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Lewis and Clark Caverns

Lewis and Clark Caverns Summer Tour

This past summer we took the tour at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. The caverns are just a 40 minute drive from where we are in Butte and we had family visiting – so we thought it would be a good experience for everyone. We had already visited the State Park in January to see what their trail system was like (which is open year round). The caverns are closed during winter with the exception of their Winter Holiday candle light tour, so we ended up hiking around the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park Trails

Cave tours are open May 1 – Sept 30. They also have a Winter Holiday candle light tour during the last two weekends in December.

Fun Facts About the Caverns

  1. Lewis and Clark didn’t actually discover the caverns! Theodore Roosevelt named the caverns after Lewis and Clark since the park overlooks part of their historic route along the Jefferson River. Our tour guide shared that they have documented evidence that Lewis and Clark stood on a hillside within the park and no more than a mile from where the caverns are on Cave Mountain.
  2. Lewis and Clark Caverns were Montana’s first State Park.
  1. The caves were discovered by Whitehall hunters that noticed ‘smoke’ was coming from the mountainside. It turned out to be steam coming from the caves!
  2. Limestone stalactites form extremely slowly – usually less than 10cm every thousand years

Lewis and Clark Caverns Discovery

You start out ascending a short hike up to the cavern entrance. On the way to the cavern, we were told to look closely at the rocks next to the trail as they contained fossilized shellfish. This was evidence to show how this part of Montana was actually underwater many years ago.

When we reached the cave entrance we were told of the original discovery of the caverns. They were first discovered by Tom Williams and Bert Pannell in winter while hunting in 1892. They noticed what appeared to be smoke rising from the hillside. When they got closer to investigate, they realized it was steam coming from an opening to the caves. The warm cave air turned to steam when in contact with frigid winter air. When we entered the caverns our guide mentioned the original tours led visitors down a steep 2,000 wooden step stairwell. If you go on this tour, you’ll realize how steep of an entrance this was!

Decending into the Cavern and learning Cave Formations

Next, as we were getting further into the cave, our guide pointed out a sleeping big-eared bat. We quietly slipped past the sleeping beauty and tried our best to not disturb.

The first part is pretty narrow and takes you down a series of stairs into the first wider opening. Moving into some of the larger openings, our guide taught us a few cave terms. The ones that stuck out to me were cave bacon, cave popcorn, stalactites, and stalagmites. I’m sure he went over more, but I was distracted by admiring the formations in front of me. Below is a good description and image of each formation which you can click to enlarge.

Cave Popcorn

Cave popcorn, are small nodes of calcite, aragonite or gypsum that form on surfaces in caves, especially limestone caves. We believe it’s pictured in the left side of the image above. 

Cave Bacon

Cave bacon is a rock formation officially known as layered flowerstone. The effect is created by the deposition of water-borne minerals traveling over and over on the same route.

Stalactites

A stalactite is a type of formation that hangs from the ceiling of caves.

Stalagmites

A stalagmite is a type of rock formation that rises from the floor of a cave due to the accumulation of material deposited on the floor from ceiling drippings.

The Original Cavern Tour

Our tour guide mentioned how the Lewis and Clark Caverns tour was first guided by Morrison, a money-hungry prospector trying to make money off of the land any way he could. Morrison is the one who originally built the 2,000 step wooden ladder down into the caves. He advertised that people could take home a piece of the cave as a souvenir. You can see several areas where stalactites had been knocked or broken off on the tour. I doubt they knew it at the time, but these formations grow less than 10cm every thousand years. 

Stories from Early Days in the Lewis and Clark Caverns

We traveled through a series of passages and open “rooms” within the cavern. Each one was a unique sight in its own way. Our guide brought up several stories about people getting lost in the caverns. He turned off the lights and lanterns so we could get a feel for it and how disorienting it can be. Lastly, our guide mentioned how several rooms became discovered. The greatest room at the end of our tour, called the Paradise Room, was found accidentally. It’s no wonder they named it such. The Paradise Room had an astounding amount of formations and the lighting truly did these ancient formations justice.

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