Holiday candlelight tours return to Lewis & Clark Caverns
CARDWELL, Mont. (AP) — From the outside, it looks like a sagebrush hillside, but inside is a large circular room with a 40-foot ceiling and pathways that wind through stalagmites, clusterites and columns formed over millions of years by water and limestone.
Called the Paradise Room, it’s one of several that comprise Cave Mountain at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, which is hosting its annual holiday candlelight tours Dec. 20-22 and Dec. 27-29.
About 900 people will have an opportunity to experience the caverns’ colorful limestone formations on the two-hour candlelight tours, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Guides will lead visitors on a trail to the cave entrance and then through a series of underground rooms while explaining the limestone formations, the animals that frequent the caverns and the history of the state park.
“This is one of the most densely formed caves I have ever seen,” said assistant park manager Tom Forwood.
Visitors will leave the caverns through a narrow tunnel and follow a path that offers views of the London Hills and the Tobacco Root Mountains before coming to a building where there will be a fire, Christmas carols and warm drinks.
The caverns are named after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who traveled along the Jefferson River in 1805 and passed through what is now a 3,000-acre state park between Three Forks and Cardwell off of Highway 2.
Two local ranchers, Tom Williams and Bert Pannel, are believed to be the first people to explore the caverns. In the 1890s, they broke through a small entryway and found larger passages.
In the following years, another local man, Dan Morrison, claimed ownership of the caverns and began leading tours through them. The Northern Pacific Railroad disputed Morrison’s ownership and won a court battle for the land, which it eventually gave to the federal government.
Theodore Roosevelt named the park and declared it a national monument in 1908. The land became a state park when the federal government gave the caverns to Montana in the 1930s.
The story of the Lewis & Clark Caverns began long before people discovered them. More than one billion years ago, the Willow Creek Fault separated the Belt Sea from large mountains to the south.
Fast forward to 330 million years ago when a vast warm sea extended across several states, including Montana. Ancient sea creatures — including corals, brachiopods and crinoids — deposited their shells in the sea. Sand, mud and other sediments buried the shells, compressing them to create the Madison Limestone, the rock layer that forms the caverns along with other local landmarks like Storm Castle Peak. At Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, the Madison Limestone is 1,400 feet thick.
Six million years ago, growth of the Rocky Mountains reactivated the Willow Creek Fault, pushing the earth skyward and creating Cave Mountain. The slightly acidic groundwater slowly seeped through the limestone of Cave Mountain, dissolving it and forming the caverns.
Today, dripping groundwater continues to shape the caves.
Up to 60 bats hibernate in the caves in the winter, so during part of the holiday tour, visitors must be quiet to avoid disturbing them, Forwood said. In the summer, between 25 and 140 Townsend’s western big-eared bats come to the caverns to give birth.
In addition to the holiday tours, winter visitors to Lewis & Clark Caverns can explore about 10 miles of hiking and biking trails that loop through the park. Some of the trails pass remnants of gypsum mines. Visitors can also stay at the park’s campground.
But after the holiday tours, those interested in exploring the caves must wait until they reopen from May 1 through Sept. 30.
“The holiday tour is the only time to see the caverns in the winter,” Forwood said. “It’s a holiday tradition.”