"So, where do 'you' go when you get time off?" Elk Lake Resort's guests often ask this question. Of course my first answer is always - "Stay here and enjoy Elk Lake!" Since I have yet to find a place more enjoyable than right here, that is a no-brainer.
However, south-west Montana offers many beautiful and unique natural (and man-made) wonders. Thus, over time, we have ventured out to enjoy a few. And, since these all make nice day trips from Elk Lake, I like to share them with you.
So, over the next couple of posts, I would like to introduce you to the Lewis and Clark Caverns.
This amazingly large and diverse cavern lies in what looks to me (I admit my ignorace on such subjects!) to be an unlikely location. Rolling ranchland. Sparsely timbered hillsides. A few rocky points - but nothing which jumps out at you. Located about 5 miles from the junction of Highway 287 and Highway 2, the caverns is a mere 40 miles north of Ennis.
Past the entrance sign - past the lower visitor's center - one begins the steep climb up the mountain. As the road winds up and up, the bare hills give way to pockets of timber and scattered rock outcroppings.
Five miles up the mountain we reached the upper visitor's center. Perched in a saddle with lovely views in every direction, this inviting building blends nicely with its surroundings.
I am a bit claustrophobic, so the idea of worming my way down into the earth - regardless of how 'safe', made me a bit nervous. Yes, I'd have many companions, but that offered scant comfort! A good hike - now that's a different story. Perhaps I ought to enjoy the above-ground trails!
Or. . .perhaps not! I've often said I'd rather hike in Grizzly and Wolf and Cat country than in snake country. After all, around here I am sharing the forest with 'big' critters. I quickly decided the smaller, slithery ones made me more nervous than a trip down into the earth's belly!
Besides, it sounded like I was going to get a decent workout - and, if it took that long to see the whole cavern, the earth must have one BIG belly!
However, one look at our guide assured me the physical part shouldn't be too hard. While he didn't appear to be in tip-top physical condition, he was a GREAT guide. Entertaining. Knowledgeable. Pleasant. We couldn't have asked for anyone better!
And so the adventure began. I had been looking around for a gaping mouth without success. Once our guide arrived, I learned the first part of the tour included a climb up the mountain. If you look closely at the lower of these two photos, you will see to lines paralleling the mountain-side. The lower originates at our final destination (the cavern's exit). The upper leads to our first goal (the cavern's entrance).
While not strenuous in the least, I could see the wisdom in requiring folks to exert themselves before entering the cave. I suspect this moderate ascent tended to weed out those who 'thought' they were up for the adventure but, for whatever reason, were not.
An obvious question - and one no one had bothered to answer up to this point was: Did Lewis and Clark REALLY find this cave? After all, we are a LONG way up from the river they were following. As the sign tells us, they did not! The caverns were first discovered by some hunters in 1895. A few years later, Dan Morrison improved access and began leading tours into the depths - even after he was warned off as a trespasser!
As our guide said, it didn't seem nearly as interesting or romantic to say I visited the "Morrison Caverns". Thus that name just didn't stick! Nonetheless, regardless of who discovered them, by now our guide had provided just enough information to peek my interest. At this point, I wasn't even thinking about closed in dark spaces full of bats!! I could hardly wait to begin our exploration. (However, you'll have to wait until next time to discover what I found in that hole-in-the-ground.)
Lady of the Lake