I wouldn’t say I’m looking forward to death, but I think I’ll be okay with it. Well, the burial, at least. I do like me a good hole in the ground.
Luckily, geology goes hand-in-hand with holes in the ground, so when I was hunting for cool places to visit on our big Yellowstone camping trip, discovering Lewis & Clark Caverns was inevitable. That made it no less exciting.
Our first adventure with a carbonate cavern system happened a few years back under much the same circumstances. We’d planned a big trip around the Grand Canyon, and I stumbled upon Grand Canyon Caverns during my research. That experience turned out great, so including Lewis & Clark Caverns in our Yellowstone plans was a no-brainer.
Lewis & Clark Caverns is located in its namesake state park in the southwest of Montana. The park is approximately halfway between Butte and Bozeman in the hills and valleys between the Elkhorn Mountains to the north and the Tobacco Root Mountains to the south, with the Jefferson River acting as its southern boundary.
The caverns are found in the northwest hills and accessed by a 3.2 mile road winding upwards from the main visitor center at the park’s entrance. Those staying in the park’s campground also have the option of hiking along the park’s many trails up to the caverns but that demands a fair bit of conditioning. We, thus, drove.
A second visitor center and guest services complex await visitors to Lewis & Clark Caverns at the end of the road. The visitor center itself is a funky fieldstone building with an attached, covered waiting area.
Inside the cozy center is a combination help desk and museum along with fireside seating. Displays about local history and lore, with some interesting artifacts, will keep you entertained while you wait for your tour to commence.
Across the south end of the large parking lot from the visitor center is a gift shop, café, and restroom complex. The café offers a decent menu along with drinks and ice cream treats. You can satisfy your hunger, be it worthy of a full lunch or just a snack.
The gift shop is quite large for a venue of this size. Inside are hundreds of wares ranging from trinkets to books to stuffies to clothing to works of art. Everyone will find something appealing to commemorate their visit.
I didn’t need use of the restrooms and with so many people entering and exiting, I didn’t want to freak them out by taking pictures inside the bathroom. I figure it’s safe to assume it’s a typical tourist spot restroom with toilets, urinals, and sinks. Also, handicap accessible.
The final structure at Lewis & Clark Caverns is the cute little ticket booth. A stand alone building no bigger than an outhouse, the booth is where you can purchase your first come, first served tour tickets.
It is possible to buy tickets online, but the number of tickets available is limited and they sell out quite quickly. I only discovered online tickets could be purchased the day prior to our arrival and by then they were unsurprisingly all gone.
A moment of panic came over me as I worried that we would be unable to tour the caverns during our short stay at Lewis & Clark State Park. It was the sole reason for our going there and you can only enter the caverns on a tour. Thankfully, I succeeded in acquiring FCFS tickets.
The ticket booth opens at 9:00 and when I arrived at 9:03, 20 people were already in line. I wanted a 1:00 tour time and had no problem getting that, but had I wanted the 9:30 tour, I would have been 2 groups of people too late! Also, note, that this was on a Monday in July so expect summer weekends to be even busier.
Tours at Lewis & Clark Caverns
There are two tours available to the public: Paradise and Classic. The Paradise Tour requires 1.5 hours and is the least strenuous of the two. The Classic Tour is a bit longer at 2.0 hours and is billed as more difficult. Loving holes in the ground as I do, we chose the Classic to take in all we could of Lewis & Clark Caverns.
The Classic begins with a ¾ mile hike, including 300 feet of elevation gain, from the ticket booth to the cavern entrance. The trail is wide and paved with some steps at its end. There are switchbacks and benches (some sheltered) for resting along the way. You have half an hour to complete this hike, or you forfeit your tour.
The exit from the caverns takes a second trail which is much flatter and easier to navigate. The Paradise tour uses this lower trail for both entrance and exit, adding to its ease.
The Classic navigates most of the known Lewis & Clark Caverns cave system except for, ironically, the Paradise Room. It stops next to this room, allowing you to look in, but does not enter. That is a luxury exclusive to the Paradise Tour, for some reason.
The pathway through the caverns is a combination of concrete, worn limestone, and carved steps. There are some tight squeezes along the way both in width and certainly in height. You will need to hunch and potentially even slide down a short shoot on your butt.
At six feet tall, I bumped my head once and found a few spots tricky to get through. I’m also fifty and kind of broken, so you may not have as much trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I traversed the entire tour with minimal problems, but I doubt any NBA teams or sumo wrestling clubs are taking this tour as a team building exercise.
Any struggles are totally worth it though, as the rock formations inside Lewis & Clark Caverns are spectacular. It really was amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Even the kids raved about the experience.
There are lights emphasizing many of the alien-looking formations and our guide did a good job of pointing out and explaining the various types of deposition. I could have taken a thousand pictures down there, but then again, I’m a geologist.
At one point, our guide lit a can/candle apparatus that the original cave visitors used back in the 1900s when tours first began at Lewis & Clark Caverns. He then turned off the modern lighting system. The darkness that engulfed the meagre light emanating from the can/candle was unsettling. When he then extinguished the candle, oh lordy, was that a darkness unlike anything you’ll ever experience on the surface!
The guide shared stories of early cave development and profiteering which were interesting. The tale of an employee that snuck into the caves and ended up trapped inside, in the dark, for a long weekend was unnerving to say the least. Especially after our real-life pitch darkness experience.
Sadly, the early days of cavern tours allowed guests to cut the stalactites as souvenirs. Proprietors erroneously assumed these geological treasures would regrow relatively quickly, like icicles in the winter. The evidence of this vandalism is noticeable throughout the caverns. I can only wonder at how magnificent this place was when pristine.
In addition to geological wonders, the first two rooms of the caverns are home to bats. As a result, flash photography and loud noises are forbidden there, lest you scare the mama bats into dropping their young.
We saw a small patch of mamas and young (about 70) in a tight circle on the roof of the second cave room. They appeared to vibrate above us. Very cool, though I admittedly was expecting to find hundreds of them across the cave ceiling.
I loved our time at Lewis & Clark Caverns and could have spent hours in the caves if allowed. I don’t hesitate to give it 5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. It’s a great time and good value imho. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re ever in southwest Montana. The camping was great too, but I’ll save that for another post.