Caving can be a rewarding, but challenging activity. While it appeals to those seeking adventure, it’s certainly not for everyone: caving can require navigating muddy, cold, or claustrophobic passages, but those who pursue it regularly will tell you that the downsides are well worth the rewards.
Because of Montana’s unique geography, it is a veritable treasure trove of caves. There are over 300 caves in the state, mostly limestone or sandstone, and were carved out by eons of being exposed to the elements. Many of these are open to the public to explore, but some have been closed to protect bat populations that live within them.
A Little About Caves & Caving
In general, there are two types of caves: lava tubes, and karst. While the former are created relatively quickly, sometimes the result of a single lava flow, the latter is formed by the slow erosion of softer type rock from its surroundings, usually by somewhat acidic water. The caves found in Montana are of the latter type and range vastly in difficulty to access.
Some caves have terrain that is suitable for beginners and can be accessed with minimal preparation. But if you decide to progress as a caver, it will come with considerable investments in gear and training. And even experienced cavers should note that many of Montana’s caves require a permit to visit.
You have certain responsibilities when caving: certainly, you must take great care not to injure yourself or those in your party, but you must also be mindful not to damage or destroy the interior of the cave. The ecosystems within caves can be very fragile, and even minor damage to surfaces, water, or wildlife inside of them can have lasting effects.
In particular, structures found inside caves called speleothems – like stalactites and stalagmites – can be extremely susceptible to damage. They are formed over hundreds of thousands of years by water filtering through the roof of the cave, and depositing trace minerals. In some cases, simply touching one is enough to destroy them completely, thus undoing millennia of nature’s methodical work.
Where Can You Go Caving In Montana?
If you’re ready to start caving yourself, here are a few of Montana’s best caves. There are options across the state for all skill levels, so it’s the perfect place to begin your caving journey. The caves here are listed so that they roughly increase in difficulty as you go along, so stick to the first few if you’ve never been caving before or have minimal experience. They include:
- Pictograph Cave State Park
- Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park
- Big Ice Cave
- Bighorn Cavern
- Tears of the Turtle
And when you’re ready to get serious about caving in Montana, be sure to contact the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto and the National Speleological Society for more information about how to become a responsible, knowledgeable, and safe caver.
The 5 Best Caves In Montana
One of Montana’s most amazing state parks, it actually contains three separate caves: Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost Cave. The site of Montana’s first major archeological endeavor, they took three years to excavate which revealed 30,000 artifacts and the ancient pictographs that the park is named for.
These caves are fairly shallow and tall, making them a perfect place for beginners and children. They can be very easily accessed by a paved trail, along which you’ll find several interpretive displays that relate the history and geology of the site.
While you’ll need to bring drinking water and snacks, the site is set up to be visited in normal attire. There is a visitor center onsite filled with interactive exhibits, informational displays, and bathrooms. These are the only caves in Montana that are ADA compliant and are extremely accessible to folks of varying abilities.
One of the largest known limestone caverns in the Northwest, Lewis & Clark Caverns can only be visited on a guided tour. While a visit to the caverns does not require any advanced technical knowledge, even the least challenging caves can be dangerous and your guide is there to ensure your safety. Tours are available only between May and October, and they only allow a certain amount of visitors a day. Best to come early – they open at 9 am – to ensure you’ll be able to get a ticket.
Inside the caves, you’ll find one of the most jaw-dropping sights in all of Montana. The limestone formations within are lit with different colored electric lights to make for an incredible, and maybe a bit eerie, tableau. There are two different tours you can take: the Classic Cave Tour is 2 miles and 2 hours long, while the shorter Paradise Tour is half that.
If you’d like to stay a couple of days, they also have a campsite with several different types of accommodation. You can reserve a tipi, a cabin, or a site for a tent online for a fee.
3. Big Ice Cave
Located in the Pryor Mountains in the Beartooth Ranger District, the Big Ice Cave is the most visited in the area. Part of the reason so many visitors come is that it’s relatively easy to access: the mouth of the cave has been fitted with a staircase to the main chamber, where there is a wooden platform from which you can view the cavern.
Keep in mind that although the site is maintained by the local rangers, there isn’t much here by way of facilities so you’ll need to bring anything you might need, like drinking water, food, and a flashlight or headlamp at the very least. In addition, you’ll need to pack out any garbage that you create while onsite.
The ice that forms in the cavern stays there year-round and is the result of a simple but curious atmospheric phenomenon. In the winter, cold air is forced inside the mouth of the cave by convection, and because colder air is less dense than warmer air, it stays cold inside the cave year-round. Any water that travels inside becomes ice, and in addition to the blanket of ice on the floor of the cave, you’ll find icicles and other ice formations here as well.
Just barely inside of Montana near Bighorn Lake and the Wyoming State Line, Bighorn Cavern is Montana’s largest cave system. Inside are several different routes to explore, with 14 miles of passageways having been thoroughly mapped. This is not a cave to be visited by beginners it would be impossible without a guide.
Visiting Bighorn Cavern requires a permit, which you can get at the Bighorn Canyon Visitor Center in Lovell, Wyoming. Your caving party must include at least one person who is familiar with the cave, ideally a guide, and can be no more than 6 people total. Only two groups are allowed to visit the cave on any given day.
In addition to the typical speleothems and limestone formations, you’ll find a plethora of crystalline structures inside. Epsomite, aragonite, and gypsum crystals are all known to decorate the cave.
5. Tears of the Turtle
Strictly for experienced cavers, the Tears of the Turtle cave is located on Turtlehead Mountain in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It is the deepest limestone cave in the United States, though it was only found in 2006.
Initial explorations of the cave reached a depth of 400 feet, but in 2014, 9 cavers spent several days rappelling into the narrow cavern to reach the now known depth of 1629 feet. Though the cave isn’t as pleasantly decorated as many others in Montana, it is noteworthy for the sheer challenge of exploring it, as most of the passages inside are only 2-3 feet wide as it descends deep into the earth.
Though the hike to the cave’s entrance is long and somewhat arduous (the closest road is 22 miles away) it is not particularly technical and makes for an excellent day-hike even if you don’t have the know-how to enter it.
Gear You’ll Need for Caving
As you progress in your caving knowledge and expertise, you’ll start to put together your own arsenal of caving gear. To give you a rough idea of what kind of supplies are necessary for caving, here’s a list of some of the basic must-haves for intermediate to advanced caving. Many of these items can come in handy even for beginners visiting the most basic caves or can be used for hiking and camping.
Unless you are in an extremely beginner-friendly cave, you should always wear an approved helmet when caving. It should be certified by the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA or in English, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation) or a similar governing body. You must always make sure that your caving helmet is adjusted correctly for a snug fit to help prevent undue injuries.
PETZL BOREO SPELEO Caving Helmet
It’s always recommended that you take at least three lights with you when caving, and plenty of extra batteries, just in case. The one you’ll likely use the most is your headlamp which affixes to the front of your helmet. A suitable headlamp will leave your hands free to navigate inside the cave more freely.
NEBO Tools Duo 250+ Lumen Headlamp
- Fully Dimmable
- Water and impact-resistant durable housing
- Power memory setting
Wearing a durable pair of gloves is a must while caving. They will help keep your hands warm (caves are notoriously cold) as well as prevent nicks, cuts, and injuries to your hands.
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Knee and Elbow Pads
Some caves require that you navigate tight spaces, and you may find yourself crawling on the ground. A quality pair of kneepads can keep you comfortable when you can’t walk upright, and elbow pads will prevent injuries when slipping through narrow cracks and crevices.
T-Juan MM Pack of 4 Knee & Elbow Protective Pads
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A Waterproof Day-Pack
You’ll have to carry a lot with you when you go caving. In addition to your basics like a change of clothes, food, and drinking water, you may also have items like extra batteries, ropes, ties, and various other safety and survival gear. Karst caves – like the ones found in Montana – are created by flowing water, and caves can be very wet places. To keep your gear safe, a sturdy waterproof backpack is needed to carry everything you’ll need.
Unigear Trop-Storm BP 35L Waterproof Backpack Marine Dry Bag
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- Use Quick Dry fabric and foam on the back and shoulder strap to provide carrying comfort and adjustable chest strap added stability and security during your nature exploration.
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Caving can be very demanding on your body, but it demands a lot of your clothes as well. There are several factors to consider when picking appropriate clothing for caving, but in general, you should steer away from cotton, and be sure that your outer layers are durable enough to resist scrapes and tears from craggy rocks.
Izas Ampriu Rock Climbing Jacket
- Mount-loft padded designed for extreme conditions
- It provides warmth and comfort
- Fixed hood with string stoppers
Men’s 100% Merino Wool Thermal Underwear Long John Set
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- 【IT GOES WHERE YOU GO】The durable 4-way stretch rib knit hem and snug fit will flex, conform, and move with your body to maintain range of motion and comfort. Whether you're camping, hiking, snowboarding, working out, working, or just taking it easy, this comfy thermal has got you covered.
- 【STAYS FRESH】Whatever the season, this light thermal will be a solid choice in your wardrobe as the Merino wool has naturally hygienic properties to keep you fresh through the day regardless of the weather.
- 【LIGHT】The excellent warmth to weight ratio of this thermal make for an ideal choice while traveling and packing when you want some lightweight long johns during your adventures.
Gamboa Handwoven Alpaca Sweater
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It is never recommended to wear simple athletic shoes while caving. Not only are they usually prone to getting soaked through with water, but they generally do not have enough traction nor a durable enough sole to prevent an accidental puncture. Bet to wear a sturdy, lug-soled boot with plenty of ankle protection, and pair them with a nice pair of wool or alpaca socks to help wick excess moisture.
Timberland Men’s Flume Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot
- Premium full-grain waterproof leather uppers for durability
- Waterproof seam-sealed construction keeps feet dry
- Fully gusseted tongue keeps out debris
- Compression-molded EVA midsole and footbeds provide lightweight cushioning and shock absorption
- Solid rubber outsole with multidirectional lugs for traction
Peruvian Link Alpaca Socks
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A good place to begin caving, even before stepping foot in a single cave, is to do plenty of research beforehand. In addition to contacting the TK and the TK to find out how to acquire more technical information about caving, you’re going to want to get inspired as well. You can pick up this book to learn more about caves in Montana that was written by a local geologist.
Caves of Montana, by Newell Campbell
- Campbell, Newell P (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 169 Pages - 01/24/1978 (Publication Date) - Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology : for sale by Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology (Publisher)