Jewel Cave, Sanford Lab and The Needles

Our first of the day was that we got on the road early!  The time difference should be working in our favor, but we have pushed ourselves to squeeze in what we can thus far, getting dinner late and bed even later.  Getting moving in the mornings has been rough.  But today, we set an alarm for 6:15am (Mountain Time) and it seemed super early!

We were told by one of the rangers at Wind Cave that the Jewel Cave tours sell out first thing in the morning and to be there when they open at 8am, so we made it there and got tickets for the 9:20 tour.  The kids did their packets for their Junior Ranger badge, and we got in the elevator to head underground.

We took the Scenic Tour at Jewel Cave, which is a half mile loop of 723 stairs and takes about an hour and a half.  There are huge caverns, a lot of popcorn formations, flowstone, and a favorite for the Spivey’s – “Cave Bacon”.  It’s about 49 degrees underground, but we were at least prepared today with warmer clothes!  On our way in (and out) we drove slowly through fields of prairie dogs and heard their cute little yips!

At the suggestion of a park ranger, we decided to visit Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center.  Andy was intrigued when she mentioned studying dark matter!  At the visitor center, we checked out the many informational displays about the original gold mine, how it is being converted to a research facility and signed up for the trolley tour.

The trolley tour was awesome!  The trolley took us through town of Homestake, and our guide told us about how it grew during the gold rush, strip mining during the 80’s and how the mine is now being converted to an underground physics research lab studying neutrinos.  When complete, the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment will send a neutrino beam to the Fermilab outside of Chicago.

After the tour, we took a different route back to camp and I used the InstaPot for the first time, but only to heat one of the freezer meals I had made.  Everyone ate well and we jumped back in the Suburban to make a pass through “The Needles”.  The wooden pigtail bridges were really neat, and there were a lot of deer in the park.  We made a quick stop at a couple lookouts and a picnic site to look around, and twilight was setting in.  The bridges were really neat, and when you drive through one of them you have a perfect (but distant) view of Mt. Rushmore.  We saw a lot of wildlife, there were deer everywhere!  It was kind of magical until it started getting darker.

We had planned to take the big loop around Custer, but the darkness set in and the deer were popping out of the woods as we wound around hairpin curves.  I would advise against driving unknown mountain roads that run rampant with animals in the dark.  We had planned on taking a longer route, but I said a prayer to myself that the GPS was accurate.  There was no cell connectivity, so we were rolling the dice on a dirt road shortcut back as I tried to ignore the Deliverance music that was creeping into my head!  We made it back to camp safely and had a good chuckle about it…and a beer.

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