The western side of South Dakota has done a great job bundling their attractions into a check list to co-brand one another and work together. They titled this effort The Great 8. In fact, they even mailed us a Great 8 bumper sticker along with our visitors guide. This made it feel more like a challenge to see all eight destinations. Challenge accepted.
We had low expectations for Jewel Cave and Wind Cave both. This sounds terrible, but we put them on the list mostly because we felt like we had to! We live a few hours from Mammoth Cave, the largest cave system on the planet -- how could these contenders hang with the champ?
Jewel Cave, the third longest cave system in the world, was awesome! We arrived late-morning and had to wait about three hours to join a tour--the Scenic Cave tour. No sweat -- plenty of time to enjoy a picnic lunch, take the Rooftop hike above the cave, and yes, again, work toward earning that Junior Ranger designation. The Scenic Cave tour takes you deep into the cave and you should be prepared to walk. We walked over 700 stairs--the equivalent of 40 flights of stairs after taking an elevator deep into the cave. The formations in the 49 degree ice box are gorgeous - our favorite sight was a massive piece of 'cave bacon', which is a geologic formation that resembles, well, bacon. We saw formations that are still growing, even though there had been no noticeable changes in 50 years. Things move slow in the caves.
Jewel Cave is a National Monument and well-deserved of that status. Don't be a cave snob-- every cave has a different story to tell.
Custer State Park
Hands down, no contest, Custer State Park was the stand out experience of the Great 8. We visited three times. If we go back to the Black Hills, we will probably try to camp in Custer State Park.
We drove the scenic loop and saw bison, donkeys, and deer on the prairie. We drove Needles highway and saw, and climbed on, rock formations that were unique to anything we've ever seen. We swam in Sylvan Lake, an almost perfect mountain lake. We explored the new visitors center, which is not to be missed and we hiked to the top of Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.
When we got home, we learned that just after our visit Harney Peak was renamed Black Elk Peak, yet another controversial instance of renaming landmarks to honor the Native Americans. We think it was Seinfeld's J Peterman who famously said "You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me."
Custer State Park has so much to offer that you will also adjust your schedule to go back and see the Needles Eye or Sylvan Lake one more time.
Wind Cave National Park is the third largest cave system in the United States at 142 discovered miles. This number, like the length of Jewel and Mammoth Caves, is always growing because people are always finding new paths and tunnels. The incredible thing about Wind Cave is that this 142 miles is all under about one square mile of earth. Further, there is only one known entrance to Wind Cave. It gets its name because depending on weather conditions, the 10 inch natural entry point is always blowing or sucking air. NPS has built an air lock system to get us into the cave without disrupting the natural breath of the cave.
We got to Wind Cave first thing in the morning and got on an early Historic Tour. This tour took us down deep into the cave and then out of the cave through an elevator. We were fortunate to have an incredible tour guide. He gave us such a great appreciation for this cave, and Alvin McDonald, the young man who spent his young life exploring and sharing Wind Cave with the world. If you've never been on a cave tour, most guides come to a point and turn off the lights to show you the cave as mother nature designed it. Our guide may have let us "appreciate this" for two whole minutes. This is a long time to be in complete darkness! While the lights were out he told stories of explorers who got lost in the cave. and being in this darkness painted a vivid picture of the panic they must have faced.
During our trip, we crossed the Missouri River ten times in three states. We splashed in the Little Mo River in North Dakota. We stopped to appreciate the beauty of the river in South Dakota.
We only drove through Deadwood. On a return visit, we think a walking tour would be the way to see Deadwood. First we need to finish the series on HBO to inspire a return visit.
We admired this from the road. It stands nearly as tall as the St Louis Arch. We respect that the family will not accept government money for the project, but not so inspired that we should pay to witness the job site. One day it will be a site to behold and we promise to pay an entry fee to view Crazy Horse at that time - maybe it will be a part of the NPS by then.
Our final leg of our journey is the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet. Stay tuned to learn about the Little Cricket on the Prairie.
Shane and Jessica
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