Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Goin' Caving

The temperature was 107 degrees the day I arrived in South Dakota.  What does one do in such a blazingly hot weather?  Well, visit a cave of course!

Size matters!  Click on any photo to enjoy a larger version.

My nephews at the "mini-cave" entrance

As mentioned in my previous post, the Black Hills of South Dakota has very unusual geology.  The granite core forming the center of the hills is surrounded by the massive Paha Sapa limestone formation.  Over time, water percolating through fissures in this limestone dissolved the rock, creating a large number of caverns.  This area boasts many natural caves, many with rare calcite formations of stalactites an stalagmites.  A few offer commercial tours.  One, Wind Cave, is a National Park, and another, Jewel Cave, is a National Monument.

Walking down a long set of steep stairs

My brother Dale chose Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns.  This cave happened to be the closest to town (and we didn't want to drive too far in the heat).  It had been many, many years since I'd been there (or any cave in the Black Hills for that matter).  My dad, two brothers, two nephews and once niece joined me for the tour. 

How far down does this go?
Right next door to the cavern's main entrance was a small cave that extended a short distance into the hillside.  The tour operators left a rack of flashlights at its entrance for kids to use.  While waiting for our tour to begin, my niece and nephews entertained themselves by exploring this "mini-cave." 

Finally at the bottom
Finally, we were called for the tour.  A guide led us to an endless set of steep stairs, going down, down, and down some more!  It seemed as though we were descending to the center of the earth.  Although I'd felt funny bringing a sweatshirt on such a hot day, upon entering the cave (which was a chilly 45 degrees), I was mighty glad to have it.  It felt good to leave the sweltering temps for the cavern's cool interior.  A perfect place to be on a hot day!

It's like being inside a geode!

When everyone in our group had made if safely down the stairs, we were led through a narrow, winding passageway, that took us deeper inside the cave.  Water dripped from the ceilings and everything smelled damp and musty.

A tight squeeze
Our guide led us into a large opening, called the Chandelier Room. Large tooth-shaped calcite crystals, called Dogtooth Spar, lined the ceiling. It looked like a continuous mouth of shark's teeth.
The Chandelier room

These crystals covered the ceiling and walls across the entire room. It was like being inside a geode. 

Dogtooth spar crystals close-up
The Dogtooth spar is formed when water percolating through the limestone, leaches calcium from the rock.  The calcium precipitates, forming into boxy calcite crystals.  This process takes hundreds of years.

"Indian Headdress" formation
Some of the calcite had formed into a long sinuous ribbon on the cave wall.  Iron stains created a dark contrast through the middle.  Our guide told us this particular formation had been nicknamed "Indian Headdress."  It did kind of look like Native American headwear from an earlier era.

Family photo op
These caverns were first visited by the Lakota Sioux people, who camped nearby in the late 1800s.  In the late 1920's, a local family bought the property, and began exploring and developing the caverns for visitors.  This family had a good relationship with the local Native American tribes, organizing an annual Sioux pageant, and running a trading post to provide the Lakota people with needed items in exchange for artwork and crafts.  Lakota medicine man Black Elk, a good friend of the family, chose the name Sitting Bull for the caverns as a way to honor his good friend, a famous Hunkpapa holy man.
Heading back up those stairs

The cave was such a fascinating place, I could've stayed there all afternoon.  But all good things must come to an end, and before we knew it, our guide was leading us up the endless staircase.  Back to the surface, back into the heat!
But it was good while it lasted.  Exploring a cave was the perfect way to spend a hot summer's afternoon.


  1. Cool cave. Haha had to say it. Looks like fun

  2. Great looking cave, we toured Wind Cave when we were in the area and were disappointed that there wasn't any lighting. The pictures I took with flash revealed a cave that we didn't see during our tour. Love the dogtooth formations!

  3. Very cool and interesting. I love exploring caves like that.


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