Trip shot: Where there is spirit writing

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Pictograph Cave in the distance.

Pictograph Cave in the distance.

Tucked into the gorges outside of Billings, past an antenna farm on the top of a flat hill and down a winding road lurk three caves with a past the predates recorded history.

Beginning somewhere around 250 B.C., inhabitants of what would later become southern Montana drew rudimentary scenes of daily life on the natural shelters’ walls. The pictures eventually faded but would sometimes return when conditions — humidity and such — were right, and tribes thousands of years later would conclude they were messages from beyond — ghost writings.

Today, the Pictograph Cave complex (known in the Crow language as Alahpalaaxawaalaatuua for “place of spirit writings”) is a state park, and for a nominal fee ($6 per carload of out-of staters or $0 per carload of Big Sky Country residents) visitors can take a short hike to the caverns and take in the prehistoric artwork. The best pieces are at the flagship Pictograph Cave, nestled into the eagle sandstone cliffs. The park service includes a guide showing the location of the images superimposed on a photo of the wall. I also found it helpful to use a set of binoculars (I just happened to have a set in my backpack) to observe from a respectable distance.

There is something that appears to be a warrior with a round shield, and there are animals. More recent art (estimated between 1480 and 1650 A.D.) in red pigments stands out year round and depict items like flintlock rifles. Some 100 images have been documented, and on the average day only about 10 are visible. With the right circumstances, 30 or 40 appear, according to park officials.

Also in the complex are Ghost Cave and the aptly named Middle Cave (between the other two caves).




Trip shot: Prairie dog break

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Because sometimes you need a mandatory prairie dog break when traveling in Montana.

Trip shot: Big Sky Country Barad-dûr

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Anaconda Smelter (c)2016 J.S.Reinitz


(c)2016 J.S.Reinitz

From the distance, it looked like something out of Lord of the Rings — a dark, impossibly tall tower looming in the foothills, perhaps a wizard’s stronghold crowned by a fiery floating eye or something will later be attacked by humanoid tree creatures.

The tower was visible from miles away as we traveled through the valleys of western Montana on our journey. As we neared the stone giant, and after miles of guessing its origin and purpose, we happened upon a rest stop with a display that answered the riddle.

The structure is the remaining smoke stack of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company smelter that was left standing as a testimony to the workers after the rest of the 100-year-old facility was torn down in 1986. At 585 feet tall, the stack is the highest masonry structure in the world, passing the Washington Monument by 29 1/2 feet. Fitting, as the operation was once the largest non-iron smelter in the world.

More on Anaconda Copper here.

For cool stuff to do in the area, click here.

Trip shot: Misty mountains

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Interstate 90 clouds. (c)2016 J.S.Reinitz

Some of the favorite parts of our travels involve passing through mountains. On clear days, there are panoramic views of the expansive country below. And the views are just as stunning in foul weather with clouds obscuring the peaks and mists hiding the valleys below.

These photos were taken while driving through clouds while crossing from northern Idaho into Montana. 

For more shots from the journey, tap into our Twitter feed.

Interstate 90 clouds. (c)2016 J.S.Reinitz