JEWEL CAVE NATIONAL MONUMENT, S.D. — Caver Mike Wiles has helped document the far reaches of Jewel Cave, a favorite Black Hills tourist attraction.
Wiles and other volunteers mapped Jewel Cave's passageways past 142 miles, making it the second-longest cave in the world. Nearby Wind Cave National Park is the eighth-longest.
Some people have made caving out to be an extreme adventure, but it's really safer than a lot of activities on the surface, he said. The challenge and thrill come from discovering corridors that have never been reached, which sometimes happens after days underground.
"It is really, really exciting to go into some big passage where no one's been before. Or to find something in the cave that's unique that you've never seen before,” Wiles said.
Wiles said he was reluctant on his first trip underground in 1976 but soon realized he excelled at it, despite never doing well at other sports.
For his efforts, he was awarded the 2007 Lew Biking Award from the National Speleological Society, given to the top caver.
But caves are not just for those dedicated to spending hours crawling through small passages.
They started becoming popular with vacationers in the 1800s and now draw millions of visitors a year, said Gary Berdeaux, who co-owns Diamond Caverns in Park City, Ky., with his wife, Susan. She's also the national coordinator of the National Caves Association, which represents commercial caves.
"The reason these things survive is their universal appeal. There's something that goes back to primal man. Since caveman days, it's been a place of shelter, of worship. It's been a resource of minerals to carve,” he said.
"Today, it's just a natural curiosity. ‘There's a big, dark hole over there. Where does it go?' It's mysterious. That allure transcends race and gender and nationality. It's just a universal appeal.”
Many private cave owners initially had a reputation of destroying the natural underground beauty, but that's not the case, he said. They have an incentive to protect caves the same way states and the federal government do for those attractions, Berdeaux said.
"People oftentimes feel that unless it's a public-owned cave, state park or national park, that it might not be as beautiful or significant, but that's not true,” he said.