Is Lewis and Clark Caverns worth visiting? Absolutely yes! Nestled about an hour southwest of Bozeman, the limestone caverns are a hidden gem just waiting to be explored.

A friend recommended we stop here on our road trip from Seattle to Bozeman, as exploring underground caves is becoming a hobby of ours, and it was some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

Practical Information
*Visitor Center’s hours vary seasonally.
*Purchase tour tickets in advance!
*Dining options are limited.

Is Lewis and Clark Caverns Worth Visiting?

Lewis and Clark Caverns: A Hidden Montana Gem

You’ll wander through a surreal underground world of awe-inspiring limestone formations.

Each section holds its’ unique geological wonders. The largest chamber within the caverns is amazing with its towering ceiling and massive formations.

But even the smaller rooms overwhelm you with their incredible beauty, with an exquisite array of sparkling calcite crystals that seem to adorn the cave walls like precious gems.

A Journey Through Time

Beyond its natural splendor, Lewis & Clark Caverns is one of the most fascinating Montana historical sites with a rich history that dates back centuries.

The caverns’ significance to Native American tribes, who once considered the area sacred, adds a layer of cultural significance to the site. Because steam could escape from the site, they referred to it as the smoking mountain.

The caves didn’t gain their modern name until the Roosevelt presidency during which Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed 18 national monuments and signed 5 national parks into law. 

Although Lewis and Clark never actually ventured into the caverns (in fact they never even knew they existed), they did camp nearby and explore the surrounding terrain. 

You may be asking yourself how a national monument became a state park?  There’s an interesting history behind these amazing caverns.

In the late 19th century, Montana pioneer Levi Shaeffer, recognizing the uniqueness and beauty of the caves, began leading illegal tours into the underground labyrinth, routinely breaking the locks and bringing people through for a tremendous amount of money.

The people who joined these illegal tours were high society types, dressed in ballroom attire while climbing around the caverns.

Eventually the federal government gave the caverns to the state of Montana to maintain and regulate. In 1908, Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park was established to preserve and protect this natural wonder, making it the first state park in Montana.

Today, guided tours provide people with fascinating insights into the cave’s geological and historical significance.

Giant limestone formation
The Throne Room made of limestone formations
Tall limestone structure

What To Expect at Lewis and Clark Caverns

The caverns are known for their stunning and diverse geological formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, cave bacon, and cave popcorn.

These natural wonders are a highlight for most people, my family included. The park also offers a Candlelight Cave Tour for a unique experience. Additionally, Townsend’s big-eared bats, an endangered species, can be found in the caverns.

Lewis & Clark Caverns Tours

Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park offers a range of guided tours to suit your preferences and abilities.

Pro Tip: Never touch the limestone formations, as it negatively influences their growth and longevity.

The Classic Tour

The Classic Tour is the most popular option and provides an in-depth exploration of the cave’s highlights.

Lasting approximately two hours, this tour takes you along well-lit pathways, revealing stunning formations and sharing captivating stories about the cave’s history and geology. It’s approximately 2 miles round trip.

The Paradise Tour

The Paradise Tour is for those who may experience claustrophobia, have small children, or disabilities that make the hike up to the upper cavern entrance or the tight spaces of the Classic Tour difficult.

It enters through a lower tunnel and allows stunning views of the Paradise Room.  This tour lasts about 90 minutes. 

For more adventurous souls, the Candlelight Cave Tour offers a similar experience except by candlelight. 

A cave of limestone secrets

Is the cavern tour suitable for everyone?

The tour may not be suitable if you are claustrophobic or have mobility issues, as it involves squeezing through small spaces and navigating stairs and uneven terrain.

The Classic Tour, which is more challenging, includes 600 stairs and some tight spaces. For those seeking a less strenuous experience, the Paradise Tour is recommended, being easier and more open-spaced.

Things you may see on your tour

This tour is not for the claustrophobic or extremely large-waisted, as there are some very small spaces you’ll be squeezing through at times. Here are a few things you may see on the tour.

Stalactites

Stalactites are fascinating natural formations and are a common sight in many caves around the world.  

They are mineral formations that hang from the ceilings of caves, that form as water containing dissolved minerals drips from the roof of a cave and leaves behind deposits of minerals.

Over time, these deposits accumulate and solidify, creating the elongated, icicle-like structures known as stalactites.

Stalactites are often found in limestone caves, where the limestone is rich in calcium carbonate. They can vary in size, from a few centimeters to several meters long, and they can display a range of colors depending on the minerals present in the water and the cave environment.

Stalagmites

Stalagmites are mineral formations that rise from the floor of caves or other underground structures. They are often found in close proximity to stalactites, which hang from the cave ceiling. Stalagmites and stalactites are collectively referred to as speleothems.

Stalagmites form through a similar process as stalactites, but in the reverse direction. Water containing dissolved minerals, such as calcium carbonate, drips from the tip of a stalactite and falls to the cave floor.

As the water drips and lands, it leaves behind mineral deposits. Over time, these deposits accumulate and solidify, building up the height and width of the stalagmite.

The formation of stalagmites is closely linked to the presence of stalactites. As water drips from a stalactite and falls to the cave floor, the mineral-rich water may continue to drip, splatter, or flow, creating layers of mineral deposits over time.

These layers contribute to the growth of the stalagmite. If a stalagmite and stalactite meet or join together, they form a column.

Cave bacon

Cave bacon, also known as flowstone or cave bacon formations, refers to the appearance of layered mineral deposits found in caves that resemble strips of bacon.

It form when water containing dissolved minerals seeps through the cracks and crevices of cave walls or ceilings. As the water flows, it deposits thin layers of minerals on the surface.

Over time, these layers build up, resulting in the formation of alternating bands or ribbons of different colors and textures, resembling the pattern of bacon strips.

The colors of cave bacon can vary, ranging from white to various shades of brown, red, or yellow, depending on the minerals present and other factors such as the cave’s environment and the presence of organic matter.

Cave popcorn

Cave popcorn, also known as coralloids or cave coral, refers to small, irregularly shaped mineral formations found in caves. They resemble tiny, knobby popcorn kernels or clusters of coral, hence the name.

Cave popcorn forms through a process similar to that of stalactites and stalagmites, but on a smaller scale.

The irregular and lumpy shapes of cave popcorn are influenced by the local conditions within the cave, including the availability of water, the mineral content, airflow patterns, and the specific surfaces on which the popcorn forms.

Townsend Big-Eared Bats

Townsend’s big-eared bats, an endangered and protected species, are named after the American naturalist and ornithologist John Kirk Townsend, who first described them in the 19th century. These bats are characterized by their large ears, which can reach lengths of up to 38 millimeters.

These bats are primarily insectivorous, feeding on a variety of nocturnal flying insects such as moths, beetles, and flies. They use their exceptional hearing and echolocation abilities to locate and capture their prey while in flight.

Townsend’s big-eared bats are primarily cave-dwelling bats, often roosting in large colonies in caves, mine shafts, or abandoned buildings. They are known to use their large ears to enhance their hearing, allowing them to detect subtle sounds and navigate through their environment more effectively.

Like many other bat species, Townsend’s big-eared bats play important ecological roles. They help control insect populations, pollinate flowers, and disperse seeds.

However, like other bat species, they also face various threats, including habitat loss, disturbance of roosting sites, and the spread of diseases such as white-nose syndrome.

Conservation efforts are being made to protect Townsend’s big-eared bats and their habitats. Their populations are monitored, and measures are taken to conserve roosting sites, promote public awareness, and minimize disturbances to their habitats.

Is Lewis and Clark Caverns Worth Visiting?
Stalagmites lit with purple lights
Stairs down into a dark cave

Above Ground Delights

While the underground delights of Lewis & Clark Caverns steal the spotlight, the park’s surface offerings are equally enchanting. Surrounding the caverns, there are over 3000 acres to enjoy picnicking, hiking and camping in the scenic beauty of the Madison River Valley.

The park’s Visitor Center offers interpretive exhibits, allowing you to learn more about the cave’s geology, history, and the surrounding ecosystem.  

How to Get to Lewis & Clark Caverns

To get to Lewis and Clark Caverns from Seattle, Bozeman, or Yellowstone National Park, you can follow these general directions:

From Seattle

Take I-90 East and continue for approximately 543 miles.
Take Exit 274 toward Whitehall.
Merge onto MT-55 East and continue for about 5 miles.
Turn left onto Lewis and Clark Caverns Road and follow the signs to the park entrance.

From Bozeman

Take I-90 West and drive for approximately 32 miles.
Take Exit 274 toward Whitehall.
Merge onto MT-55 East and continue for about 5 miles.
Turn left onto Lewis and Clark Caverns Road and follow the signs to the park entrance.

From Yellowstone National Park

Exit Yellowstone National Park via the West Entrance (near West Yellowstone, MT).
Take US-287 North and continue for about 57 miles.
Turn left onto MT-2 West and drive for approximately 14 miles.
Take a right onto MT-55 West and continue for about 16 miles.
Turn right onto Lewis and Clark Caverns Road and follow the signs to the park entrance.

Please note that these directions are approximate, and it’s always recommended to use a reliable navigation system or map for precise directions based on your specific starting point.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park Hours

From October through April, the Visitor Center is open from 10 am to 4 pm daily, closing Sundays and Mondays beginning in December.

From May through September, the center is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm daily.

Lewis and Clark Cavern Tickets

Tickets for the tours can be purchased online and you should buy them in advance if possible.

Stalactites
River through a cave
Is Lewis and Clark Caverns Worth Visiting?

What to Wear for the Cave Tours

It’s important to dress appropriately for a cave tour, for comfort and safety.

  • Wear lightweight, breathable clothing that allows for ease of movement. Opt for long pants to protect your legs from any rough surfaces or potential scratches. A long-sleeved shirt or a light jacket can also be useful, as caves tend to be cool and damp.
  • Choose closed-toe shoes with good traction, such as hiking boots or sturdy sneakers. Avoid wearing sandals, flip-flops, or shoes with slippery soles, as the cave floor can be uneven and wet.
  • Consider wearing layers so that you can adjust your clothing according to the temperature inside the cave. While caves are often cooler than the outside temperature, they can vary in temperature and humidity.
  • Depending on the specific cave tour and the time of year, you may want to bring a hat and gloves for added comfort. Some caves may have low ceilings or narrow passages, where a hat can help protect your head, and gloves can provide additional grip on wet surfaces.
  • It’s best to avoid wearing any valuable or delicate jewelry that may get damaged or lost during the tour. Keep accessories minimal to ensure a safe and hassle-free experience.

Where to Eat Near Lewis & Clark Caverns

There are limited dining options near Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana due to its rural location. The closest dining option is the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park Cafe, located within the park itself, offering meals, snacks, and beverages.

For more dining choices, you can consider visiting the town of Three Forks, which is about 11 miles (18 kilometers) from the caverns. Three Forks has a few restaurants and cafes where you can find a variety of cuisines. Three Forks Café and Iron Horse Café & Pie Shop offer a variety of foods and are both highly rated.

If you’re willing to travel a bit further, Bozeman has a wider range of dining options. Bozeman is approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of the caverns, and many wonderful restaurants, cafes, and eateries to explore.

The Cat Eye is a great place for breakfast, with a funky vibe and amazing banana bread French Toast. For a great late lunch or dinner, try Sidewinders, the Roost or the Hop Lounge.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are several options for overnight stays near Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana. The closest accommodation is the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park Campground, which is within the park itself and has tent camping sites.

If you prefer lodging in a nearby town, Three Forks is approximately 11 miles (18 kilometers) from the caverns, and has  a few hotels, motels, and bed and breakfast establishments. The Sacajawea Hotel is a clean, cozy and charming place to stay.

For more options, you can consider staying in Bozeman, which is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of the caverns. We stayed at the Residence Inn by Marriott and had a wonderful experience. They also allow dogs.

Things to Do Near Lewis and Clark Caverns

Near Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana, there are several attractions and activities to explore.

Some options include visiting the Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers converge, enjoying outdoor activities in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, or exploring the charming town of Three Forks with its historical sites and recreational opportunities.

Additionally, Montana is well-known for a number of cultural and historical sites that are worth your time. The Montana Ghost Town of Virginia City and Yellowstone National Park for instance, are within driving distance for further exploration.

FAQs on Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, MT

How long does it take to walk through Lewis and Clark Caverns?

The average tour of Lewis and Clark Caverns takes about 1 to 1.5 hours to walk through.

What is the temperature inside Lewis and Clark Caverns?

The temperature inside Lewis and Clark Caverns remains fairly constant throughout the year, typically around 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (7 to 10 degrees Celsius).

What do you wear to Lewis and Clark Caverns?

When visiting Lewis and Clark Caverns, it’s recommended to wear comfortable, layered clothing suitable for a constant temperature of around 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (7 to 10 degrees Celsius). It is also advisable to wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes with good traction for walking on uneven and possibly wet surfaces.

How strenuous is Lewis and Clark Caverns?

The level of strenuousness in Lewis and Clark Caverns can vary depending on the specific tour or activity you choose. The general tour through the caverns involves walking on paved pathways and includes some staircases, but it’s considered a moderately strenuous activity. It’s important to be prepared for some physical exertion and be comfortable with walking and climbing stairs for extended periods.

Final Thoughts on Montana Caverns

Exploring the Lewis & Clark Caverns is an unforgettable adventure, unveiling the marvels hidden beneath the surface and letting you explore one of the most unique historical sites in Montana.

The captivating formations, rich history, and enchanting experiences make this underground wonderland a must-visit destination.