Monday, August 15, 2022

Day 132: Lewis and Clark Caverns

August 30: I woke up particularly early to hit the trail this morning. I had been looking at maps and realized that I wasn't especially far from Lewis and Clark Caverns SP, Montana's first and most visited state park. I had been there once before years ago and it was well worth the visit. It wasn't on the most direct route to Butte, but I calculated that it would add a mere 4 miles out of my way to visit and it was, I felt, well worth an extra 4 miles to visit. And it would break up the long, miserable road walk.

So I was up and walking by 6:40am. I was still following the highway north with the endless open fields so despite the early morning hour, it was easily light enough for me to see. In the trees, I wouldn't have been able to get such an early start. Not anymore. Plus, the busy highway wasn't quite as busy at 6:40am as it would be later in the day. And it was cooler. Definitely worth an early start!

There was a restaurant in town that served breakfast, but it didn't open until 7:00am so I decided to skip it. It had been tempting, though. A real hearty breakfast would have hit the spot.

Part of the reason for my rush was that the website for the caverns warned that tickets were sold on a first-come, first-serve basis and that they often sold out early, so I wanted to get there and get my tickets ASAP. I was in a race! A race for a ticket!

The first 9 miles of the day continued down the same highway I spent the whole day yesterday hiking. Being so early in the morning, it was cooler and less busy than yesterday, but I knew it wouldn't stay that way.

Near where the highway crossed over the Jefferson River, I spotted a crop duster flying around and felt a little envious. That looked like so much fun, flying around in that little plane so close to the ground. It would have been exhilarating to go for a ride, although I'm sure the person flying it probably was pretty bored by it since they had to do the job regularly.

The shortest path to Butte would have been to turn off onto Highway 359, the junction of which was just north of Harrison. That's what most thru-hikers doing the road walk were doing. As far as I knew, I was only thru-hiker who decided not to take that junction, however, and continue on Highway 287 until reaching Highway 2, which conveniently passes right by the entrance for Lewis and Clark Caverns SP.

This highway was less busy than Hwy 287--thank goodness for small favors!--although it was still a paved highway with plenty of traffic. I followed this highway for another 6 miles before reaching the entrance of the park at 11:30am.

The road walk continues....

That's pretty good for me. I made excellent time--over 15 miles before noon! I basically took no stops except one for about 5 minutes for a snack break and walked the whole distance almost non-stop. I checked in at the visitor center where I paid $4 for a walk-in site at the campground in the park and $1 for a can of cold soda. There was also an entrance fee just to enter the park, although I didn't write in my journal how much that cost.

While checking in, the lady at the front desk asked if I was a thru-hiker. "Well, yeah, actually! Does that mean other thru-hikers have been stopping here?" I had kind of thought I was the first who likely did.

"Oh, no--definitely no other thru-hikers have stopped here. But I live in Whitehall and there have been a lot of you guys passing through this year."

Ah, well.... That was my goal for tomorrow night. Then she told me that the mayor of the town was allowing thru-hikers to sleep in the town hall for free if I needed somewhere to sleep and, allegedly, it even included showers. 

Really? Sweet! I wasn't sure where I'd be spending the night tomorrow night, but if this rumor could be true, that would be awesome. So she gave me the address of the town hall.

The visitor center at Lewis and Clark Caverns SP

After paying the camping fee, entrance fee, and for the cold Coke, I headed down to the campground to drop off most of the stuff in my pack. My pack was heavy! At this point, my plan was to basically do a day hike to the cave entrance, get a ticket, tour the cave, then walk back to the campground. Basically, I only needed a few snacks, water and a camera. I could travel fast and light!

The actual cave entrance was located a few miles up a paved road, and I considered trying to hitch a ride to the cave and back and save myself the effort of walking. I'd still have connected footsteps from Mexico to Canada--strictly speaking, I didn't feel like it was cheating to get a ride to the cave entrance. But I actually wanted to walk. There were a couple of different trails leading from the park entrance to the cave entrance--actual walking trails--which seemed like they'd be a pleasant change from the road walking the last few days. And I wanted to include the route on Walking 4 Fun so by walking, I could keep the whole route together and make people virtually walk several extra miles. =)

I took the 4.4 mile route to the cave entrance where I was, in fact, still able to purchase a ticket.

I had a real trail that I could follow to the cave entrance! It felt great being back on a real trail again! Never saw anyone else on it either. Pretty much everyone else just drives up the road to the cave entrance.

There were two tour options, but I didn't really know what the difference between them was and asked. They told me that one of them required quite a bit more walking and dexterity than the other and wasn't recommended for people in poor health and whatnot.

"Well," I told the woman, "I quite literally just walked here from the Mexican border, and already walked 20 miles to get here today. I think I can handle the tougher option." Her eyes about popped out of her sockets when I told her that. I was quite possibly the first thru-hiker who ever bothered to make a stop here.

Anyhow, I signed up for the more "difficult" classic tour at 1:40pm, which was about a half-hour away. I used the half hour to scarf down a bunch of snacks. I was starving! I was so hungry! I hadn't really had a real lunch yet. So I wolfed down as much food as I could in the time before the tour was scheduled to start.

The park ranger who sold me the ticket suggested that my pack might not be ideal in the cave. There are some tight squeezes and nothing but the smallest of backpacks are recommended. So they let me store the pack in their employees-only area which lightened my load even further for the actual tour.

At the designated time, a group of us were ready to go and another ranger showed up, asking us where we were from. He took one look at me and said, "You must be the guy who walked here." Apparently, word was getting around! =)

Anyway.... the tour lasted about two hours and was absolutely awesome! If you're in the area, I can't recommend it enough. My photos really don't do it justice. Lots of rock formations, tight squeezes and even a rock slide to go down. Good times! My biggest mistake was forgetting that caves can be cold inside. It was so hot outside, I had left my jacket back at the campsite so I was a bit cold inside with nothing to do but hug myself to stay warm. I survived well enough, but a light jacket would have been nice. They actually warn people of this before entering the cave, but most people have a car parked nearby. I couldn't exactly run back down to the campground and grab my jacket then run back up before the tour started. Even if I could do that, it certainly wasn't worth the effort. Nope, I'd just suffer from a little cold.

The cave had all sorts of wonderful formations to admire!

After the tour ended, I retrieved my pack and walked over to the gift shop where I bought a few postcards, then took a different trail about 3.5 miles back to the campground.

While cooking dinner, the camp host came by to make sure everyone had paid for their sites. I showed him my receipts and he told me that I was only the fourth person he'd ever seen use the walk-in site. And I had noticed that the site seemed brand-spanking new. The bear boxes looked like they could have been installed the week before. The tables and overhead structure for shade looked like they were built the week before. There were four sites for hikers and bicyclists, but I think they might have been added just this season. The campground had been here for eons, but until this year, I don't think they had any walk-in sites available. And being in the middle of nowhere, they just didn't get a lot of people walking in! Or bicycling in! And, apparently, I was only the fourth person to ever use the site.

The thing I liked most about the walk-in sites was that they couldn't be reserved in advanced. The rest of the campsites one can make reservations for and they're often sold out months in advance--which wouldn't have worked for me. But the walk-in sites were first-come, first-serve, and being the only person who walked in... no problem! =)

It was a great site, too! I had access to bathrooms, which even included showers. Clean drinking water, bear boxes and even electricity right there in the campsite. I was set! I could charge my devices all night long.

Anyhow, we chatted for a few minutes before he moved on to check everyone else had paid.

I took this photo while hiking back down to the campsite, which is peaking out from that small hill in the foreground.

Later in the evening, some RVers from nearby approached me and asked if I was interested in some leftover food they had for dinner. I had already eaten dinner and brushed my teeth, but out of curiosity I asked them what it was. It was something with shrimp, however, which I had absolutely zero interest in so I used the whole "already ate and brushed my teeth" excuse to get out of it. Which was true.... but if they were offering me a giant cherry pie with ice cream and whipped cream, I probably would have had it and brushed my teeth again. =) I appreciated the offer, but turned it down.

And the rest of the evening I spent watching Netflix shows on my phone and reading my Kindle before calling it a night. A good day, indeed!

Mural in Harrison


It was gonna be another really hot day....

The Jefferson River is the route that Lewis and Clark followed through this area. It occurred to me that if Lewis and Clark were still alive today, they would probably recognize the area. Sure, there are roads and infrastructure that would be new for them, but the mountains and river probably hadn't really changed that much since they passed through this area.

Six more miles to the caverns!

This was where I saw a crop duster flying over the fields, but I never did get a good photo of it.

Along the way, I passed this seemingly useless bridge to nowhere. I'm sure there's a story to the bridge, but I don't know it!

Highway 2 was much less busy than Highway 287 which was nice, but there was basically no shoulder to walk on which was not nice.

Looks like the railroad is about to get some new ties installed!

Lovely stone work by the CCC in Lewis and Clark Caverns SP.

So visitors don't kill their dogs by leaving them in hot cars, there's a doggie prison for them instead while their owners go on cave tours.

No dogs in the doggie prison during my visit. The park actually wasn't that busy. This late in August, it was probably considered the off season. (The cave closes completely for the season at the end of September.)

The jerks!

Just kick a thru-hiker while they're down, why don't you?!

I never saw any bears, but I did keep all my food in camp in the bear box except while I was cooking dinner!


Lou Catozzi (PI Joe) said...

"I checked in at the visitor center where I paid $4 for a walk-in site at the campground in the park..."

"It was a great site, too! I had access to bathrooms, which even included showers. Clean drinking water, bear boxes and even electricity right there in the campsite. I was set! I could charge my devices all night long."

That is an awesome value. I get so tired of paying $20-$30 for a tent campsite just because it has a driveway to park your car in.

Unknown said...

When I was in Butte, for work, I almost went to the Lewis and Clark Caverns, but alas, I never made it. It's one of my greatest let downs.