Above: Kids peer up at calcite crystals as our Park Service tour guide describes the formation of Jewel Cave.
Outdoor travel in late September is always chancy. More than once we have faced the "disappearing campground blues," when forest and park campgrounds start closing, forcing you into more crowded quarters at the few the authorities deign to leave open (e.g., Madison Junction at Yellowstone).
In Yellowstone last year, I kept thinking, "If this is the 'off-season,' I am glad that we did not come during the high season." There seemed to be plenty of people at all the auto-accessible geothermal features, not to mention the scores of wolf-cultists.
Likewise the Park Service thinking on ranger-led tours.
When we came to Wind Cave on September 29th, all of the cave tours were canceled but one, the "Garden of Eden" tour, which M. and I decided should be called the "geezer tour." It lasted an hour, but most of that was just standing around listening to the ranger guide tell stories. He told them well, interweaving geology and history, but still, of miles of public cave trail, we saw maybe a quarter mile and three rooms, chiefly the room called the Garden of Eden by its discoverer in the 1890s.
I assume there are staffing issues with seasonal rangers, etc., but it also seems that the Park Service assumes that anyone traveling after Labor Day is decrepit and unable to handle a longer walk and a few more stairs.
For that "geezer tour" you pay $7. And, yes, we had a full tour group on a Tuesday afternoon.
Things were somewhat better over at Jewel Cave National Monument. Again, some of their most interesting tours are offered only in the high season.
But we were able to take the Scenic Tour—a half-mile loop, one hour and twenty minutes, $8 for an adult ticket—a better value than Wind Cave offered. There were more than 20 people in our group, on a snowy Thursday, October 1st, and another group was entering as we were leaving. There are plenty of "off-season" visitors.
You spend a lot of time trooping along clanging industrial aluminum catwalks and stairs, which give the cave a sort of "secret lair of the super-villain" feel. But wood would not last well in the 99-percent humidity. And you see enough rooms, passages, formations, etc., to give you a real feeling for the cave, which actually includes about 140 miles of mapped passages.
Notice the absence of geezers in the photo above. Home-schooled kids? Kids whose parents thought that they would benefit more from a cave trip than the classroom? Either way, I was happy to see them there.