Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is not far from Bozeman and Belgrade, MT, near Yellowstone Park.
Lewis and Clark Caverns is a dry cave with beautiful formations. It is one of the largest, most decorated known limestone caverns in the Northwest.
Although the caves are named after them, Lewis and Clark never visited the caverns. They did explore the area on their mapping expedition. The hike to the caverns overlooks where they camped just a few miles from the caverns on Antelope Creek on July 31, 1805.
Native Americans already knew about the cave. Two Europeans, Charles Brooke and Mexican John, from the nearby town of Whitehall heard the legends and set out to find the cave. They told just a few people about their discovery. I couldn’t find anything about them.
Around 1892, ranchers Tom Williams and Burt Pannell followed “smoke” coming from the side of the mountain when they were hunting together. They discovered the hole the steam was coming from, but did not explore any further.
How to Find a Cave
A cave is usually warmer inside than the outside air. Sometimes you will see fog coming out of the opening.
Six years later they returned with candles and ropes. When they lower themselves into the hole, they were thrilled by what they saw!
Tom Williams wanted to start a tourist business, giving tours to the caverns. Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave was already very popular. He talked to local miner and investor Dan Morrison. Williams showed Morrison the caverns and Morrison immediately filed a mining claim and began developing “Limespur Cave” for tourists.
Dan Morrison had a trail built, widened a more accessible entrance and built 2000 wooden steps, including a spiral staircase over a 90-foot drop. (The tour guide will point this area out to you.) He promoted the cave and it became quite famous.
Soon, though, in 1900, the Northern Pacific Railroad claimed the land. Morrison took them to court, but the railroad won. Morrison continued to fight the decision for the rest of his life. And he continued to take tourists into the caverns.
In 1908, the railroad turned the land over to the federal government. President Theodore Roosevelt made it a National Monument in May of 1911. He renamed it Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument. Because Congress did not set aside any money for the new monument, Lewis and Clark Cavern was officially closed to the public for the next thirty years. They put up barricades and sealed the caverns. Morrison broke the lock and brought in tours. Every time new locks or barricades were installed, Morrison broke in. He continued to fight for his caverns and defy the government orders until his death, in 1932, at the age of 80.
In 1935, Montana Governor Frank Cooney began requesting the federal government to make the caverns a state park. By 1937, Congress signed the papers. On April 22, 1938, Lewis and Clark Caverns, Morrison Cave became Montana’s first State Park.
This was deep in the Great Depression. CCC workers were brought in to improve Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument between 1935 and 1941. About 200 workers built roads and the visitor center. They hauled bat guano out of the cave and improved accessibility. The steps you see in many areas of the cave were carved out by CCC workers. They widened passages to make particularly beautiful chambers more accessible. The young men explored the caverns, making remarkable new discoveries. They excavated the tunnel the tour currently uses as an exit and installed the first electric lighting.
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with a set of programs called the New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a public work relief program to create jobs for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families. The temporary program operated from 1933 to 1942. Natural resource conservation programs were at the core of the CCC. Workers improved roads, parks and worked on other important projects around the United States.
There were additional improvements after World War II. Morrison’s wooden steps, now nearly fifty years old, were removed. A train and tram were put in to deliver tourists directly to the cave entrance.
The train and tram remained part of the fun of the cave until the 1970s.
Old film of the Tram to Lewis and Clark Caverns
There is a small colony of about 100 female Western Big-eared bats. (The male bats live separately.) There used to be thousands. They are on the caution list now as a species of special concern.
You can only visit the cave by guided tours. Be sure to call ahead and find out when tours are available. This is a really fun caving tour, but you have to be in OK shape. The 3-mile hike up to the cave is long and steep. The cave tour has stooping, crawling and sliding. Bring a hoodie. The cave tour lasts about two hours.
We were visiting Yellowstone. We flew in to the Bozeman, Montana airport. We got good rates at the nearby La Quinta Inn, while we waited for my daughter and son-in-law to meet us. Lewis and Clark Caverns is about half an hour away. Take I-90 west to exit 274 and follow the signs.
The drive to the caves was wonderful. Take your time.