Montana is famously littered with caves. For both amateur and experienced cavers, there’s a veritable treasure trove of sights to see and explore.
From giant-chambered, impressively decorated caves covered in crystals to skinny, claustrophobic crevasses that sink deep into the earth, there’s a vast variety of cave systems spread across the state.
Why Are There So Many Caves In Montana?
Montana has several geological features that make it ideal for cave formation. Over 90% of the caves in Montana are the result of karst topography: this is when soft bedrock (in Montana it’s mostly limestone) is eroded away over eons by slightly acidic rainwater.
As water trickles through the limestone, it sweeps away trace particles of the limestone. Over thousands or millions of years, caverns appear where the limestone once was.
Caves can be very fragile structures and are home to delicately balanced ecosystems. Entering a cave can disrupt the careful balance that lies within, so it’s imperative that you take immense care when entering a cave.
If you are not an experienced caver, it’s best that you avoid entering unmanaged caves at all, and stick to the ones that offer guided tours as rangers will be able to detail all the best practices for entering a cave.
While there are over 300 known caves in Montana, here are a few of its most famous and interesting. They include:
- Bighorn Cavern
- Lick Creek Cave
- Big Ice Cave
- Devil’s Chute Cave
- Tears of the Turtle
- Indian Cave
- Pictograph Cave State Park
- Lookout Cave
- Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
The Best Caves In Montana
Bighorn Cavern is just one cave in a karst system spanning both Montana and Wyoming that is found within the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Located in south-central Montana, it’s the largest cave in the state.
If you’d like to explore inside, it’s required that you go with an experienced guide, have all the necessary equipment, and obtain a permit from the Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center in Lovell, Wyoming.
This cave system continues into Wyoming, home to Horsethief Cave and Kane Cave.
2. Lick Creek Cave
While some Montanan caves have been intricately explored, mapped, and maintained, the ones left largely untouched are called “wild caves.” Lick Creek Cave, in northern Montana, is an example of a wild cave, though unfortunately, it’s not quite untouched.
As the most popular wild cave in the state, Lick Creek Cave sees many annual visitors, and unfortunately, some have them have littered the cave with garbage and irreparably damaged it with graffiti.
A cautionary tale about proper cave etiquette, it takes members of three separate organizations – the University of Montana Cave Club, the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto, and the Bigfork Cave Club – to clean out the cave annually.
Despite their continued efforts, visitors continue to misuse Lick Creek Cave, but hopefully, more intensive education can curb this destruction in the future.
3. Big Ice Cave
Just one part of the Big Ice Cave Picnic Area and Interpretive Site, this perpetually frozen cave takes a bit of effort to reach but it’s well worth the trip and doesn’t require any exceptional experience caving or hiking to visit.
You’ll find the site just off Forest Road 2308 near Bridger, just keep in mind that it can be difficult or impossible to access in the winter.
When you arrive at the picnic area, you’ll find the entrance to the cave has a steep descent, but you’ll be aided by a wooden boardwalk, staircase, and platform on the floor of the cave that makes it easy for even children to enter.
Remember to bring a flashlight, as it’s nearly pitch black inside the cave.
The Devils Chute Cave, an ice cave in the Snowy Mountains, is pretty far off the beaten path and is generally only visited by fairly experienced hikers. Located on a spur from West Peak Trail, this hike can turn into an all-day adventure depending on which way you’re coming from.
If you’re beginning at the Grand View trailhead at Crystal Lake, it’s about seven miles each way.
Once you arrive, you’ll get to see one of the best wild ice caves in Montana, just be sure that you take extra care of you’re surrounding while you’re in the area, and only enter the cave if you have both experience and the proper gear.
5. Tears of the Turtle
This wild cave on Turtlehead mountain is both hard to reach and only accessible to the very most experienced cavers. Though we still aren’t sure exactly how far it extends into the earth, surveys so far have reached a depth of 1629 feet, making it the deepest limestone cave in the United States. The entrance to the cave was only discovered in 2005, making it the “newest” cave on this list.
6. Indian Cave
Within the limestone cliffs that flank the Smith River, there are several caves, many of which contain red ochre pictographs painted by the original inhabitants of this land.
One of the more stately examples, though it is obtusely named, the Indian Cave has several prime examples of these historic paintings, both representational and abstract.
You must take extreme care when visiting Smith River Caves, as both the paintings and the limestone they’re on are very fragile.
One of the most popular state parks in Montana, Pictograph Cave State Park has three caves, a visitors center, and an extremely well-maintained and highly trafficked paved trail between the different important sites.
Inside the caves, you’ll find several ancient red ochre paintings left by the original inhabitants of the land.
This is one of the few state parks in Montana that has a fully ADA-accessible trail, a huge boon for people of all abilities.
8. Lookout Cave
Situated in north-central Montana, Lookout Cave is covered in pictographs, and was, for a long time, an active archeological site. Thousands of artifacts were recovered from the cave, including pieces of feathers and bone, as well as stone tools and sewing materials.
They were in relatively good condition because of the unique qualities of the cave; because these artifacts were kept away from moisture, sunlight, and such dramatically shifting temperatures, they fared much better over time than similar items found throughout the region.
The most popular cave in the state of Montana, the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park contains some of the most ornately decorated caves in the nation.
Inside you’ll find a plethora of cascading crystals, unique rock formations, and speleothems: stalactites and stalagmites are examples of the latter phenomenon.
This is a thoroughly maintained cave. The Montana Parks Service maintains a visitor center, all of the park’s grounds, and offers guided tours in the caves.
Inside you’ll find this other-worldly landscape has been lit up in several different hues, adding to the experience.