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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument
3039 US Highway 312
Pompeys Pillar, MT 59064
- 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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