Heading underground with Lewis and Clark
Between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks lies a few hundred miles of wide open Montana countryside. Majestic in their own way, the huge skies have little to break them up except the smudge of distant mountains and the occasional building or tall tree on the horizon.
While you could probably drive from one park to the other in a (very long) day if you really wanted to, we didn’t. Instead Dustin and I took the more leisurely option, leaving Yellowstone late morning and spending a couple of hours abusing the wifi in a surprisingly upmarket bar in Bozeman before finally rolling into Lewis and Clark Caverns campsite in the early evening.
Our cabins were basic but comfortable, although the lack of bedding or food options hinted at an expected degree of self-sufficiency higher than ours. Still, it was a warm enough night, and we managed to find the only restaurant within 20 miles, so all was not lost.
With the glorious sunset and the sight of millions of stars sparkling above us after night fell, it somehow seemed a small price to pay.
The following morning we headed a few miles up the road before opening time, to enjoy sitting around in a car park eating unpalatable energy bars before the first tour of the day. The Lewis and Clark Caverns – so-named, I believe, because the famous explorers once wandered around nearby while looking for something else - are an interlinked series of caves formed within the limestone cliffs over millions of years.
Only accessible with a guide, the group tours run every hour or so in summer. The warning to take warm clothes seemed out of place as we hiked up under the blazing sun, but the temperature dropped as soon as we stepped inside and disturbed the family of bats sleeping beside the locked gate.
Many of the passages through the caverns were hacked out using picks and dynamite over the last hundred years, predominantly by work gangs from the Civilian Conservation Corp during the Depression. Lights have been added more recently – a vast improvement over the candle-lit lanterns that early visitors had to carry.
Even so, the two hour tour isn’t for everyone. Confined spaces and uneven steps were everywhere, and the squeak of bats from above reminded us that we weren’t alone in the caves.
Our guide was full of energy, pointing out rock formations that, with squinted eyes and a good imagination, resembled objects from the outside world. Elephants, married couples, cathedrals, even Simba the lion king made an appearance. Apparently. I guess maybe I hadn’t spent enough time underground by myself to be able to see all of them quite yet…
Further into the caves we walked, crouching, duck-walking, even zipping down a natural slide at one point. The variety of formations was remarkable, changes in breeze and chemical composition over the millennia reflected in the shape and colour of the pillars around us.
Occasionally the narrow passages opened out into vast spaces, the result of weaker patches of rock being completely eaten away by the incessant water.
Each type of formation had a name, from the well-known ones like stalactites and columns to the more esoteric helictites and fracture shields. I don’t see myself becoming an active spelunker any time soon, but the commentary was surprisingly interesting.
With the tour coming to an end we arrived at the grand finale, a huge cave full of giant formations known as the Paradise Room. Lit with a pink glow, the effect as we rounded the corner was quite breathtaking.
Enormous ‘candlesticks’ seemed to drip rocky wax towards the smooth surface below, and I found it hard to keep a sense of perspective in the towering cavern. Even the small formations were often taller than me, while the largest ones towered dozens of metres in the air.
Thanking our guide we headed for the exit, through a quarter-mile corridor drilled through solid rock from either end that was somehow off by only a matter of inches when it met in the middle several months after it started. An impressive feat of human engineering, dwarfed in comparison to the almost unbelievable feat of nature’s engineering that lay behind us.
Emerging back into the windy heat, it was a relief to leave the cool damp caves behind and suck down a few breaths of fresh air. Descending back to where the car was parked, we were in agreement: the trip had certainly been worth the $10 entry fee.
If you ever happen to be driving between Yellowstone and Glacier, do yourself a favour and stop for a couple of hours at the Lewis and Clark caverns. Like so many other things we had seen on our road trip, they had definitely exceeded my expectations.
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