hill City, and caught the 6:45 train. It was packed, and this train has probably 6 or 7 old-time passenger cars that hold a lot of people. The train runs on steam, but they don’t burn coal to produce their steam – they burn used motor oil. The train goes about 10 miles or so each direction, through some very pretty scenery. We saw literally 100 deer on the round trip – they were everywhere. For whatever reason, most everybody got off the train in Keystone, so on the way back, the five in our group got to enjoy an entire car (which holds 55 passengers) to ourselves! We all seemed to enjoy the train ride.


Riding a Train


Harney Peak - the tallest point east of the Rockies


A good look at the 1880 Train


Our buffalo burgers were wearing off by this time, so we drove into Custer, and had some pie and ice cream at some local hangout. The food was pretty good.

Tomorrow, we depart from Custer and the Black Hills, and begin our return trip. Devils Tower is our marquee event, but we plan to also check out the Center of the (entire) United States, as well as maybe drive through Sturgis. The Sturgis Bike Rally is sometime in August, but there are quite a few bikers all over South Dakota already, and every store you step foot in sells Sturgis t-shirts. Even the official Gift Shop at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial had two tables of these t-shirts! Is nothing sacred?! Would Thomas Jefferson ride a Hog?

This & That…

The Black Hills was the country’s very first National Forest. It is called the Black Hills, because the needles on the Ponderosa Pine trees look very dark from a distance, making the hills look black.

While on the train ride, the emcee mentioned something about the 1972 flood and how it had effected something in the area along the train tracks. This reminded me, how when we went to Storybook Island in Rapid City earlier in the week, the first two separate sets of people we were visiting with, both mentioned the 1972 flood. This was apparently just an awful experience. 238 people died in this flood, and it is estimated that a flood of this magnitude would only occur once every 500 years. We just thought it was unusual that something that happened that long ago (34 years) would still be brought up in casual conversation.

Marissa refers to Mount Rushmore as “the faces”. I think she liked Mount Rushmore.

Every hotel we have seen in Custer has plastic chairs sitting outside the door to each room. I guess it is not so strange, because there are always people at our hotel who are sitting outside in these chairs. As I have seen a lot of the sights in South Dakota, I am reminded of the wonderful vacations that I used to take with my Uncle Joe in the early 80s. The very first summer vacation we went on together was to South Dakota in 1980, so I do have some very vague memories of the Badlands and of Mount Rushmore. I may not remember exactly all of the places we visited or the people we met, but I do remember us constantly having a great time, and there was a lot of humor on those trips. It is too bad they did not have Travel Blogs back then, because it would be fun to relive some of those experiences!

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