A Visit to Pictograph Cave State Park in Billings

Cliffs and landscape of Montana, with title.

Just a short drive from downtown Billings, the Pictograph Cave State Park is a place to go, walk, picnic, and enjoy some local lore. Our Montana road trip took us all over the southeastern part of the state, and we loved so many of the famous sites, like the Pompey’s Pillar, Yellowstone, and the Battlefield of Little Bighorn.

A teepee stands in the foreground, with towering cliffs and a small part of the pictograph cave showing.
There is something for everyone at Pictograph Cave State Park,
like this teepee for children to explore located in the picnic area.

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I hadn’t ever heard of the Billing’s pictographs before, so I was completely taken by surprise when I found out how interesting and beautiful this small state park was on the outskirts of the city. Complete with a small museum and informative placards, it was both educational and fun.

A bench with a view and a couple informative signs
I could sit on this bench admiring the view for hours, much longer
than the time required to read the park informational signs.

Pictograph Cave State Park

With over 65,000 visitors a year, Pictograph Cave is definitely one of the main attractions in the vicinity of Billings. It’s a relatively small park with one main walking trail that will take you past the three caves.

The main cave is Pictograph Cave, which is the important one. It’s the only cave that still contains known pictographs. The walking trail begins at the end of the parking lot, under a roofed information panel.

The hike to Pictograph Cave is about 1/4 mile long, which only takes about ten minutes. It is up hill, but it’s paved the entire way. The scariest part, was at the very beginning of the path reading the “Beware of Rattlesnakes” sign.

At least parts of three pictographs are shown on this part of the rock wall, one is hard to tell what it is, but the last two are deer.
A couple of deer are a few of the pictographs you can make out on this part of the rock face.

What are Pictographs?

Pictographs are paintings on the walls of caves, which depict the life of the native tribes that lived and migrated through the area. They are different from petroglyphs, because they are painted on the rocks instead of carved into the rocks.

The path taking you to Pictograph Cave in the background
The path taking you to Pictograph Cave in the background is paved and an easy quarter mile walk.

How Did the Pictographs Get There?

The land that included the state park has traditionally been a stopping point when the tribes were migrating from one feeding ground to another. It’s in a protected valley thanks to the cliffs of sandstone, near a water source, and in protected shelter.

The tribes that were thought to have frequented the area include the Crow. They have been in the area for over 300 years. Attracted to this particular place due to its proximity to the Yellowstone River, it was often a place of respite.

Tools and artifacts found in the area are part of the small museum in the Pictograph Cave visitor's center.
Tools and artifacts found in the area are exhibited in the
small museum in the Pictograph Cave visitor’s center.

Artifacts Found in the Area

The caves were first discovered in 1937 after a storm. A piece of rock fell and revealed the crevice, or overhang that is part of the cave. Soon after a small archaeological dig recovered over 30,000 artifacts of native American life. (source)

The cave, itself, showed signs of temporary inhabitation with a fire pit. In it were found all kinds of tools, bones, and basketry. Some items were not from this area, but were traded for, but many of the items originated in the southwest.

A sign "Beware of Rattlesnakes"
A sign “Beware of Rattlesnakes,” greets you
as you begin the short hike to Pictograph Cave.

The Pictographs

After my short hike, not seeing any snakes, thank you very much, I was excited to see the pictographs. The path ends at the overhang, or cave, and it has a good view of much of the wall. Right away, you can see a few splashes of color.

There is an informational placard which claims there were once over 150 pictographs, but many have since faded. The one that draws many people’s attention is the one below of seven rifles and perhaps a shield next to them.

Why rifles? Had they been traded for? Were they captured? No one really knows.

The cave wall adorned with the red rifle painting
The easiest to see of all the pictographs is this one with rifles in a line.

What to Do at Pictograph Cave State Park

After walking up and enjoying the few visible pictographs, reading the many informational signs, really this area is just great for taking a hike, having a picnic, and enjoying the views.

The visitor’s center provides clean bathrooms and water, and there are maps indicating the various hikes you might want to do. Being so close to Billings, it makes for a short morning or afternoon stop to just get outdoors.

The entrance and sign for Pictograph State Park
The park gate and its welcoming signs sits in front of some amazing cliff scenery.

How to Get There

There really is only one way to get there and that is by car. From the center of Billings, get on I-90 East. Take exit 452 and turn onto Coburn Road. This road winds around for six miles through beautiful landscape for six miles until you come to the gate of the state park.

Note: There is no overnight parking or camping at this park.

Parking lot, placard at the visitor's center is the first stop
A view of the park from the visitor’s center.

Practical Info

  • Montana State Parks Website
  • Cost: Free if you are an Arizona resident, others pay $6.00 per car.
  • Opening Hours: Summer 8:00 – 8:00 with the visitor’s center open from 9:00-7:00. The rest of the year hours are 9:00 – 5:00, with the visitor’s center opening at 10:00.
  • The visitor’s center and the main walking path is fully accessible, with a paved trail good for strollers and wheelchairs. It is, however, on a hill so that make it a little tough on some people.
  • Dogs are allowed.
The sandstone cliffs, an extension of the famous rimrocks.
The sandstone cliffs, an extension of the famous rimrocks, encapsulate the state park grounds.

Things to Do Nearby

Trail marker and trail to third cave in Pictograph
The trails are well-maintained and well-signed throughout the park.

Conclusion

For a half day excursion while visiting Billings, head out to Pictograph Cave State Park. An easy hike brings you back in time when the Native Americans used the cave to camp for a night and painted pictographs on the rock wall.

Pin Pictograph Cave

Pictograph State Park is a fantastic day trip from Billings for the whole family...even the dog! Take a hike, have a picnic, and marvel at the ancient pictographs of the Native Americans.

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