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Jewel Cave maps another 1.6 miles of new passageways

Jewel Cave
Jewel Cave National Monument
/
National Park Service
Inside Jewel Cave.

A recent four-day expedition into Jewel Cave National Monument mapped 1.6 additional miles of the cave. At over 200 miles of mapped passageways, Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world and the second longest in the country. However, it's estimated as little as 3 percent of the cave is mapped.

Dan Austin has been exploring Jewel Cave since the late 1990s. He said in 2014 a new area of the cave was discovered with lots of passages breaking off in multiple directions, and the new expedition was in that same area.

"It had been about a year since we were out there previously. And we knew we had left large passages that remain to be explored, we just had run out of time to check them out. So we were all pretty excited about going back to that new area and seeing what was around the next corner," Austin said. "And yeah, it was a good expedition. Pretty exciting to be on the edge of the cave, mapping new stuff, where no one has ever been before."

Austin said a lot of planning goes into these trips. Each team member is vetted thoroughly to ensure they are suited for the trip. The cavers then make their way to Deep Camp, a campsite deep within Jewel Cave that serves as their base to explore the area.

It's physically taxing. Austin says being underground adds an extra layer of difficulty.

"You can walk 5 miles in a straight line pretty easily, maybe an hour or so. Underground, it takes about eight hours to travel that distance. So it takes a considerable amount of time to get from point A to point B in the cave," he said.

It's also a big time commitment, one that nobody is paid for. Austin and his fellow cavers are all volunteers.

"A lot of people don't necessarily want to get paid to do something like this, because it's just part of who they are," he said. "There's this kind of innate curiosity to see where the cave goes, and what's around the next corner. And that's what really drives a lot of the exploration that happens here."

Austin hopes there will always be something to explore in Jewel Cave.

"We would hope that the cave keeps on going for generations and generations of cavers into the future," he said. "And it is entirely possible that that will happen."

Jewel Cave was declared a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt.