Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, Montana
Everything the RV Renter Needs to Know
Everything the RV Renter Needs to Know
So, Lewis and Clark discovered these awesome caverns in southwestern Montana, right? Actually, no. The famous exploration party indeed traversed the park’s lands, but they never entered the caverns below. It’s a shame, too, because they missed out on some beautiful and impressive geological features in the large limestone cave.
The park received its name from President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s more or less because, at the time, nothing in the environmental protection system bore the name of these historic trailblazers. Today, the park is 3,000 acres of mountainous terrain that is thoroughly enjoyed by hikers, bikers, hunters, and campers. The main draw, however, is the cavern system that offers visitors a view of a unique subterranean world like none they’ve ever seen before.
The primary reason for your visit is likely (and should be) to tour the awesome caverns below. To explore one of the largest limestone caverns in the country, visitors must attend a guided tour with knowledgeable park staff. You’ll continue to wind your way underground, slowly losing the daylight from above. The second half of the tour is made extra special by the use of candle lanterns. As you marvel at the impressive limestone formations, you’ll feel like a true explorer as the light from your lantern bounces off of the cavern walls.
Visitors should note that cavern tours are only available from May through September. Since you are up in the mountains, this can mean snow in the spring and fall months, so dress appropriately. If you get cold, a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate is waiting for you in the visitor center.
There’s plenty of interesting terrain above ground at the park as well. Its trail system comprises 10 miles of winding paths of varying difficulties from easy to strenuous. Most of the trails feature rocky terrain with significant elevation changes, so a good pair of hiking boots is a must.
If you’re looking for a leisurely stroll, the Fishing Access Trail is a little for a mile of riverside scenery that offers great opportunities for birdwatching. For the more adventurous hikers seeking a challenge, the Grand Loop Trail covers nearly six miles and winds through a majority of the park’s terrain. To really get your heart pumping, the Cave Gulch Trail boasts an elevation gain in excess of 1,000 feet and is considered the most likely historical route of the early cave explorers.
All of this great elevation change is also welcome to mountain bikers. Tear it up on the same trail system and take in the fantastic views as you zoom through the forest. For the most challenging ride, hit the cave gulch trail.
There are a couple of important considerations for mountain bikers using park trails. Keep speeds under 10 mph if possible, on the trails for the safety of hikers as well as other bikers. Also, the Nature Loop and Greer Gulch Trails are not accessible to mountain bikers.
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park borders the Jefferson River, one of the better fisheries in the western United States. The river is absolutely teeming with aggressive brown trout and a smaller number of beloved rainbow trout. When targeting brown trout, choose lures that stay below the surface like spinners or wet flies.
If you’re looking to do a little fishing on this camping trip, make sure you are familiar with the state regulations. Trout seasons are notoriously restrictive and fishing for them on “The Jeff” is limited from May to December and December to April. For anglers looking to cook up their catch, your limit will be three brown trout and only one can be over 18 inches.
Along the river and winding trails, park visitors have ample opportunities to spot some unique and beautiful wildlife. In the fall, watch for mobile mule deer during peak breeding season. Along the river, hikers will also be able to view a wide variety of bird species, including large raptors like eagles and hawks.
Some of the more intriguing animals in the park are also the more dangerous ones. Rattlesnakes are fairly common along the grounds and although they may be scary to some campers, they are vital members of the local ecosystem. Larger predators such as black bears and mountain lions can also be found within the park, so exercise caution and provide ample space should you encounter one.
If you prefer to stay within the park, you’ll find 38 RV-friendly campsites, about half of which offer 20/30-amp electrical hookups. Other than the convenience of onsite camping, the primary amenities are showers and a dump station. If you are looking for a minimalist camping experience that’s close to all of the great activities mentioned above, this is your best option.
Double down on the natural splendor and camp at another Montana State Park nearby (23 miles to the east). The campground at Missouri Headwaters State Park is primitive, with only potable water and restroom access. However, you will be able to enjoy all of the incredible water fun (fishing, canoeing, etc.) offered by this major river confluence once used as a major campsite by the famous Lewis and Clark.
Just under 25 miles to the south of the park, the Norris Hot Springs Campground has plenty of modern comfort and fun to offer RV campers. Although the campground is small (only 13 spots), nine full hookup campsites are available for your rig. Additional amenities include an onsite restaurant that features produce grown on-site and a large natural hot spring pool. If you visit on a weekend, you will also enjoy live music by a variety of talented local bands.
About 15 miles to the northeast of the park, the Three Forks RV Park will put you close to its namesake small town where you can find a couple of places to eat, golf, and a little shopping. The campground itself is not particularly pretty, consisting of large pull-through sites that mostly resemble a small parking lot. However, you will have access to full hookups, a grocery store, and a deli on site.
If you’re willing to drive a little while (40 miles), you can camp right near the largest town in the area. The Butte KOA Journey campground has tons of RV campsites offering both full hookup or water/electric only. Additional amenities include laundry, a dog park, a chicken restaurant, a swimming pool, and a camp store. For recreation in nearby Butte, check out the farmers’ market, craft breweries, boutiques, and golf courses.
Unfortunately, there are no dining facilities within the park, itself. There are a couple of nice picnic areas in the northern half of the park that make for excellent lunch spots. Fire up the grill and make some excellent local Montana steaks in the midst of this beautiful wilderness or pack some sandwiches and relax and take in the scenery.
There’s not a huge variety of restaurants in the immediate area of the park. Your closest dining hub would be the town of Whitehall about 15 miles to the west of the park. Here you will find pizza, TexMex, tacos, saloons, and a few chains. If you’re craving more variety and willing to drive for it, the larger town of Butte (~45 min) probably has what you’re looking for.
No matter where you stay, the otherworldly caves and gorgeous mountain scenery of Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is a worthwhile visit on your RV road trip throughout the great state of Montana.