The Black Hills are stacked high with mountains of history and tales of the “Wild West,” but the deepest traces of history can be found underground.
“it’s a living thing, and it’s wonderful that we can share it with people across the country when they come to the black hills.”
Here, limestone dates to approximately 340 million years ago during the Mississippian period, and the caverns are said to have formed 60 million years ago. The Lakota people found the caverns centuries before settlers arrived in 1882 seeking gold.
Now, the Black Hills Caverns in Rapid City mark 80 years open to the public this year, commemorating its first opening to the public in 1939 when it was known as “Wild Cat Cave.”
Contributing to that history are Kathy Johnson and husband Dennis, who are the seventh family to own and operate the caverns since its opening.
While the Black Hills Caverns contain such historical relevance, Kathy says the cave is a living thing. “The cave is constantly naturally changing and forming,” she said. “In the lower levels where you have the water dripping, that’s bringing additional formations and adding to the formations that are there. It is definitely living. When you’re in caves, you don’t want to touch the cave walls because the oils in your hand can affect that crystal and kill it so it will no longer form, no longer change and grow. That’s why I refer to it as a living cave.”
Some of the unique rock formations found in the cavern include the common stalagmites and stalactites as well as rare frost crystals, flowstone, cave flower, helictites, draperies, soda straw stalactites, and popcorn crystals.
Kathy says she doesn’t have a favorite formation, but sees the caverns as a well-preserved “showcase.”
“It’s a beautiful showcase,” she said. “We keep it in a very natural state. That is a big change between us and the national parks. The national parks are very much on foot grates, and you feel like you’re walking in an industrial area. You don’t feel that way in Black Hills Caverns. You’re actually walking in a cave.”
THE ADVENTURE TOUR
HOUR-LONG, 3/4 MILE, THREE-LEVEL TOUR OF THE BLACK HILLS CAVERNS // $16.95 FOR ADULTS // $10.95 FOR CHILDREN 6-12 // FREE FOR CHILDREN 6 & UNDER
THE CRYSTAL TOUR
HALF-HOUR, 15000-FT WALKING TOUR ON THE CAVE’S FIRST LEVEL // $13.95 FOR ADULTS // $9.95 FOR CHILDREN 6-12 // FREE FOR CHILDREN 6 & UNDER
“There are a lot of unexplored caverns and a lot of unexplored areas of the cave,” she said.
The Crystal Tour shows off the main level of the cave and is “an easy walking tour. You really only get to see 70 percent of the cave that we show, but we have that because there are some people who can’t do a full tour,” said Kathy. “You’re going to see the natural crystal formations on the main level, a nice history of the cave, and a history of the Black Hills.”
“every cave is a little different. there’s a good showcase of the hills, and then our national parks are great caves, too. but the naturalness of the caverns is what really sets it apart from other attractions.”
The Adventure Tour includes two additional levels of the cave and more views of the “wet, live cave,” said Kathy. Black Hills Caverns also offers gemstone panning and crystal mining as fun activities for families and young children. Kids can look for (and keep) everything from rubies and emeralds to fossils, shark teeth, and calcite crystals, says Kathy.
“Kids love rocks,” she continued. “It’s become a huge part of what we do. It’s a science, and we all kind of forget that sometimes when we’re holding rocks. We have several different varieties of gemstone panning, and they use a sluice and pan like they would have in a creek bed in the 1880s when they were looking for gold.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT BLACKHILLSCAVERNS.COM.