Adventure to the Lewis and Clark Caverns
During the winter of 1892, Tom Williams and Burt Pannell saw smoke rising from the side of a hill while hunting. After trudging up to the point they discovered a large hole and that the smoke was actually steam. The men dropped a stone down the hole and listened. After finally hearing the stone clatter to a stop sometime later they decided it was too deep and would come back. Six years later Tom Williams returned with rope, candles, and six of his friends.
This was the start of the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, the first state park in Montana and one of the state’s most beautiful cave systems. While Lewis and Clark never actually explored the caves they did pass through a majority of the 3,000-acre state park. They had journey along the Jefferson River and camped at Antelope Creek, only a few miles from the entrance to the cave. This week the Creative Content team at Montana Gift Corral followed in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps all the way to Whitehall, Montana. We journeyed from Bozeman all the way to the Jefferson River in Three Forks before hopping onto Tom William’s path up to the caverns in Whitehall.
Lunch at Wheat Montana
Photo courtesy of Jim Krueger
Our first stop along the way was a local favorite for lunch. The Wheat Montana Farms and Bakery in Three Forks Montana is a delicious store and the best one around to get local wheat products. The Folkvord family owns a 15,000-acre wheat farm and they make all of their baked goods daily with their wheat at the bakery. When we walked inside the first thing I noticed was the mouthwatering scent of fresh baked goodies. Tables full of customers fill the main space while shelves with row after row of fresh bread line the walls. In the center of it all is the deli counter. The counter is a series of glass display cases showing off their latest baked creations. Cooling racks let their delicious scents fill the air and all I can think about is getting my hands on one of those massive cinnamon rolls.
Photo courtesy of Tom Brinkman
We spent a bit of time deciding what kind of lunch we would want. I had never been to Wheat Montana before and I wanted to taste all of the pastries. However, my wallet and stomach wouldn’t permit such a large order so I settled for a cinnamon roll and the amazing Stockman sandwich. Everything looked so amazing, I recommend it all.
Jefferson River Photography
After grabbing our sandwiches we head out onto Route 287. As we drove we laughed and talked about different things while admiring the scenery. The Jefferson River runs alongside Route 287 and creates a breathtaking scene. We had brought some extra product with us to get some product photography done along the way so we began searching for a pullout. Kree pointed out one in the distance that had a great view.
When we got to the pullout I wanted to explore. There was a hill leading down to the riverbank from the road and I began climbing down once I had snatched away the camera. The hill was a little steep with loose rocks scattered about. As I was nearing the bottom I felt my foot slip, so I pushed it forward and let myself slide down on my bottom. When I turned back I saw Kree following in my footsteps and Cassi laughing while insisting she stay at the top. As we carefully made our way to a less watery area we discovered it was probably best Cassi had stayed at the top. We had interrupted a bull snake’s basking.
We took pictures of the not-so-little little guy while he slithered around and sniffed us. Once we were satisfied we backed away and began taking product photos. However, since Kree and I were the only ones down there we would have to model the shirts we brought. Being awkward and uncertain with our modeling, we began making random faces and striking poses, hoping whoever was the photographer would get a decent shot.
Buffy the Grumpy Bison
Prior to our departure, the Creative Content Team was given a very serious mission. To deliver Buffy the Grumpy Bison safely to the Lewis and Clark Caverns. Buffy the Grumpy Bison was our nickname for a large faux stuffed buffalo head. We stopped two more times for photos once we entered the park, lingering only briefly at a picnic area and a cliffside pullout. When we pulled up to the top of the caverns the sun was high in the sky and the air warm. The smoke that had covered the valley below was clear and the sky was a brilliant blue.
Kree pulled Buffy the Grumpy Bison out of the back of the car. I ran ahead to hold open the doors for the cavern’s newest resident. I suppressed a giggle as I watched Cassi and Kree “struggle” with the buffalo head. Once we had Buffy inside we got to work finding a place to hang him. Being around four feet by four feet, Buffy required a large section of wall to himself, so we had to rearrange some of the art already there.
Finally, we got Buffy settled into his new home, the corner to the immediate left of the gift shop entrance. We then asked if they had any products we could take photos of before the next part of our trip. They definitely did. Kree and I set up a small lightbox substitute outside while Cassi gathered some products. This was the part of the trip I was personally excited for. Kree was our usual product photographer, but this time I was going to try my hand at it. We spent the next hour or so taking photos, learning about photography and running away from wasps.
The Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park has plenty of fun and unique activities. Outside of the usual available hikes, scenes and cave tours the Caverns also host special events. In August, they host Bat Week! This is a great time to get into the caves and experience some of the most unique creatures on the planet. During this week, they hosted a late afternoon tour of the caves that we were able to be a part of. With the bats being more active at night, a limited spot tour was created to give guests a very special up-close look at the bats of Lewis and Clark Caverns.
We met up with the cave guide at seven in the evening and talked about the many species of bats that can be found in the cave. After learning how to react to bats, the day/night cycle of the bats, and many other fascinating fun facts, we headed up to the gate of the hike. From the parking lot, it is a ¾ mile hike uphill, offering an incredible view of the valley that was carved by the Jefferson River and ancient seas. Once we reached the top, we slowly entered the caves. You could hear tiny noises echoing around the entrance as the last bit of daylight was blocked out by pure darkness. With a few more seconds of progress into the cave, your eyes began adjusting as much as they could with the lack of light. With one click, the guide illuminated the path with a headlamp. He then slowly aimed the light up.
All around the cave was bundles of bats wiggling and napping. Some were just a few feet from our faces. The tiny guys were about the size of a nickel, wrapped up in their wings, relaxing on the walls. Some swooped down as we got closer, maneuvering around the cave with incredible precision, completely trusting their echolocation. The adorable creatures would bundle up with their pups and relax throughout the cave, all within the first few rooms of the caverns. They gather near the front of the cave, waiting for the sun to leave and the hunting hour to begin. As the night got later and later, the noises grew and the bats' numbers became larger and larger. The room was filled with excitement, from the guests experiencing one of the most unique animal practices on this planet, to the bats getting anxious and hungry for the insects that populate around dusk. I was able to get a few incredible pictures of the bats, and the memories will always be very prevalent.
After about an hour and a half, we gathered up supplies and headed back out of the cave. We hit the mouth of the caverns a few minutes before dusk and made our way down the hill. During the hike, we got to see multiple species of bats flying above and around us, catching insects and flying back to the trees. I was sad to leave but so excited that I got to see these adorable cave puppies.
The Lewis and Clark Caverns is always creating these unique events and experiences. The staff at the caves is incredible and puts in a ton of effort to sustain the park. If you would like to see what kind of plans they have at the Caverns next, they keep their Facebook and website updated pretty frequently.
By Issa Rabideaux and Kree Gullings
Photos not credited above are courtesy of Issa Rabideaux, Kree Gullings, and Cassi Miller