A chilly look at a cave in winter
“You’re going to need snow boots,” my brother told me over the phone as I packed to visit him. “And a coat, some gloves, a warm hat.”
“The brochure says the Lewis and Clark Caverns stay at fifty degrees. Why do I need snow boots and a coat?” I asked.
“This isn’t a Texas cave,” Jeb replied. “This is a Montana cave. In December. Trust me, you’ll need the boots.”
I found out why when my family and I joined a few other families for an exclusive tour of the caverns, which are normally closed from October through April but open for people with the foresight to book the popular candlelight Christmas tour way ahead of time, as my brother, based in Billings, had done.
It’s not that the cavern interior is cold and snowy in winter. Oh, no. It’s the hike up to the cave entrance, an exhilarating climb of 300 feet from the park office on crunchy, powdery snow. By the time we got to the cave entrance 1,400 feet above the Jefferson River, all of us were delightfully red-cheeked. The tour guide explained that the two-hour cave walk consisted of 600 descending stairs and some rather tight spots more suited to the children in the party. She wasn’t kidding. We adults contorted to hunch, even crawl, beneath some low-hanging ceilings. The kids giggled as they shot down a “slide,” a section slickened by the countless rumps that have used it since the cave was made presentable by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. (By the way, Lewis and Clark never saw the cave, but they did camp near it in 1805.)
Stalactites, stalagmites, and grand columns drew forth oohs and aahs, especially after our guide turned off the lights and we each lit candles in the old-fashioned lanterns we’d been issued at the park office. Light glowed off the polished cave walls, and shadows bounced from ribbon formations to cave “popcorn,” as we journeyed to a room adorned with Christmas lights. The cave’s discoverers surely never imagined, in the late 1800s, that one day Christmas music would sound through the open spaces of the cave. “Silent Night” never sounded so good.
Nor were a roaring fire and hot cocoa ever as welcome as those awaiting us back at the office. The cave had been enchanting, but boy, was I glad I’d worn those snow boots!
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is located 19 miles west of Three Forks on Montana Highway 2 or 17 miles east of Whitehall on Montana Highway 2. Go to stateparks.mt.gov for more information.
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