The rock art and artifacts found at Pictograph Cave State Park provide a look into the lives of the area’s first residents. For nearly 10,000 years the caves have been used by humans who left drawings on the walls and signs of daily life in the caves. Three alcoves, or “caves” make up the park but only one holds pictographs. A trail leads from the visitor center to the alcoves and the park can be visited in an hour or so. The park is just 5 miles from I90 and Billings, MT.
Directions to Pictograph Cave
It’s very easy to get to Pictograph Cave State Park. Take Interstate 90 to Old Highway 87 at exit 452 on the east end of Billings, MT. Head south and just past the interstate turn right onto Coburn Road. Follow this road for 5 miles until it reaches the park. There are good signs providing directions making this a very easy place to find.
Exploring the park
The two main attractions at the park are the Visitor Center and the caves. The visitor center is a great place to begin your visit. It has interesting displays about the history of the park and the original inhabitants of the area. There are artifacts on display as well as a pictograph that fell from the rock art panel in the cave. There is a small gift shop and the attendant can answer almost any question you can come up with.
After touring the visitor center follow the paved path to Pictograph Cave. The trail is listed as accessible but it seems that it may be too steep for some. It is only about 1/4 mile to the main cave. The trail ends at the cave and you need to backtrack a short distance to the gravel trail that leads toward the other caves. This gravel trail is not accessible, however, it’s not difficult hiking and it’s about 1/4 mile to Ghost Cave. From Ghost Cave, it’s about 1/4 mile back to the Visitor Center. Hiking to both caves and back is about 3/4 mile with an elevation change of about 125 ft.
Pictograph, Middle and Ghost Caves
There are three alcoves or caves that make up the park. Only two, Pictograph Cave and Ghost Cave can be visited. Middle Cave is much smaller and there is no trail to the cave.
The largest cave is Pictograph Cave and this is where the rock art is located. The pictograph panel stretches along the back wall of the cave. When first described the panel had 105 pictographs but a visitor today is lucky to spot more than a half dozen or so. There is a sign in front of the wall which highlights the individual pictographs so you can get a sense of the scope of the panel.
Pictograph Cave is about 160ft wide and about 45ft deep. Originally the floor of the cave was much higher than the level today. During a major archeological dig in the late 1930s, the floor was excavated and the fill dirt was not replaced. Consequently, the floor level today is far below the art panel. There is a pretty obvious line that marks the original floor level. There are also markings made by the excavation crew to define the original floor.
There is no trail to Middle Cave and the public is not allowed to climb to it. Middle Cave was thoroughly explored by the archeological expedition and they found no evidence that it had been inhabited.
Although it doesn’t hold any pictographs, Ghost Cave was extensively used in the past. Like Pictograph Cave, Ghost Cave was excavated in the late 1930s and the floor level today is much lower than the original. The red dash marks were painted before excavation to show the original floor level.
Ghost Cave was named in recognition of the earliest names given to the park. Prior to 1937, the state park was known locally as the “Indian Ghost Caves”. It’s likely that this name was influenced by the earliest known Indian name which translates as “Where There is Ghost Writing”.
Pictograph Cave Archeology
From 1938 – 1941 Pictograph Cave was the site of the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains. Digging techniques were very different then than they are today. Layer by layer they completely removed all soil and material from the caves while making records of everything. They sifted the soil as they removed it and over 10,000 cubic yards of dirt was removed.
All of this effort paid off as the crew recovered more than 30,000 artifacts from the caves. Beads, baskets, bows, many types of tools, projectile points, and pottery sherds were all uncovered. The artifacts were found in layers which allow archeologists to have a sense of how and when the caves were occupied. The deepest artifacts were from the oldest time which could have been 9,000 or more years ago.
Many of the artifacts were transported to the University of Montana in Missoula where they remain. However, countless important items were given away to visitors as souvenirs. Even worse, when WWII caused the project to shut down in 1941, little if any thought was given to the collection that had been assembled. Most of it was left in a shed that was later looted. All we know for sure is that the vast majority of the artifacts are gone.
Who Created the Pictographs
It’s believed that no single group of people created all of the pictographs. The oldest drawings are more than 2,000 years old and the prominent row of guns was added within the past couple hundred years. There are many places where newer drawings have been put on top of older ones. Generally, the oldest pictographs were done in black with the later additions in colors.
This area was home to a number of plains Indian tribes that occupied the area. These tribes were semi-nomadic and it’s likely that a number of tribes were here over the centuries. We know for certain the Crow have stories about the caves which they named “Where there is spirit writing”.
Geology of Pictograph Caves
Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost Caves are all cut into the Eagle Sandstone formation that underlays all of the Billings area. This rock layer was deposited 60 – 100 million years ago when the central area of North America was mostly covered by oceans. For millions of years, marine life died and settled to the bottom forming deep layers of sediment that became the Eagle sandstone.
The Eagle Sandstone formation is known for producing fossils of clams and other marine life. The rock erodes easily and wind and water have worked together to carve out the caves.
Frequently Asked Questions
The park is in Billings, MT. Take Interstate 90 exit 452 and turn on Coburn RD just south of the interstate. Follow Coburn for 5 miles to the park.
In the summer the park is open daily from 9 am – 7 pm the visitor center is open 10 am – 6 pm
Pictograph Cave State Park is free to Montana residents. Non-residents pay $8.00 per car.
There are no mask requirements or other limitations.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks manages all state parks. For more information contact: Pictograph Cave State Park, 3401 Coburn Road,
Billings, MT 59101 Phone: 406-254-7342