The limestone caverns of the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, located in eastern Montana, were first established as a National Monument in May of 1908. While the Lewis and Clark expedition never actually descended into the caverns, they passed close by in 1805, and the caverns look out on over 50 feet of the original trail as it follows the Jefferson River. The 160-acre site was transferred to the state of Montana in 1937 and formally dedicated as a state park in 1941.
The most notable attractions at this park are the guided tours of the caverns, which wind through miles of underground caves and tunnels filled with impressive cave formations and rarely seen wildlife, such as bats, blind spiders, and brushtail rats. Many of the tours may be difficult for young children or for the elderly, but they do have shorter, less strenuous tours that explore some of the larger caves.
The caves are not the only reason to visit this state park, however. For those who prefer not to go spelunking, there is still plenty to do at this campground. The park also boasts over ten miles of trails to explore, including at least one that leads down to the Jefferson River, a variety of wildlife, an interesting Visitors Center, and the historical ruins of old mines, such as the old gypsum mine near the Danmore Mine Trail. If you are driving your rig through Montana Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park is an excellent place to stop and take it all in for a few days.
The Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park is in the western portion of Montana, about 40 miles east of Butte. It is situated just off of State Highway 2, about halfway between the small towns of Whitehall and Three Forks. The road to get there is fairly easy to traverse, although some areas are a bit winding. The turnoff from Highway 2 to the campground is fairly easy to spot. The roads in the campground are paved and not overly narrow, and the campsites have fairly level gravel areas for your camper.
There is suitable parking for trailers at the Visitors Center that is located at the entrance to the campgrounds. The road from the campground to the Visitors Center near the caverns has a steep incline as well as many twists and turns, making it extremely difficult to navigate with a larger RV or a trailer.
There are 39 spots available for reservation at this campground, 18 of which have 50-amp electricity hookups. Water and sewer hookups are not available for any of the campsites, although there is a dump facility on site. There are both back-in and pull-through spots available, and it is important to review your reservations carefully. Although the largest spots can accommodate a larger vehicle or trailer up to 52 feet long, some of the sites are only large enough for a 35-foot RV or trailer. Any equipment that does not fit fully within the campsite will need to be parked outside of the campgrounds.
The majority of the sites are well shaded by trees and there is room between each so that the campground does not feel crowded, but not quite enough trees to make the sites seem private. Each of the well-groomed campsites has a firepit with a grill and a picnic table. Generator use is allowed during the daytime but should be silenced during the quiet hours between 10 PM and 7 AM. Leashed or confined pets are permitted in the campgrounds, but they are not permitted in the caverns, and should not be left unattended at the campsite. The kennels at the entrance to the caverns are outdoors and unmanned.
The large parking area located by the Visitor's Center at the entrance has restrooms and educational displays. The Visitor's Center closer to the caverns boasts modern restrooms, a restaurant, and a gift shop. Many of the amenities, such as drinking water, flush toilets, and the dump facilities, are shut off during the winter months, typically October through April.
Near the winter holidays, a candlelight tour through the caves and caverns is offered. It is much colder this time of year, and there is likely to be snow during the exposed portions of the excursion, and it is not recommended for children under the age of five. Adults and older children who are reasonably fit and warmly dressed will find this experience entrancing as the candlelight flickers off of the cave formations, creating a plethora of dancing shadows. Warm drinks such as coffee and hot chocolate are available at the visitor's center both before and after the tour. These tours are only available for a few days out of each year.
If you enjoy photography you will want to bring your camera along in the campervan. There are a number of interesting and beautiful images that can be captured at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park. The many types of animals that live here make good subjects for photography, as do the beautiful landscapes and interesting rock formations that can be found both in and out of the caverns. If you are interested in history, you can take photographs of the ruins of an old gypsum mine near the Danmore Mine Trail, or you can capture images of fossilized shellfish that can sometimes be found in the boulders and exposed rock faces that are sprinkled throughout the park.
The employees and rangers that work at the Visitor's Centers at the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park are very knowledgeable about both the wildlife in the area and the history of the park, and are glad to share the information that they have gathered. One of the centers is located at the entrance of the park itself and the other one is up closer to the caves. If you are traveling in your rig with kids, they can pick up Junior Ranger books at the Visitor's Center that teach them valuable information about Montana wildlife, plants, caves, and bats. When they complete the activities that are outlined in the Junior Ranger booklets they can turn them in back at the center to receive a Junior Ranger badge or similar small prize.
The wildlife that is part of the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park’s ecosystem is varied and definitely worth exploring. There are 11 species of bats that live in and around the caverns, with the most well-known being the colony of female Western Big-Eared Bats that use the caves as a nursery. The caves also house bushytail rats and a number of interesting insects and arachnids, many of which are albino or blind due to their habitat. The grounds outside the caves and caverns have their own ecosystems where RV campers can often spot local mammals such as mule deer, coyotes, and even the occasional elk. Birds ranging from rufous hummingbirds to golden eagles make their homes in this park as do reptiles such as bull snakes and racers. Just remember to be cautious where you step as rattlesnakes are also common throughout the state of Montana.
Don't forget to pack your hiking boots in your camper or trailer as there are over 10 miles of trails to hike in the state park. Along with the guided hike through the caverns themselves, there are several other trails that have trailheads close to the Visitors Center, including the Danmore Mine Trail, which takes you by the ruins of an old gypsum mine. The difficulty of the trails in the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park vary quite a bit. The Fishing Access trail is a fairly easy, level hike of around 1.3 miles that leads to a tranquil section of the nearby Jefferson River, while the Cave Gulch Trail is a more demanding 1.9-mile hike that gains nearly 1000 feet in elevation.
The most popular activities at the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park are the guided tours of the caves that the park is famous for. There are a number of interesting cave formations to see in the caves including stalagmites, stalactites, and large columns, and the occasional bat or bushy-tailed woodrat may be spotted. It can get chilly in the caves and caverns so bring an extra layer of clothing to keep warm. The classic tour is around two hours long and traverses two miles of lighted caverns. This tour is moderate-to-difficult and includes around 600 stairs as well as areas that require bending, stooping, and even sliding in order to complete the tour. There is also a shortened tour available for those who want a simpler adventure as well as an even more challenging tour for those who are looking for a more intense adventure.