Montana road trip 2021, part VI: acoustic geology at Ringing Rocks

The final stop on our six-day Montana road trip was quite possibly the most bizarre place I’ve ever been in my life: Ringing Rocks.

Ringing Rocks is located on BLM land near Whitehall, Montana. I’d heard that the dirt road wasn’t in the best condition and we wouldn’t be able to make it all the way in a 2WD car. But that was fine; we’d drive as far as we could and hike the rest. From other accounts, we should be able to get within a mile (1.6 km) of the rocks. So up the dirt road we went, keeping an eye on the odometer and the conditions of the road. One mile, then two, then three… so far so good. We got to within about a mile of the rocks, at which point there was a pullout on the right. But the road up ahead looked fine still so we decided to keep chugging along in our little Corolla.

At this point, please allow me to save you from making this same mistake: if you don’t have 4WD and high clearance, stop at the pullout. Just stop. The road may look fine, but it’s not. At this point, the well-packed dirt and gravel inexplicably turns into soft, loose dirt and gravel… which we only realized after sinking about 6 inches (15 cm) into it and getting stuck. Very stuck.

(For the second time in as many months… moral of the story: don’t go roadtripping with me, apparently.)

As we were attempting to dig three of our tires plus the entire front axle out of the gravel, a couple with an OHV and a winch came along, followed by another couple, all of whom graciously stopped to help us out. It took quite a lot of digging and some pushing and a pretty big assist from the OHV, but we were eventually able to free the car and back carefully down the road into the pullout.

(Shoutout to these kind individuals… I don’t think we’d ever have been able to get ourselves out without some assistance!)

Wheels back on solid ground now, we grabbed our hiking gear and walked the remaining 1 mile (1.6 km) and 480 feet (145 m) up the road to the Ringing Rocks parking area. We didn’t mind, though. It was a nice walk.

Views from our hike up the road

Soon we arrived at Ringing Rocks. Which is – as the name suggests – a collection of rocks that ring… when hit with a hammer, that is. It’s not entirely clear why this happens. Geologists think it has something to do with the composition of the boulders and the way they are all piled up together. If you remove a rock from the pile, it will no longer ring.

Ringing Rocks

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting in terms of the ringing… maybe something that vaguely resembled a dull tuning fork. But nope… a vast majority of these rocks really truly ring, in all different tones and with varying degrees of resonance. Some sounded like bells or a xylophone while others sounded more like the clanging you’d hear in a blacksmith’s shop. It’s very strange.

It’s also a lot of fun. Or maybe we’re just easily amused. We pulled out our hammer (this was definitely the first time we’d ever hiked with a hammer in our backpack) and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes climbing around this enormous pile of boulders and banging on as many of them as possible (we were not breaking the rules, this is allowed).

Given that my mom and I are both musicians, we couldn’t resist attempting to play some melodies as well. We even managed a slightly off-key rendition of Hot Cross Buns.

We came home with quite a few short videos of our musical creations. I’ve put them into a Google Photos album… you can watch them here.

And that was the last stop on our Montana roadtrip, so after hiking back to the car we made our way home. It was very different than our usual trips, much less focused on mountains and hiking and much more focused on history. As much as I love to hike, I’m glad we decided to do a history tour instead. Most of my history classes in school involved a lot of watching movies and memorizing names and dates and not actually learning anything of value. As a result, I disliked the subject and never really cared to learn any more.

But in the last couple years I’ve come to realize the importance of knowing and understanding our history, and that was part of my motivation for this trip. I know we only covered bits and pieces, but I enjoyed learning more about the state I called home for 18 years and I’m excited to learn more of the history of the places I visit in the future.

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: from I-90, take exit 241 and follow the gravel road parallel to the interstate for 0.75 miles (1.2 km). Turn left, cross the railroad tracks, and continue 3.8 miles (6.1 km) to Ringing Rocks parking area. Note that your GPS app might try to take you a different route that’s longer and with rougher roads
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: none if you have the right car to reach the parking area. If you only have 2WD, you’ll have to hike about 2 miles (3.2 km) round-trip with 480 feet (145 m) of elevation gain
  • Where to stay: Butte or Whitehall are the closest towns with lodging, or there are some established and dispersed camping options in the area
  • Other: as we found out the hard way, you really do need 4WD and clearance to make it all the way there… if you don’t have that, park at the pullout 3.5 miles (5.6 km) from the interstate

22 thoughts on “Montana road trip 2021, part VI: acoustic geology at Ringing Rocks”

  1. Wow, so fascinating! Since we live in Colombia as expats, we often think about places we’d like to visit on a long trip through the US. We’ll have to put this on our list! And your story about car/road issues made me laugh, since we experienced the same thing on our recent Colombian road trip…didn’t get stuck, but almost a couple of times! All the best to you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. So wild that the rocks literally ring…but it’s really cool, too! To really interact with nature in this context takes hiking to a whole new level. What a fun way to round out your trip in Montana!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You demonstrated in your posts not only the beauty of the Big Sky state, but also the incredible history and geology. While we did an extensive road trip in 2019, you’ve opened up new reasons to go back although the great Montana dive bars and breweries are motivation enough!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is awesome and unknown to me. I know there are lakes in Russia, I believe, where this is possible on the ice. I show that to my students when we learn about found instruments and what not. I’m going to add this to my list!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a unique phenomenon, it must have been really cool to bang on the rocks, and the view from the top is beautiful. Truly reminds us what an amazing planet we live on! Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva


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