At Pictograph Cave park, a reminder of nearby treasures

As a pre-event kickoff to the Montana Preservation Road Show that began in Red Lodge a little later in the day, a handful of visitors took a ranger-guided tour of Pictograph Cave State Park on Wednesday morning.

I’d taken the tour before, many years ago, and had been back to the caves more than a few times on my own, but like Pompeys Pillar and a few other area landmarks, there are some places that we who live here should keep going back to, to remind us how lucky we are.

Park Manager Jarret Kostrba, who led the tour, told visitors that in addition to the collection of cave drawings, the state park is home to bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, redtail hawks and any number of smaller creatures—including the rattlesnakes that are the subject of several warning signs.

After mentioning those animals, Kostrba added, “there are all these gifts that are here, right outside of town.” You shouldn’t even need a smart phone to find the park: just take Highway 87 behind MetraPark, go over Interstate 90 and turn right on Coburn Road. Then follow Coburn six miles to its end.

The park sits in a steep bowl hemmed in by towering sandstone cliffs. A three-quarter-mile trail takes you to Pictograph Cave, Middle Cave and Ghost Cave. There is a picnic area in a tree-lined swale at the bottom of the trail, near the visitor center.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Pictograph Cave State Park Manager Jarret Kostrba explains the uses of a wild catnip plant growing in the park.

If you haven’t been to the park since the visitor center was built seven years ago, there’s another reason to go back. It is small but packed with interesting displays and explanatory kiosks. You can see artifacts that include first-starting kits, trade items, arrow and spear points, food processing tools and ornaments.

They represent a tiny portion of what was found in Pictograph Cave starting in 1937, when archaeologists and Works Progress Administration employees undertook what was the first major archaeological dig on the Northern Plains. They recovered more than 30,000 artifacts.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the site quickly became popular, attracting 10,000 visitors in the first year of the excavation—and many of those visitors were given arrowheads or other “souvenirs.”

It was once thought that the caves had been subject to regular occupation beginning 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, but Sara Scott, an archaeologist and coordinator of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Heritage Resources Program, who was also on the tour Wednesday, said radio-carbon dating now suggests the caves began to be used about 4,000 years ago.

Still, as Kostrba said, that is a very long time. The area was important not only for the natural shelter provided by the caves. In addition to all the animals in the area, Kostrba said, there is an abundance of edible and medicinal plants, including wild mint, sumac, chokecherry, sunflowers and wild roses.

There is also a freshwater spring in the valley, and down below it, where Bitter Creek flows into the Yellowstone River, there is a ford where the river could be crossed in low water. Just west of the caves is the 12,000-year-old Bad Pass Trail, which made the area “a real crossroads,” Kostrba said.

Evidence of wide-ranging trade was found among the artifacts. There was a caribou horn fashioned into a harpoon point, indicating West Coast origins, and a big sea turtle shell.

Still later, after the caves were no longer used for habitation, various tribes used the site for ceremonial purposes. A high cliff above Pictograph Cave was reportedly a frequently used fasting site. For Native Americans, Kostrba said, “it was and still is a very sacred place.”

And then there are the pictographs themselves. Only 10 or so pictographs, all painted in red, are clearly visible from the viewing platform. But as Kostrba explained, calcium deposits on the pictographs are temporarily lifted when rainwater or snowmelt percolates through the sandstone and flows over the face of the cave, exposing 30 or 40 other images.

The most striking and vivid pictograph shows seven flintlock rifles, 23 red marks under the guns and a depiction of a beaver. Kostrba said no one knows for sure, but the scene may refer to an incident in the early 1800s when French fur trappers were ambushed by Blackfoot Indians.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The most visible pictograph in the park shows seven flintlock rifles being fired. The bright dot at upper left is from the guide’s laser pointer.

Barely 15 feet from that pictograph there was a turtle pictograph that fell off the cave wall in 2013. Charcoal pigment in the drawing was radio carbon dated to about 250 B.C., when Cleopatra was in Egypt.

Whether you take a ranger-guided tour or go on your own, reading the many interpretive signs, there is always something new to see or to learn. And though Pictograph Cave is the 10th-most-visited state park in Montana, with about 60,000 visitors a year, it is generally quiet and peaceful.

After a picnic lunch at the park, Preservation Road Show attendees were invited to continue on to Plenty Coups State Park in Pryor for another guided tour. I couldn’t make that trip, but I did write about a visit to that park a little under two years ago.

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