Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, MT

Saturday, June 17- 19
Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, Whitehall, MT

What a beautiful part of the country! We really enjoyed the looooong 27 mile drive from our last campsite. . . rough day, beautiful scenery!

The snowy peaks in the distance emphasize how late spring arrives here, but our campsite is in a valley, so the snow disappears behind the closer mountains and we're surrounded by green slopes and trees with a few limestone outcrops and beautiful puffy clouds, and wind. . . lots of wind.

The campground is fairly spacious - laid out in five wagon wheels, so to speak. The area includes a tepee and three log cabins for rent for those who travel without an RV.

Many of the park amenities were developed by the CCC back in the 1930's, in fact, this was the first state park the CCC worked in. Montana later developed a state program of their own modeled after the national CCC.

Though they didn't discover them, the caves are named for the Lewis and Clark expedition that traveled down the Jefferson River, which runs right by this area.

The caves, or caverns, here are limestone structures, thousands, probably millions of years old. We decided on the short tour and met our tour guide at the upper visitor's center. Our group took a short but fairly steep walk uphill to the entrance to the cave, then traveled long dark tunnel, which serves as an airlock to protect the cave. Entering a second door we had our first look at the cavern structures. Beautiful!

We had a great tour guide, with a real gift for delivering the information and stories regarding the caverns, and we really enjoyed the history of the lineage of the cave's ownership, and the stories about the early explorers.

These formations really are beautiful examples of the limestone stalactite/stalagmite type of cavern, and the lighting was better than several of the caves we've visited, allowing for much better photography. It's a little on the pink side, as that's the spectrum their lights put out, but at least you can see what the structures look like.

It seems the Montana state parks system is something like 48th down on the list of national funding for their state park system, so they have a partnership with Americorp. Our guide was one of the Americorp  program volunteers. There are several in the park, and they help make up for the lack of regular rangers, which the state can't afford at this time.

In addition to the beautiful formations the caves are also famous for bats. They are the small brown type, and they don't come as far down in the cave as our tour took us, so we didn't see them. We are thankful for their presence anyway - they eat 1-2,000 bugs a night. Lovely to be by a river and have almost zero mosquitoes!

Monday, June 19
In the morning we took a jaunt up to Whitehall. It's really the closest town for services. There's a grocery store, gas station, etc. They've livened the place up a bit with a few murals but most of them are now badly faded. We found the pups a place to play ball on the way back to the campground, so their day was complete.
Downtown Whitehall, MT
We have to give the wind some credit for the bug free weather I think. By evening the wind had calmed down and we enjoyed sitting outside, basking in the sun and admiring the snowfall of cottonwood seeds. By evening the bugs began to come out of hiding.

Tomorrow we head south, working our way toward Nevada.

Lewis and Clark Caverns album here. Lots of cave photos in the album!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Missouri Headwaters

Friday, June 16
We had a fairly long drive planned, so packed up what we could on Thursday, had a quick breakfast, and hit the trail. Stiff winds again - only from the side this time! Wow - bad for the mileage, and tiring for the driver.

This is beautiful country though. The grass is so rich, all the cattle and horses are fat. The farms and ranches are all well kept and prosperous looking. There are signs of harsh winters everywhere. . . the sally-port entrances to stores, jeeps in the driveways (no Smart cars), and snow still on the mountains that surround the valleys.

We're camped tonight at the Missouri Headwaters State Park, Three Forks, Montana.

A rustic little park, it's brimming with songbirds and other wildlife. We're tucked back in a little cove, carved out between willow bushes, wild roses, cattails, and other miscellaneous shrubs.

It was sprinkling while we set up, and while I took the dogs for a walk, but so far no real rain. The songbirds have been bashful, and I can hear more varieties than I have been able to see. I suspect there are warblers and blue birds - we've caught glimpses, but they are shy so we never get a good look. A sign in the campground warned of moose too, but sadly, we never saw any.

site of the confluence
Saturday, June 17
The day started out sunny, with the birds all trying to out do one another with their early morning song. By 6:30 it was clouding up again, but we had a bit of sun while we did a quick tour of the park trails. There are several walking trails, and the park is a long narrow one, so a short drive will also give a good overview.

We stopped first at the confluence of the Missouri, Jefferson and Madison rivers. This was the inspiration for the park in the first place. There's a lot of water moving by, but no crashing, foaming crush as there are in other similar confluences. Here, the waters just merge politely and move on.

The Missouri River has been the life-blood of so much of our country for generations, and so much history has happened along it's banks, it's certainly worthy of a park setting. We're back in Lewis and Clark Territory here, with quotations and namesake places all around us.

Our next stop was the pictograph trail. The two painted figures the trail leads to are quite faint due to time and weathering, in fact they are almost impossible to make out in the photos I took, but it still made a pleasant walk.

The signage is pretty good in this park, and the information kiosk and picnic facilities in the park are unique and very nicely done. There's a small newspaper style brochure available that's full of information too, so be sure to pick one up.

Front and side of the Sacagawea Hotel, Three Forks, MT

  1. After leaving the park we stopped for fuel in Three Forks, what a nice town! They really play up the western and the Lewis and Clark history, and the Sacajawea Hotel is beautiful. We'll have to come back some time to fully explore it.

They really have done a nice job with their downtown, which looks very prosperous compared to many we've been through.  We're on our way to Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, our last stop in Montana for this trip.

Mural in Three Forks, MT

Friday, June 16, 2017

Custer's Last Stand

June 13-15
This is another of those locals on our bucket list. After touring several other Indian Wars battle sites on our way to the area we were pretty well acquainted with the history of the time.

A visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is a solemn experience in many respects.

Custer National Cemetary
Immediately adjacent to the parking area is the Custer National Cemetery, so we look a little time to walk the rows and read a few of the headstones. Originally established in 1879 to protect the graves of soldiers who died in the Little Bighorn battle it was later enlarged and includes burials from veterans and spouses, as well as children, from almost every military action up until the closing in 1978, Only plots already reserved are still available. A small booklet is available for a self guided walking tour. It has some fascinating details about the history of the cemetery as well as many of the individuals interred there.

Only a short distance from the cemetery is the Little Bighorn visitors center. An informative film, nice displays, and a fantastic presentation by a ranger (from Texas!) who has been studying this historic event since he was 18. 'Guess he knows a little about it!

After the ranger's presentation we took a bus tour with the Absaalooka tribal tours (Absaalooka is the true name of the tribe that came to be known as the Crow). Narrated by a member of the tribe, we learned more about the event as well as a little of their culture, and the inter-tribal politics that had an impact on the battle. Specific facts about the battle were discussed as we viewed the actual locations. The guide explained how the terrain impacted the actions of the soldiers and the Indians.
A portion of the Little Bighorn Battlefield

For those unaware of the timeline of events - here's the brief history. (A much more detailed version is available here.) We all know pioneers headed west for free or cheap land. When they came into contact with the Indians (it's ok to call them Indians, they use that term too) there were often conflicts. Sometimes they got along, sometimes not. Usually at issue was the conflict over land to farm (pioneers) and land to hunt (Indians).

A treaty was signed giving most of the Dakota Territory to the Indians, including some land not assigned to a specific tribe, but open for all to hunt. The Black Hills were included in the treaty area. Forts were established along the main travel routes so the military could protect the settlers as well as keeping the settlers from bothering the Indians.

Shortly after the Civil War, when many men were returning home, with no jobs, a financial recession hit the nation hard. At about the same time gold was discovered in the Black Hills. There was no stopping the pioneers from flooding into the areas that were supposed to be off limits to them. President Grant tried various ways of managing the situation, but several Chiefs (Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, primarily) wouldn't go along with his plan and insisted on staying off reservation, in the open area. This was when the military was sent in to "round then all up and get them to the reservation".

Tribal politics were having their own effect on the situation. The Sioux (Lakota) and Cheyenne were trying to push the Crow out of the area. The Crow, thinking that if they could get rid of the Sioux they'd be in good shape, were happy to scout for the Army. It didn't turn out so well for anyone. The Indians knew this was their last stand, and whether Custer knew it was his "last stand" as he went into battle or not, it was a major turning point for the Native American cultures in the area.

Monument on the mass grave on Last Stand Hill
After careful scouting, planning and discussions, Custer divided his troops into three groups, hoping to surround the tepees set up in the valley near the river. Gathered for hunting and a seasonal celebration, the village setting was full of families.  Though the attack was a surprise, the Indians resoundingly defeated the Army. The battle, over two hot June days in 1876, resulted in the deaths of over 260 soldiers and attached personnel. It's hard to say how many Indians were killed, including women and children, but the number is probably under 50.

A mass grave holds many of the remains, and there are markers throughout the park, indicating where it is known that someone fell - white for soldiers, red for Native Americans. A few have names, but most do not.

There is also a peace memorial, dedicated to the Native Americans who were involved in, and perished in, this battle. The memorial has panels around the curved walls with names and etched portraits. It's beautiful, and definately worth the short walk up the hill from the visitor center. There's more information about the Indian Memorial and what happened to those who died in the battle here.

After two days of touring the sites and digesting all the historic information we decided on a lunch out, at the trading post near the entrance to the park. Good souvenir shopping, and the best "Indian Taco" I've ever had. HUGE fry bread heaped with goodies.

7th Ranch RV Park was home for the duration of our visit to the Little Bighorn. There aren't a lot of housing choices in the area, but we were very pleased with our choice. 7th Ranch is named for the 7th Cavalry, Custer's command.

7th Ranch is situated inside a working ranch of several hundred acres. They have a few head of cattle, and some great scenery! Guests are free to take dogs off-leash anywhere outside the immediate fenced campground area, so there's plenty of room to roam and good grass and sagebrush to check out.

The spaces are comfortably large, and some have shade trees. There are also a few tent spaces, and a playground for the little ones. The laundry facilities are pretty small, but seem to be adequate for the needs of visitors. It seems most guests stay only one night so the area really empties out during the day. The owners and camp hosts are all friendly and helpful, and we really enjoyed our stay!
The evening view from our site - a Charlie Russell sky

On the map, the closest town is Garryowen - which turns out to be a one acre, privately owned town (the ownership is too long to discuss, and irrelevant). The name is  unusual so I just had to look it up. 'Turns out, the tune Garryowen is, and has been for many years, the official tune of the 7th Cavalry.  Here's the full history,  along with the music. It seems like a good name for this tiny town near this infamous location so closely connected to the 7th Cavalry.

This little "town" houses a private museum of Native American artifacts. They also have an extensive gift shop with a range of goods from typical souvenirs to high end art work and traditional Indian jewelry as well as art works of rawhide, feathers and beads.

The album is here, and there's more information on each of the individual photos.