Mammoth Crystal Cave Preserve
Meade County, South Dakota
Bethlehem Cave was the first tourist cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota – discovered in 1885 and operated commercially as Mammoth Crystal Cave from 1891 to 1952. This multi-mile cave is located north of Rapid City, SD, near a community called Tilford. Tourists came to this cave on a rail line that took them up Dry Elk Creek Canyon, where they were stationed below the cave prior to traversing up the steep canyon walls. Mammoth Crystal was the biggest ‘crystal’ cave in the region for nearly 70 years, until Herb and Jan Conn began mapping Jewel Cave. In the years following its opening for tours and initial mapping, many other show cave operations opened, attempting to capitalize on Bethlehem’s regional fame. Since the first survey attempt in 1935, the cave has had at least five different efforts to complete a full map, with only the map by Mike Hanson successful until resurvey efforts by the Paha Sapa Grotto in 2020.
Many of the Black Hills caves are characterized by calcite spar coating covering the cave walls and a network of interconnecting maze passage that often consists of a fair amount of crawling. Similarly, other long, local caves such as Stagebarn Crystal, Diamond Crystal, and Sitting Bull Crystal Caves all capitalized on this trend. The overabundance of similarly named caves led to this cave changing its name first to “Old Crystal Cave” and finally to “Bethlehem Cave.” Eventually, however,the cave’s relative remoteness, more than its name, likely led to it ending show cave operations indefinitely.
Bethlehem Cave is on the rim of an impressive limestone canyon, and the view from the cave entrance is the finest of any in the Black Hills. The canyon has several other small caves, four of which are within 100 yards of the entrance to Bethlehem, the largest of which is Columban Crystal Cave. Upon entering the cave, you immediately find yourself in the "Shrine Room," which has a small altar and seating area with electric lighting and a set of stairs leading out of the room. The "North Star Stair" is no longer a valid egress from the cave, but the ship-ladder stairs are still interesting. From the Shrine Room, one passageway leads out which will take you down the old tour route. This route, in a short distance, comes to an intersection, one way will take you through a door into the cave, the other into the home of the cave's on-site caretaker. Once traveling through this door, the passageway has been largely altered to allow for easier travel, avoiding the passageway called "Fat Man's Misery."
The cave tour continues through a series of small corridors of differing sizes until you pop out into "Poverty Flats," a very wide room with a ceiling height of around seven feet. At this junction, going left will take you to the beginning of the recreational route called the "Poker Chip" route and the majority of the northern section of the cave. A set of stairs in this direction will lead you down the tour route to "Notre Dame," a large room with crystal-coated boxwork. If you turn left at the Poverty Flats junction, it will lead you on the most direct route to The Lakes. The Lakes section of the cave contains large flowstone formations, pools of water, and was the draw of the old tour operations.
General travel in Bethlehem is very easy compared to other caves in the Black Hills. When going to any destination, there will be interspersed walking and crawling, but the vast majority of travel is walking. There are also a few large drop-offs, but the cave would best be described as "friendly." Immediately upon entering the cave, any visitor will notice that nearly every surface is coated in spar. These crystal surfaces make the cave beautiful but can make the cave uncomfortable without thick knee pads and gloves.