Montana, Western US

Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Montana

A couple years back, my mom – an avid blog reader since day one – wrote her first ever guest post. She really enjoyed the process and offered to write more posts in the future should the opportunity arise. This one had actually been in progress for a while and, since my California trip still refuses to be written, now seemed like a good time for me to ask if she felt like finishing it. Lucky for me, her answer was yes. So thanks, Mom, for giving me an excuse to continue procrastinating my California posts in the hopes that they will eventually write themselves.


My mom still lives in Montana and, weather permitting, hikes just about every weekend. Over the past few years, she has spent many a Saturday on the trails at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, and is now very familiar with all of them. I, on the other hand, have seen very little of the park outside of the caverns themselves. So now I will hand it over to her for an overview of all there is to see and do at Montana’s first state park.

I first visited Lewis & Clark Caverns shortly after I moved to Montana in the 1970s and have taken the cavern tour a few times in the intervening years, including a candlelight tour that is offered over the Christmas holidays. For years, I only thought of this area as a place to visit the cave. I’ve since learned that the area has much more to offer.

Although the park is named for Lewis & Clark, when they passed through the area they did not know the cave existed as it is not easily seen. On a very cold winter day in 1887, two local ranchers saw what they thought was smoke from a campfire up on the mountainside. Thinking that maybe someone made a fire because they needed help, the men hiked to the location and instead found steam rising from the cave’s natural entrance. One of the men dropped a rock into the opening and, realizing from how long it took for the rock to hit bottom that the cave was very deep, they decided they would need equipment to descend. They planned to return to the cave to explore it, but it was not until four years later that one of the men returned with a friend and descended 30 feet (9 m) to the first ledge and then another 90 feet (27 m) to another level. Realizing that others would enjoy seeing this magnificent cave, they later partnered with a businessman named Dan Morrison who gave the first tours of the cave.

Tourists who wanted to see the cave had to take a train along the Jefferson River and depart at a place that was not a scheduled stop, before hiking up a rather steep trail to the cave entrance. The railroad company, wondering why all those people left the train at that spot, asked around and learned of the cave and the tours being given by Dan Morrison. As it turned out, the cave was on a checkerboard square of land owned by the railroad so it put a stop to the tours and some years later, turned the land over to the National Park Service who named it Lewis & Clark Monument but basically did nothing with the cave. In the 1930s, the NPS asked the state of Montana if it wanted the cave and surrounding land and this is how Lewis and Clark Caverns became Montana’s first state park. At the request of the state, the federal government sent Civilian Conservation Corps workers to the area to enlarge another existing entrance for easier access, blast a long exit tunnel, carve some 600 steps into the rock, and add lights and handrails. The CCC also constructed many of the buildings still in use in the park today.

At some point, the state either added, or greatly upgraded, a campground and our family often camped there in the early fall. There was a short nature trail that we hiked once or twice but that was about the extent of our hiking in the park. It was not until a few years ago that I realized the park has much more to offer than a cave tour and a short nature trail.

Because this area is warmer and gets much less snow than the mountains near Bozeman, Lewis & Clark is a great location for early-season hikes. Although the road is gated until the Caverns open around Memorial Day, the trails can be accessed from the Main Visitor Center or from the campground. Snow-depth permitting, cross-country skiers sometimes climb up the closed road and have a nice ski down. Bikers also use the road once the snow melts but the gate is still locked, riding to the upper Cave Visitor Center and then accessing the trails from that point.

(Before you set out on your hike or bike ride, be sure you have a supply of food and water, as there is no water access along any of the trails. There is very little shade or shelter, so come prepared with sun protection and rain gear. Dogs are allowed but must be on leash. If you do bring your pup, be on the lookout for cactus and rattlesnakes, and bring plenty of water for them.)

There are four main trails in the park: Limespur, Cave Gulch, Middle View, and East Side. You can combine at least portions any two of these into a loop, depending on how far you want to hike. Limespur Trail is only 1 mile (1.6 km) or so in length and is rated easy. The other three are moderate to mildly strenuous as they gain about 1000 feet (305 m) as they climb up the mountain toward the cave itself.

Views from the trail

The Cave Gulch Trail is the most strenuous, gaining its 1000 feet (305 m) in just under 2 miles (3.2 km). It most closely follows the original route that the discoverers used to reach the cave entrance. There are multiple ways to access this trail, but most people start at the amphitheater trail from campground and follow the signs. Another access point is just beyond the group camping area on the Limespur River Access trail which heads west and climbs the foothills via gentle switchbacks. At the junction, the uphill becomes a bit more relentless as it climbs to the Cave Visitor Center which is where cavern tours begin.

Cave Gulch Trail

If you wish to hike a loop, cross the Cave Visitor Center parking lot, drop down a stairway at the far end of the upper parking lot (beyond the cafe and gift store) to the lower lot, and pick up the trail that connects to either the Middle View Trail or the East Side Trail. The trail guide lists the Cave Gulch to Middle View loop as 3 miles (4.8 km) starting and returning to the Cave Visitor Center, and the Cave Gulch-East Side loop as 5.9 miles (9.5 km).

The Middle View Trail also connects the campground to the Cave Visitor Center, but takes a longer, more meandering route. The first section is shared with the Cave Gulch Trail. You can also connect to Middle View by taking the Limespur Fishing Access Trail to the DanMor Mine Trail.

Entrance to the DanMor gypsum mine. Note the rattlesnake coiled up in there. They do live in the park so watch your step as you hike.

From that point, the trail climbs pretty steadily to a connector that will take you to the Cave Visitor Center. To make a loop, you can climb the stairs to the upper parking lot, cross it, and drop down onto the Cave Gulch Trail. Alternately, turn right onto the East Side Trail just before the parking lot. Middle View trail does have some of the better views in the park.

Looking east toward the Jefferson River from Middle View Trail

The East Side Trail begins at the Main Visitor Center or via a short spur from the campground. Initially, the climb is gentle but does get a bit more intense as you progress. This trail can be lengthened by adding on the Greer Gulch Loop Trail (2 miles/3.2 km).

Located along the East Side Trail, this Douglas fir was just a seedling in the early 1800s when Lewis & Clark traveled through. Now, despite its broken top, it is 92 feet (28 m) tall and has a diameter of 42 feet (13 m).

In my opinion, Greer Gulch is the best trail in the park. Because it is on a north-facing slope and includes the Nature Trail, it is more lush than any other area of the park. It also has more shade. From either direction, the trail climbs another 400 feet (122 m) via switchbacks to a ridge line from which you can see the beautiful Tobacco Root Mountains to the east and the Jefferson River below. It is also the only trail that is closed to mountain bikes so the trail is soft and pine-needle covered instead of sandy and rocky like most of the others.

Tobacco Root Mountains as seen from the high point of the Greer Gulch Trail

Once you complete the Greer Gulch Loop, rejoin the East Side Trail. To continue toward the Cave Visitor Center, follow signs to the right. The trail drops down to the road, goes through a tunnel under the road, and climbs until the junction with Middle View Trail. From here, you can descend the way you came, or make a loop by following either Middle View Trail (7 miles/11.3 km for the entire loop) or Cave Gulch Trail (5.9 miles/9.5 km for the entire loop).

East Side Trail
Tunnel under the road

As mentioned previously, the Limespur River Access Trail starts at the group campground and climbs over the foothills. At the junction, turn left on an old Jeep track until you reach the highway which you will cross to reach the entrance of the Limespur Fishing Access site. At the far end of the parking area is a trail that crosses the train tracks and leads down to a rocky beach on the Jefferson River. There are some beautiful mountain views from this spot that cannot be seen anywhere else in the park. And if you are a fisherman, this is the only place in the park where you can drop a line.

Limespur Trail
Jefferson River at the Limespur Fishing Access Site

The campground at Lewis & Clark State Park is quite spacious and is open year-round. Some sites have a bit of shade although others are pretty exposed. It is typically hot and dry in the summer due to the arid climate of this area, and winds can be gusty at times. Some sites have electric hookups but none have water hookups, although there is running water, a camper’s sink, and showers available in the campground during the summer season. The campground also has a playground for younger children. Three cabins have been added fairly recently and can be rented. Reservations for campsites and cabins are typically necessary during the summer months, especially over holiday weekends. Stargazing is a popular activity from the campground since the openness affords an expansive view of the night sky.


Of course, the main highlight of Lewis & Clark State Park is the guided cavern tours that start at the Cave Visitor Center, which is reached via a winding paved road that gains quite a bit of elevation (or via the trails mentioned above). The caverns consist of several rooms connected by somewhat narrow passages and boast some beautiful cave features. The Classic cave tour takes about two hours, including the 0.75 mile (1.2 km), 600 foot (183 m) elevation gain hike on a paved trail to the entrance and a shorter hike back to the parking lot, and starts at a gated entrance. During the tour, you will descend around 400 feet (122 m).

During COVID, the park began to offer a shorter tour that starts from the exit tunnel and goes only as far as the Paradise Room, the largest and most spectacular room in the cave. This room is no longer included in the Classic tour. I have not taken this shorter tour; however, it is a good option for those who want a less strenuous experience because the walk to the “entrance” is less steep and there are no narrow passages to navigate. On the Classic tour, due to the narrow passages, visitors are not permitted to have children in backpacks; in fact, backpacks and purses of any kind are discouraged. The temperature in the caverns is around 48°F (9°C) year round so a sweater or jacket is recommended.

All in all, Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park has quite a lot to offer and is a nice place to spend a day or two on your way through southwest Montana.

19 thoughts on “Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Montana”

  1. Well done “Guest Post Mom”! What a great trip report. I’ve always wanted to visit these caves, so thank you for the great information.

    Diana – I know how you feel about trips not getting written about. I’m still catching up from last summer. It’ll come 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thankfully I have finally managed to get them written. Once my semester ended and I had some brain power again, the words finally came. Looking forward to your posts about next summer!


  2. I saw the source of Missouri river when I was passing through Montana, and found some other parts that were part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Made me want to go back and explore it properly!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hiking and blogging – like mother like daughter! A really thorough post (you two have a very similar writing style) of yet another thing I missed out on when I lived in Montana (sigh). Gorgeous pictures – your mom is almost as lucky to live in Montana as you are to live in Colorado!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for a great post from your mom Diana. Oh, the presence of the rattlesnake might unnerve me a little! The views are breathtaking – seeing the snow capped mountains in the distance is just a testament to how far one can see on some of these trails. And it’s definitely a bonus to be able to stargaze and visit beautiful caves!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s very sweet of your mom to write a guest post. The cavern looks stunning with all those rock formations. Who knew being underground could be so beautiful!? It’s nice that there are also some hiking trails and camping options at this state park too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post mom! We’ve driven near this park many times but never stopped. The cave looks impressive, and has it’s own convoluted history to match the caverns stalactites and stalagmites! Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

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