A view deep inside the caverns. As part of the tour, shortly after this picture was taken, the guide got us in a small group and turned out the lights. The blackness was unbelievable. The eyes don’t adjust because there is zero light. In the days of Morrison and the Civilian Conservation Corps, men sometimes found themselves stranded in the caves with no light. Under those circumstances, there was no way out. They simply had to wait until someone found them.
Fifty miles west of Bozeman, Montana, near the town of Whitehall, the Lewis and Clark Caverns are some of the largest, most spectacular and well developed limestone cavern complexes in the western hemisphere. Now part of the Montana State Park system, it was named for the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which passed nearby twice but never saw the caves.
In winter, the 50 degree cave air mixing with the cold air outside creates an effect that looks like smoke coming out of the ground.
The local Native Americans knew of the caves for centuries but there’s no indication that they ever went there. It was considered a holy and forbidden place. If they ever explored it, they left absolutely no trace. It was completely unknown to whites until its discovery by hunters in 1895, who were drawn to explore the mysterious ground smoke.
Subsequent to that, a miner and entrepreneur named Dan Morrison staked a claim to the land and began to explore the inside of the cavern. Working by the faint light of carbide headlamps and candle lanterns, he rigged 2,000 wooden steps and began leading eight hour tours through the caverns around the turn of the century. Some of the remnants of those steps and ladders can be seen in today’s tours.
The Northern Pacific Railroad sued over his stake, claiming the land belonged to them. They won, but Morrison kept fighting them and leading tours up to his death in 1932 at age 80.
The railroad gave the land to the federal government and in 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps went to work. Working under many of the same conditions as Morrison had, they turned the caverns into what they are today. They widened passages and blasted the tunnel through which tours now exit. They also built steps or chiseled them into limestone to replace Morrison’s rickety wooden ones. For safety, they laid an electrical grid to power lights and communications. They also explored all chambers and hauled away tons of bat guano.
Steps built by the CCC showing you’re one mile high inside a mountain.
Today the caverns are part of a 3000 acre park of the same name. There are campsites, hiking and biking trails, a visitor’s center, a store and a cafe (summer only). Cavern tours are available from May 1 to September 30.
The tours are two hours long and can be strenuous. The altitude here is 5300 feet. There is a long uphill walk to the entrance of the cavern, where you meet your guide. During the tour, you will ascend or descend 600 steps, slide through narrow tunnels between chambers and work your way around close passageways. It covers about two linear miles and ends 200 feet below where you started. The temperature is 50 degrees year round. Wear a sweater and good rubber soled shoes. Also bring some water. If you are out of shape, extremely overweight or claustrophobic, you might want to skip this tour. We’ve been on many cave/cavern tours and this one was probably the toughest one we’ve seen that’s open to the general public.
I would also take a flashlight or two. (Remember-Two is one and one is none.) The cave is wired with lights and communications systems. The guide has radio contact with the Visitor Center at all times and checks in with them regularly. But after being in that darkness for two minutes, I’d have my own backup with me.
Natasha in the Visitor Center parking lot. Check out the scenery. The caverns are inside the barren mountain on the right. The GPS coordinates for the parking lot are N45.838624, W111.866831. The hyperlinked numbers will take you to a Google map.
The rest of the park is breath taking (sometimes literally) and is an outdoorsman’s paradise. There are no geocaches in the park, but there are a half dozen within a short drive and they are on the upper end of the difficulty scale. If you’re looking for adventure caching, Montana is the place to be. More information and details about this cool place can be found on Montana’s state park website.
If you can’t get there in person, here’s a link to a great virtual tour inside the caves.
Rock on … Boris and Natasha