Popeys Pillar National Monument
Anna Marie

Anna Marie

Discovering Pompeys Pillar National Monument

Pompeys Pillar National Monument in Montana is where you'll find the only remaining physical evidence along the trail blazed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 19th century.

Pompeys Pillar National Monument is a remote destination I fell in love with. Located in the southeastern corner of Montana, the historic landmark has ties to ancient native Americans as well as the momentous Lewis and Clark Expedition. However, it was the mixture of open space, big sky, Montana breezes, prairie views, and historical significance that captivated me.

Pompeys Pillar National Monument in eastern Montana.
Pompeys Pillar in eastern Montana.
Pompeys Pillar is a butte on the Montana prairie.
The butte stands approximately 150 feet tall.

Pompeys Pillar is a 150-foot tall butte on the plains of Montana. The pillar and the cliffs that stand across the Yellowstone River is formed primarily of sandstone and shale. The butte or pillar is estimated to date back anywhere from 75 to 65 million years. Fossils and other archaeological evidence have been found here corroborating the dates.

Previous Visitors

Pompeys Pillar has a rich history. In addition to prehistoric creatures and ancient Native Americans, there has been a steady stream of callers to the landmark.

Originally part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the pillar has hosted fur traders, steamboat captains, soldiers, surveyors, railroad workers, homesteaders, and the Crow Nation. Its location along the river and proximity to Billings, Montana, twenty-five miles upstream, produced a steady flow of traffic through this seemingly desolate area.

A canoe carved from a log at Pompeys Pillar National Monument
A canoe carved out of a log.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Pompeys Pillar is arguably most famous for its connection to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On July 25, 1806, Captain William Clark, while on his return trip from the Pacific coast, etched his signature into the pillar leaving the only remaining visible evidence of the expedition.

Not only did Clark leave behind historic graffiti, he also made detailed notes in his journal calling it “a remarkable rock” and exclaiming it offers an “extensive view in every direction.”

A diary entry by Captain William Clark at Pompeys Pillar National Monument
One of Captain William Clark's diary entries.
Capt. William Clark's signature left on Pompeys Pillar
Captain William Clark's historic graffiti dated July 25, 1806.

Why is it called Pompeys Pillar?

While keeping a precise record of his visit, Clark also jots down a name in his journal – Pompey’s Tower.

Pompey was his nickname for Sacagawea’s toddler son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Baptiste, as he was called, was born during the expedition. Clark’s affection for the young boy inspired him to name the bluff after him. (Clark became the child’s godfather and later his legal guardian.)

The name ultimately changed to Pompeys Pillar in 1814 when Nicholas Biddle’s account of the expedition was published.

A view of the Yellowstone River in Montana
A view of the cliffs and Yellowstone River from Pompeys Pillar.

Planning a visit to Pompeys Pillar National Monument

When visiting Pompeys Pillar National Monument, prepare to do some climbing. There’s a wooden board walk that’s close to 1,000 feet long and about 200 steps leading visitors to the top of the pillar. It’s a mild incline but a decent walk, nonetheless. Pace yourself.

Captain Clark’s signature is visible on the way to the top of the mesa. On my visit, there was a guide stationed at the site of his signature to give details and answer questions.

Once at the top, we were greeted by a second guide who shared a captivating account of the land’s history, wildlife, the Native American inhabitants, and The Lewis and Clark Expedition. The gusts were steady, and our guide turned his collar against the wind as he regaled us with a moving tale of the important butte on the shores of the Yellowstone River. It was one of those tours that pulls you in and leaves you speechless when it’s over.

Tour guide at Pompeys Pillar
Our guide enthralls us with the history of Pompeys Pillar.
A compass
An example of how rudimentary the tools Captain Clark used were.

The Yellowstone River and More!

Apart from the pillar, there’s a pathway along the riverbanks. Take a stroll under the cottenwood trees and enjoy the wildlife and scenery or bring along a picnic lunch. But do adhere to the warnings on the path to avoid encounters with snakes!

In addition to the outdoor attractions, there is a gift shop and an outstanding visitors center. You’ll want to allocate enough time to enjoy the film and the exhibits in the museum in order to get the full benefit of touring the monument.

If you’re planning to stay in the area, there’s a considerable selection of hotels in Billings to the southwest. If you’re up for a more rustic experience, there are two KOA Campgrounds close by; one in Hardin, Montana and another in Billings.

The visitors center at Pompeys Pillar in Montana.
The Visitors Center at Pompeys Pillar.
The museum at Pompeys Pillar in Montana.
The museum provides a thorough account of the history of the area.
A wooded walkway
Travel the path along the Yellowstone River.

The parking lot, visitors center, restrooms, and day use area are all fully accessible. Pets are welcome but must be on a leash at all times.

Pull Over Pro Tip

Final Thoughts

Pompeys Pillar is a remote but memorable attraction. I knew very little about it when I arrived but departed with an awesome appreciation for the significance of this National Monument.

Seeing the only remaining physical evidence on the Lewis and Clark Trail was meaningful. I also gained greater knowledge and insight into the Native Americans of the region. Pairing the rich history with the expansive landscape and sweeping winds of the great American prairie makes Pompeys Pillar an unforgettable travel win.

The Yellowstone River at Pompeys Pillar
The Yellowstone River in eastern Montana.
Me at the Yellowstone River by Pompeys Pillar in Montana
Be sure to walk the river path while you're there!

Pompeys Pillar National Monument
3039 US Highway 312
Pompeys Pillar, MT 59064
(406) 875-2400

  • I visited Pompeys Pillar while attending the TBEX conference in Billings, MT. Fees for the tour were included in the registration fee. All opinions are honest and my own.

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