Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park

Limespur Cave


Useful Information

Location: 25 Lewis & Clark Caverns Rd., Whitehall, MT 59759.
Motorway 90 between Bozeman and Butte, exit 256 Cardwell Boulder. Highway 2 east 12 km, turnoff to the cave.
(45.836553, -111.877826)
Open: MAY to 14-JUN daily 9-16:30.
[2023]
Fee: Classic Cave: Adults USD 15, Children (5-14) USD 10, Children (0-4) USD 5.
. Paradise: Adults USD 15, Children (5-14) USD 10, Children (0-4) free, Seniors (62+) USD 10.
. Wild Cave: Adults USD 40, Seniors (62+) USD 25.
. Candlelight: Adults USD 25, Children (5-14) USD 10.
. Park Fee: Car USD 8, Pedestirans USD 4, Bicycle USD 4.
[2023]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: L=3,067 m, VR=175 m, T=10 °C, A=1,615 m asl.
Guided tours: Classic Cave: L=3,200 m, D=120 min, VR=33 m, St=600.
Paradise: L=1,600 m, D=90 min.
Candlelight: L=3,200 m, D=120 min, VR=33 m, St=600, MinAge=5.
Wild Cave: MinAge=15.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no Paradise: partly accessible
Bibliography:
Address: Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, PO Box 489, Whitehall, MT 59759, Tel: +1-406-287-3541. E-mail:
Reservation: Tel: +1-1-855-922-6768.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

NOV-1892 cave discovered by Tom Williams and Bert Pannell, two hunters.
1898 first exploration by Tom Williams and some friends.
1901 cave developed and opened to the public by Dan Morrison, named Limespur Cave.
1908 Northern Pacific Railway claimed that the cave was on its property, won in a trial and offered the property to the federal government to be preserved as a park.
11-MAY-1908 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the creation of Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument.
1935 about 200 Civilian Conservation Corps workers start making the cave safer and more accessible.
24-AUG-1937 congress abolishes Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument, deed for the property transferred to the State of Montana, start of development.
22-APR-1938 cave declared Montana's first state park.
1940 first light installed.
1950 train and tram transport visitors to the cave.
1953 operation transferred to the State Highway Commission.
1965 managed by the Montana Department of Fish and Game.
1973 tram abandoned.
1975 train abandoned.
2018 listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Description

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is Montana's oldest state park, featuring one of the largest known limestone caverns in the Northwest. This cave was discovered by Tom Williams and Bert Pannell in 1892, who explored it six years later with some friends. They developed it with the local miner Dan Morrison in 1901 and opened it to the public under the name Limespur Cave, although it had also become known as Morrison Cave. To do so they constructed an extensive ladder and stair system, according to legend there were 2,000 steps. However, Dan Morrison actually never purchased the land, instead he filed a mineral claim on the land in 1905. But Northern Pacific Railway disputed that claim. They said that the cave was on their property, which sounds strange as the railroad track is deep down in the valley below the cave. But they won the trial and then offered the property to the federal government to be preserved as a park.

President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the creation of the Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument, America's 15th national monument. But as the land was still mostly unexplored, it was first surveyed during the next three years and then a second proclamation was signed by President William Howard Taft on 16-MAY-1911. And to get there was quite strenuous, the road was bad and ended half way, then there was a 45 minutes climb to reach the cave entrance. Inside there were not only the numerous ladders and staircases, there were also crawls and no light. There were no rangers and the cave was freely accessible, it was only protected by the difficulties to get there. Soon it was closed for years because of vandalism and safety concerns. Unfortunately it could never get the monetary support needed to develop it as a National Park. Since 1935 about 200 Civilian Conservation Corps workers made the cave safer and more accessible. But the residents of Montana were unhappy with the situation and Montana governor Frank Cooney formally requested that the federal government turn the property over to Montana. The National Park Service determined, the caverns lacked the required national significance. Finally, congress abolished the National Monument in 1937, the deed for the property was transferred to the State of Montana. Now development work was intensified, the state and the Civilian Conservation Corps completed the show cave and installed electric light. In 1941, it was finally opened to the public.

The cave is a little on the strenuous side until today, there are still a lot of stairs and the tour path with a length of 3.2 km is quite a hike. Since 1950 the cave was reached by a tram, until it was finally replaced by a new road and a huge parking lot. The trails in the cave were built using asphalt, which damaged the cave environment as it released poisonous carbohydrates. It was in the 1990s replaced by neutral materials, a work carried out by the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), a non-profit organisation. The material had to be chiseled out manually and then carried through narrow and low sections of the cave. The park is considered the crown jewel of Montana's state park system and still supported every summer by volunteers of the MCC.

Despite the name, the caverns were never visited by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They were visiting the area while searching for the source of the Jefferson River, in the hope to find a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. The source of the Jefferson River is near Dillon, Montana and so it was of no use for the expedition. On this occasion they travelled the valley below and stayed overnight at the nearby exit of the freeway. Some say the cave was named because 80 km of their route along the Jefferson River is visible from the cave entrance.

The cave developed in limestones and dolomites of the Madison group which were deposited during the Mississippian (360 to 325 Ma). The area was covered by a shallow oxygen rich sea full of life. The shells or skeletons were made of calcite and deposited to form the limestone. Shells and bones were fossilized and can today be found in the rock, and in the walls of the cave. During the Laramide Orogeny around 70 million years ago the rocks were uplifted and the tectonic forces caused joints in the limestone. Those joints were the place where rain water with carbon dioxide entered the rock and dissolved it, forming the cave. Theoretically cave formation started with the forming of the joints, but the massive chambers are most likely a result of the huge amounts of meltwater during the cold ages of the current ice age.

Most people are impressen by the stalactites and stalagmite, but the true wealth of the cave are helictites, rafts, cave popcorn, aragonite and even gypsum flowers.

The tour includes a steep ascend from the visitor center to the cave entrance, which is rather strenuous. There are various narrow and very low passages, so the visitors have to crouch, and the tour is not advisable for people with claustrophobia. Appropriate clothes are probably a good idea. Nevertheless, the cave is developed with electric light and paved paths. There are two tours, a regular tour and an easier one which is suitable for children and elderly. The candlelight tour is the same as the classical tour, just without electric light. This tour requires online booking. And finally they offer cave trekking tours which are available only after appointment. As the cave is located in the mountains, it is accessible only from MAY to SEP, weather depending, during winter only the Visitor Center is open.