The Montana State Parks Foundation is publishing a weekly showcase of Montana State Parks' 55 properties.
This week's focus is just outside of Billings to an area of three caves that are preserved and protected in the 23-acre Pictograph Cave State Park.
Along the rimrocks visitors will find where Pictograph Cave has drawn human beings for more than 3,000 years, a home to generations of prehistoric hunters. With its abundant wildlife and vegetation, the fertile river valley provided an ideal campsite for travelers.
Inside the three caves are 2,100-year-old pictographs from some of Montana's first inhabitants.
Did you know?
Due to its archaeological significance, Pictograph Cave State Park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
The three main caves in the park — Pictograph, Middle and Ghost — were created from the Eagle sandstone by water and wind erosion. The deepest of the caves, Pictograph Cave, is 160 feet wide and 45 feet deep.
In 1936 the first artifacts and paintings were discovered in the caves. And the next year it was the site of one of the first archaeological excavations in Montana.
Roughly 30,000 artifacts were excavated from the site, including stone tools, weapons, paintings, and instruments. These artifacts helped researchers understand which native people used the caves and when. In addition to tools and animal bones, the excavations also turned up jewelry, pendants, bracelets, and beads crafted of sea shells acquired from Pacific Coast Indians. One excavation discovered barbed harpoon points of the Eskimo culture, made of caribou horn.
Visitors will find pictographs depicting animals, warriors and even rifles. The different colors used in the pictographs allowed researchers to identify when people inhabited the region and gave an inside look into their lifestyle.
Although you won’t be able to camp in Pictograph Cave State Park you can:
• Check out the Visitor Center and learn more about the history of the caves.
• Eat your picnic while gazing out at incredible views.
The best time to see the pictographs is after rain or snow melt. The moisture causes the drawings to become more prominent. Give yourself about an hour to walk the trail.
The park has a quarter-mile loop trail that leads to the caves. Along the trail you can find interpretive displays that identify and explain the natural features, pictographs and vegetation found near the caves.
If you’re planning to visit, be sure to bring your binoculars to get the best view of the rock art and check out the Visitor’s Center which includes interpretive displays.
Despite its close proximity to Billings, Pictograph Cave State Park has an abundance of wildlife. Depending on the season you can see mountain lions, black bears, turkeys, coyotes, porcupines, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, bald eagles, northern harriers, bobcats, mountain cottontails, rock doves, turkey vultures, mule deer, canyon wrens, magpies, ravens, crows, and chickadees.
The Montana State Parks Foundation helps fund work at parks, for more information log on to www.montanastateparksfoundation.org.