In late May of 2021 Gene and I took another road trip to Billings, Montana to see my niece and nephew who had just moved there. We had been before, but there was one thing we hadn’t seen on previous visits was Pictograph Cave State Park which is located about five miles south of Billings.
While doing research I found out that there are actually three caves named Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost. The caves were carved from the Eagle sandstone cliff by the forces of water and wind. Pictograph Cave is the deepest of the three main caves, is approximately 160 feet wide and 45 feet deep.
This is the one I really wanted to see as there are pictographs that are still visible inside the cave and this one is also the largest of the three caves. They state the paintings are between 200 and 2,100 years old. Based on carbon dating, the oldest pictograph is of a turtle which is the one that is about 2,100 years old. Wow, that was amazing to me that they are still visible after all that time. As far as the paintings themselves, they are mostly paintings of animals, warriors, and even rifles. Those were probably the easiest for me to still see.
For a little bit of history- archeologists began excavation of the three caves in 1937 and made many discoveries, which included over 30, 000 artifacts. The biggest items found were at least 20,000 animal remains which were mostly large mammalian species such as bison and elk. However, they also found arrow shafts, grinding stones, fire-starting tools, bone tools, stone, moccasins, and basketry. Many jewelry pieces were also found including pendants, bracelets, and beads crafted of seashells acquired from Pacific Coast Indians.
Today Pictograph Cave State Park is a 23-acre state park and has a pleasant ¾ loop trail to the caves. For the enjoyment and education of guests, there are interpretative displays along the routes identifying and explaining the natural features, prehistoric paintings, and vegetation found in the area.
There is also a wonderful Visitor Center with interpretive displays to check out as well as a gift shop. I found it very interesting and could see they had put a lot of work into sharing and explaining the history of the park and the area. Plus you are able to see some of the artifacts which were found during the evacuation of the site. It was interesting to find out how they used pigments in the rock art to determine which native peoples lived in the region, and when they lived there. Pretty interesting and so glad I checked it out. I also learned that on July 19, 1964, they proudly became a National Historic Landmark.
There are also a few picnic area pavilions with restrooms, etc. We had our little dog with us and I enjoyed taking a few little short breaks (as it was quite warm so we both needed a little shade break lol ) with her to just enjoy the day and do a little bird watching. It is a very nice area.
One of the park rangers (or whatever you call them) said the paintings tell a story but I couldn’t read it, lol. I asked what some of them meant, and she said some of them were just what they were like an animal, etc, but sometimes when they were in a group they probably meant something else but it is still unclear and many have debated what they mean. I think it was just amazing to be able to see them and hope they are still there in another 100 years and for many generations to see and admire. Here is a link to their website if you are in the area and want to plan your own visit.
Pictograph Cave State Park Visitor Information
3401 Coburn Road Billings, MT 59101
Monday and Tuesday – Closed
Wednesday – Sunday 9-5
Monday and Tuesday – Closed
Wednesday – Sunday 8-8
Daily use for non-residents is $8 per vehicle
Walk-ins, bicyclists, & bus passengers $4
Free daily use for Montana residents who paid the $9 state parks fee with their annual vehicle registration.
Pictograph Cave State Park is located 7 miles southeast of Billings off I-90 at the Lockwood exit, then 6 miles south on Coburn Road.
Free with paid daily admission
Accessibility and Rules:
Pictograph Cave State Park is wheelchair friendly and dogs are welcome as long as they are on a leash.
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