Spelunking in Southwest Montana
An underground adventure at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
“Is anyone afraid of the dark? Afraid of heights? Or claustrophobic?” We peered at each other through the darkness, just a sliver of light streaming through the rocky ceiling of the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in southwest Montana. Situated along the well-traveled route between iconic Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, tucked deep in a mountain, is one of the most decorative caverns in the Northwest.
“Does anyone want to leave before the gate is locked behind us?” A few brave souls confessed their fears but gallantly committed to move forward as the gate clunked closed. Our trusty guide, the only one with a flashlight, continued, “Some areas are lighted, but not all. Stooping, bending, descending 600 steps and duck-walking or sliding down the Beaver Slide are required. And please keep your voices down; we don’t want to arouse the bats. Lastly, not all areas have handrails, so please don’t touch the cavern walls unless you think you will fall. Your safety is most important.” Beaver Slide? Duck-walking? This,
after a three-quarter-mile trek up to the cave entrance gaining 300 feet in elevation in the 85-degree heat? At least the caverns were a refreshing 50 degrees!
Despite the seemingly daunting instructions, the two-hour, 2-mile guided cavern tour is a fun adventure for all ages. Our group of 18 explorers included an infant in a babypack up to seniors. Plan on 20 minutes for the 30-minute hike up to the cave entrance. The cave portion of the tour begins when everyone reaches the entrance, so walk at your own pace, enjoy panoramic bird’s-eye views of the Jefferson River Valley and rest momentarily on benches along the way. Wheelchair access is provided along the lower, more level, cave exit trail. Entering from there, the last two cavern rooms can be viewed.
“Shall we proceed?” With smiles and nods, our group shuffled forward. Within moments, a slight fluttering revealed a large bat cluster huddled high on a wall. The caverns are home to several species of bats, and in dim light these esteemed residents seemed more neighborly than scary. The park hosts an annual Bat Week in August to educate visitors about these exotic mammals. Programs include guided Bat Walks, Bat Cavern Tours, and ranger presentations describing the lifestyle and preservation of bats. After tiptoeing past the bats, we began our descent. Feeling like early explorers, we made our way down a narrow staircase, ducking under hobbit-height ceilings as cool, damp air engulfed us.
Tunnel-like passageways opened into large chambers decorated with colorful, water-carved formations. It didn’t take long before our imaginations escaped and roamed around the magical underground gallery. Icicle spears hung from ceilings (stalactites), sculpted columns stretched from top to bottom, and curiously shaped pillars rose from floors (stalagmites). We saw tiered wedding cakes dripping icing and waterfalls frozen in time. Just when we thought our visions were getting the best of us, our guide shined a flashlight on “popcorn” and “ribbon” formations and sculptures endearingly named “Romeo and Juliet,” “Empire State Building” and “North Pole.” Apparently, we weren’t the only ones seeing apparitions in the living limestone grotto!
When we reached the much-anticipated Beaver Slide we wondered how anyone could possibly duck-walk it! Plopping down, we slid to the bottom like kids on a playground.
The tour wound through the caverns for about an hour while our guide entertained us with cave folklore and tidbits of geology and history. Interestingly, the park is named after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, but they never actually visited the caverns. In 1805, their expedition journeyed 1,400 feet below the cave entrance through the Jefferson River Valley, leaving the mountain’s secret undiscovered. In 1892, two hunters spotted steam venting from a hole high on the mountain and an exploration team rappelled into the caves six years later. The first cave tours were by candlelight. To help us “modern-day explorers” experience tours of old, our guide turned off the lights — with ample warning, of course. Inky darkness swallowed his flashlight beam transporting us back to the past. Straining our eyes to see any shape or shadow proved hopeless. After a few nervous giggles, foot shuffling and whispers, the lights flickered back on, giving us a new appreciation for those early spelunkers. Exiting the caverns into the bright sunlight, we felt adventured, learned and entertained.
The cave tour is the park’s biggest draw but it also offers visitors a variety of other activities. Spend a day viewing interpretive exhibits, strolling through the gift shop, picnicking, grabbing lunch or a snack at the deli, bird-watching, fishing, hiking or mountain biking. Ten miles of trails wind through the park’s 3,000-plus acres. Hikers and mountain bikers share the trail system and it is advisable to pick up a trail guide at the visitors centers for trail protocol and access. Paths vary from easy, leisurely walks to strenuous treks. The steepest, Cave Gulch Trail, climbs 1,000 feet in almost 2 miles stretching from the campground up to the Cave Visitor Center. Pack your own water, as there is none along the trails. Black bears, mountain lions and mule deer frequent the area but the park boasts birding as the top wildlife-viewing opportunity.
Camp for a few days and experience the park to its fullest. Attend ranger programs in the amphitheater, take a guided wildflower walk and share tales of the mysterious mountain caverns over a toasty campfire.
Planning Your Visit
Guided cavern tours are provided daily from May 1 through September 30. All visitors must check in at the Main Visitor Center at the base of the mountain to obtain a parking pass before proceeding to the Cave Visitor Center. Day-use parking fees are $5 per vehicle and RV parking is available at both centers. The drive to Cave Visitor Center is up a 3-mile, two-lane, winding road, which can be challenging in a big rig depending on a driver’s comfort level. At the top, RV parking is located on the left before the main parking lot.
Cavern tour fees are a great value at $10 for those 12 years or older, $5 for explorers 6 to 11 years and free for children 5 years or younger.
The park’s big-rig-friendly campground, located across from the Main Visitor Center, features 40 sites (nine with electrical hookups), showers, restrooms and a dump station. Freshwater tank fill-ups are included in the site fee. Although the campground is open year-round, many amenities including water-related services are only available from May 1 through September 30. Peak-season RV site fees with hookups are $24 per night for Montana residents and $34 per night for nonresidents, and $18 (resident) and $28 (nonresident) per night without hookups.
Whether you plan to stay and camp at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, or visit for a day, be prepared for a unique and fun adventure.
For More Information
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
Montana State Park Camping Reservations