An old joke here goes something like this: “Montana’s beautiful, but you can’t eat the scenery.”
True, but the scenery does help a lot of people pay the bills.
In 2013, there were 2.1 million visits to Montana’s 56 state parks, which broke the previous record. Those visitors spent $289 million within a 50-mile radius of the state parks.
“We are an economic engine for Montana,” said Jennifer Lawson, marketing director for Montana State Parks.
The economic impact of Montana’s state parks was tracked in a 2013 survey by the University of Montana Bureau for Economic Research, confirming what many already believed — tourism matters in Montana.
Montana parks are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, which commemorates the state’s first park, Lewis and Clark Caverns.
A state parks poster, “Smith River in June,” was created by Missoula artist Monte Dolack and is available on the state parks web site at www.stateparks.mt.gov. Special programs are being held at parks throughout the summer, including concerts by composer Philip Aaberg, of Chester.
And they’re free
Montana has 56 state parks, 54 of which are operating fully. All are free to Montana residents. A $6 fee charged when you license your vehicle provides the major funding for operation of the parks. Out-of-state visitors pay a $5 fee per car to enter state parks.
There are enough state parks for one in every county in the state, but some counties, like Flathead County, have more, with five state parks in that area. Some state parks, like Cooney State Park,
are geared to water sports, and others, like Bannack State Park, are devoted to telling the history of Montana.
The most-visited state park is Giant Springs in Great Falls, which had 307,666 visits in 2013.
The largest park is Makoshika State Park near Glendive, which is 11,538 acres.
Makoshika was recently named by Country magazine as one of the Top 10 Hidden Gems among parks across the U.S.
The park’s name comes from a Crow word, translating to “bad land.”
The smallest, at 1 acre, is Elkhorn, which features two historic structures, Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall, preserved as examples of frontier architecture from the silver-mining ghost town.
Discovering the caverns
In 1882, Whitehall ranchers Charles Brooke and Mexican John, prompted by American Indian legends, explored a hillside where they discovered an opening, the area now known as Lewis and Clark Caverns.
Ten years later in 1892, two more local ranchers, Tom Williams and Bert Pannell were hunting and discovered the opening, but had no way to climb down into the cave.
In 1898, Williams went back with candles and ropes, leading to some of the first excursions into the caverns, which were carved from the Madison Limestone Formation, a rock layer that formed 350 million years ago when the area was covered by a shallow tropical sea.
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the Lewis and Clark Caverns the 12th U.S. national monument, named for the famous explorers who never actually saw the caverns but were in the area of the park on the Jefferson River when they came through in 1805.
Roosevelt sent Civilian Conservation Corps workers into the caverns to build steps and to blast a 538-foot-long exit from the cavern. Some visitors like to run through the long tunnel, anxious to get outside.
Each year, 55,000 people tour the caverns and another 15,000 visit the 3,000-acre park, which offers 40 campsites, and 10 miles of hiking and biking trails.
Tours of the caverns attract visitors from all over. Los Angeles couple Jonathan and Patty Hume stopped by on their way from Yellowstone Park to Glacier National Park in early June.
“We saw the signs and decided to stop,” Jonathan said. “This place is pretty amazing.”
Toddlers to 80-year-olds
The tours are available to all ages. Tom Forwood, naturalist and park ranger at Lewis and Clark Caverns, said he has taken visitors as young as 3 and as old as 85 through the caverns.
“The people are always interested in the bats,” Forwood said. “Of the 15 species of bats in Montana, 10 of them are here in this park. The coolest bat is the spotted bat, which is black on top with three white spots.”
The park features bat week the second week of August, and Forwood said he tries to demystify legends about bats.
During a recent tour, one young boy asked if the bats are poisonous. The cluster of Townsend’s big-eared bats, clinging to the top of the cave near the entrance, had the visitors craning their necks to see the quivering bats. When one bat cut loose from the cluster and flew across the cave, inches above adult visitors’ heads, there were a few screams from the kids on the tour.
“No, bats are not poisonous,” the tour guide told the group.
Each year, 6,000 students tour the cave, according to park manager Lynette Kemp.
“We are not the most visited park, but we are the most well-known park. People will come here when they’re young and then they bring their kids and their grandkids here,” Kemp said.
Balmy 48 degrees
The caverns stay a constant 48 degrees throughout the year, a soothing break from the heat in the summer and an escape from the cold in winter. During December, the park offers a candlelight tour, where visitors use candles in the second half of the cave tour, just like in the old days.
Columns as smooth as glass and stalagmites rising form the floor of the cavern surround visitors as they walk through the caves. In the second half of the tour, new LED, full-spectrum lights allow visitors to see the true colors of the features, including bright pinks and purples. Tour guides keep the walk interesting for the kids, with stories about the rocks that resemble Santa Claus and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Possibly the best part of the tour is being unplugged from the outside world for two hours. Instead of checking your email, you’re scooting through the cold, slippery beaver slide and experiencing a drip of cool water from the pink and brown stalactites, hanging from the ceiling of the caverns.
Unplugged and outdoors — two things to celebrate at the state parks.
“We’re important because we encourage people to put down their computer and get outside,” Lawson said. “We’re all about hiking and camping and birding and picnicking and camping.”