What is there to do and see at Pompeys Pillar National Monument?

The signature of explorer William Clark is the main attraction of Pompeys Pillar National Monument. Mvguy photo. CC-BY.

The signature of explorer William Clark is the main attraction of Pompeys Pillar National Monument. Mvguy photo. CC-BY.

Pompeys Pillar National Monument, about 28 miles northeast of Billings, Montana, displays the only physical evidence that was left along the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition early in the 19th century.

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the first overland expedition from what is now the eastern United States to the Pacific Coast in 1803 to 1806. Lewis and Clark were charged with finding out whatever they could about the land bought from France through the Louisiana Purchase (the ownership rights of indigenous people to the land at the time were not recognized) and also hoped to find a river route between the two coasts.

On their return, the two explorers separated at the Continental Divide, later meeting where the Yellowstone River flows into the Missouri. During that segment of the trip, Clark came across a prominent rock outcropping about 150 feet high and saw fit to carve his name about halfway up. Clark wasn’t the first to decorate the rock — it probably already had markings, known as petroglyphs, on it left by the Crow Indians. But rather than painting his name, Clark chiseled his name deep enough that it would survive decades of weathering and vandalism. That signature, protected by a transparent covering, is the primary attraction at Pompeys Pillar, which became a U.S. national monument (similar to a small national park) in 2001. It had been a national historic landmark since 1965.

The main attraction of the monument is, of course, the “pillar,” which has a boardwalk to the signature area and the summit in order to prevent erosion. A series of steps make it inaccessible to people in wheelchairs, although a handicapped-accessible viewing area with an electronic telescope is nearby.

A visitor center was opened in 2005 and has displays about the expedition and a small gift shop staffed by the Pompeys Pillar Historical Association. The visitor center is open from about May to September, although visitors can walk to the rock any time of the year.

The 50-acre site, which has a paved trail, also provides the opportunity to view wildlife. Raccoons and other small mammals are common on the site, which also has been a resting place for 160 species of birds. Mountain lions also have been seen on the site. The buffalo that Clark saw in the area are long gone, but it isn’t unusual to see deer and maybe even a fox or coyote.

Interpretive tours are offered during the summer, and there also are picnic facilities. There is no camping in the monument, and there are few other visitor services nearby without going to the vicinity of Billings, Montana’s largest city.

Clark first applied the name Pomp’s Tower to the site, naming it after the nickname for Baptiste Charbonneau, the infant son of Sacagawea, a Shoshoni woman who had joined the expedition as an interpreter. The first major published account of the expedition changed the name to Pompeys Pillar.

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