Cool Off and Check Out the Ice Caves in This Montana Mountain Range
Swapping Stalactites for Icicles While Underground
If you live in Billings and think of the mountains, you likely think of the Beartooths to our southwest. They’re impressive, the sun sets behind them, and you can clearly see the runs at Red Lodge Mountain ski resort on most days.
What most people don’t see, however, are the Pryor Mountains just east of the impressive Beartooths.
I have always said that as the Beartooths are magical, the Pryors are mystical. They make up for their lack of size with unique experiences and adventures. Keep scrolling to learn more and check out the inside of these features.
It’s All About the Rock in Montana's Pryor Mountains
If you remember anything from your sixth-grade science class, you probably remember that the earth is made up of layers. On the top, we have the soil we dig into when planting our gardens. But beneath that, there are various other layers, mostly of different kinds of rock.
The Pryor Mountains have similar rock layers as the rest of the region, but different upheavals have caused unique stratification of those rocks. Down low, there’s a layer of sandstone. As you go higher, you access limestone from the Madison Limestone Formation.
Limestone is Etched by Rainwater
Over millions of years, rainwater has fallen on the mountains. While the Beartooths and their massive granite monoliths shed the water as though they’re shaking off… well… rainwater, the Pryors soak it all in. The water dissolves a little bit of limestone with every pass, eventually carving out passageways channeling deep into the core of the mountains.
In fact, many people in the caving community believe that there is a massive cavern system deep inside the mountains. Unfortunately, we either haven’t found the access point yet, or it’s too small for a human to crawl into without a large excavation undertaking.
But what truly makes the caverns of the Pryor Mountains so incredible is that many of them have their own little microclimates that seemingly ignore the external factors of heat or humidity.
The Big Ice Cave
The unique beauty of an ice cave is one that everyone should be able to enjoy. So, the easiest to access has been made into a recreational area.
With picnic tables and a well-maintained pathway, the Big Ice Cave isn’t difficult to locate.
There is even a viewing platform so you can easily gaze into the cavern without slippity-sliding and potentially wrecking yourself in an attempt to see what’s going on with the cavern.
The Little Ice Cave
Not far from the Big Ice Cave is a lesser-known Little Ice Cave. It isn’t easy to find, and there’s not a whole lot going on inside it.
To access the Little Ice Cave, you must crawl under a huge slab of rock. It opens up a bit near the back, and the ground turns from dirt to ice. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some icicles and ice stalagmites.
Red Pryor Ice Cave
The Pryors are divided into three mountains: East Pryor Mountain, Big Pryor Mountain, and Red Pryor Mountain. Each is unique in its own way, with subtle variations between them.
Each of them also has at least one ice cave. The Red Pryor Ice Cave is harder to find and can require ropes to access depending on the time of year. Once inside, however, there is a ton of ice and amazing formations. If things ever dry out or this cave stops being an ice cave, it appears that tunnels will continue deep into the mountain; for now, though, they’re blocked with ice.
Pryor Mountain Ice Cave
Pryor Mountain Ice Cave, also called Crater Ice Cave, is quite the spectacle. Instead of a hole in the side of a hill that you scurry into, it’s more of a divot in the ground.
That divot is deceiving. You can’t see how big it is until you’re inside it. While there aren’t passageways or belly crawls, this ice cave is easy to just walk into. The massive overhangs and large openings make exploring fun without getting lost.
Caving is Dangerous; Go with Someone Experienced
There’s a reason that the Big Pryor Ice Cave graces many maps, but the others have little information about them. Caving is dangerous, and ice caving is even more dangerous. Without the right gear, you can easily get hurt or lost. That leads to expensive rescues and the caverns being closed to the public.
Don’t be dumb. If you want to get underground, you need a guide that has been there before.