Lewis & Clark Caverns, Three Forks, MT…
So often I find that my family takes our home state for granted. While we love to explore new places all across the country, we still have so much to discover right here in Montana. We’ve decided that, while we are ‘back home’ for the summer, we need to keep up our exploring; just here close to home.
One thing that we have discovered tho, is that if we don’t set a specific time or date aside, the time goes by and we never get around to exploring around here. So, our family decided to set each Monday aside and visit someplace that is either new to us or that we haven’t visited in years. The Lewis and Clark Caverns Montana State Park was a destination that we haven’t visited in years – in fact, none of our kids, who are ages 22 and under, and ever been there. My husband and I had each been there, but not since grade school (and a lot had changed since then!).
The Lewis and Clark Caverns are located approximately 20 miles west of Three Forks, MT, and are one of the areas top attractions; in fact, the caverns became Montana’s first state park in 1937. Despite the cavern’s name, Lewis and Clark never actually discovered the caverns even though they passed along the Jefferson River just below the cave; it is believed that they camped very near, and hunted in these same foothills.
Located just off of the main road, is the first of 2 visitor’s centers for the park. The lower v.c. is a informative stop with maps, friendly rangers to give directions, and a parking lot to drop large trailers and unhook the toads, which are the suggested mode of transport for the 3 mile twisty, somewhat steep drive into the second visitor’s center. After the beautiful drive in (be sure to watch for deer), and at the end of the line/at the top of the mountain, there is a large parking lot which includes an overflow area with room to park smaller rvs, and even spots for those brave enough to tackle the drive in their big rigs.
The upper visitor’s center is where you can purchase tickets if you would like to take the guided tour of the caverns (the only way to see them). The tour is not for the faint of heart (literally). The tour takes 2 hours with over 2 miles of walking, including a 3/4 mile uphill hike (ascent of 300 ft) before you even reach the entrance to the caverns (try to pick a cooler day than the 90-something one we visited on!). While no food or flavored drinks are allowed in the caverns, I would recommend taking a (plain) water bottle with you as the walk in can be taxing if it is a hot day. Once at the entrance to the cave, the guide will give you an overview of what to expect on the tour; the caverns contain over 600 steps, and you can expect to: walk through some areas hunched over, slide down another area as the ceiling is so low that is the only way through, and have to remove any backpacks, no matter how small, in other areas because they will rub on the formations as you slip sideways through some cracks in the rock. The caverns are not ADA accessible, nor should this be your top tour destination if you suffer from claustrophobia or a fear of heights!
We have been through several other cave formations, including Carlsbad, and in some ways this topped the others. We loved the personalized tour kept to small groups and we were much closer to the formations.
One of my favorite parts were the chocolate falls – formations that are brown in color due to the mineral makeup of the buildup material. The tour was interesting, and mostly covered the discovery of the caverns, the first private tours, and then the subsequent changes made by the COE to make the park more public friendly (and safe). The part I found the most fascinating tho, was information about the first private tours – tours that began all the way down by the river; everyone would walk from the river, up the side of the mountain to the entrance, and go through the caves on homemade wooden steps. Tours were led by candlelight, featured packed lunches, and took 12 hours roundtrip! The guests were even encouraged to pull stalactites off the walls and ceilings as souvenirs!
At the closing of the tour, we were led down a tunnel blasted out of solid rock by tons and tons of dynamite, and came out on the side of the mountain, below the entrance, and began our walk back to the visitor’s center on the level, paved path.
Back at the visitor’s center, a few of the kids took the time to ‘squish’ a penny, and we also visited the gift shop where we purchased a great L&C Caverns State Park bumper sticker for the back of the toy hauler. The grounds also have public restrooms and a little cafe where you can purchase sandwiches, fudge, drinks… and the parking area serves as a trailhead for hikers.
Admission to the state park is $5 for non-residents, and free for Montana residents (we pay $4/vehicle plate when we renew our vehicle registration each year). Cave tours are $10 for ages 12 and up, $5 for ages 6-11, and free for those under age 6, so for our family, it cost $75 to tour the caverns. And the kids loved it! Also, it might be of interest for those families traveling with kids, the Montana state parks have their own Jr. Ranger program – it is the same for all parks, so the kids can pick up booklets, based on age, at any park, complete them on your travels, and return them to any other Montana state park. Mine picked their booklets up at the caverns while we were there, and we will drop them off at another state park here in a week or so.
Right next door to the lower visitor’s center, is a MT State Park campground. We didn’t really tour the park for review purposes, but my little kids loved the playground equipment they had! The sites are spread out, there are electrical hookups, a few shade trees, and is located just a short distance from the Jefferson River. We would love to come back and camp the area!
Lewis and Clark Caverns are a great stop! And even if the caverns are too physically challenging for you, the area, drive, and view from the top, are all beautiful, and offer just a little taste of the awesomeness of our fabulous Big Sky Country.
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