Learning About Rocks, Unique Art and History in Central Montana

Rock City looking like a castle

A “city” made out of rocks, people made out of trees and a lesson in history – the fun way to learn!

Kids love exploring and I know three that are always up for an adventure. Read along while I reflect on some recent experiences.

Let’s talk geology and geography.

I took the kids to an area called Rock City six miles north of Valier, Montana. I wasn’t sure what their reaction would be. This place is incredibly unique but it isn’t trendy like a resort or theme park. And to top it off, the day we went was one of the hottest days of the year.

The geology/geography part – the landscape at Rock City, like much of our region, was once covered by glaciers about 80 million years ago. When the glaciers melted, they made deep cuts in the land forming an inland sea. As the sea gradually evaporated,

Overlooking the caprocks

it created something resembling a castle with spires and towers. These formations are primarily sandstone, which erodes over time, and hardened sediment that tops off the sandstone. I call them hoodoos or caprocks but the kids decided that they were going to pretend they were running through a castle.

I told the kids the next time we visit there could be changes in the landscape. Montana’s weather can have some huge swings – from warm and melting to freezing and back to warm. Wind, water and ice continually shape the designs of Rock City.

When you overlook the edge of the rocks and spires, you see the Two Medicine River flowing into the Marias River. Another lesson here is that the Marias flows into the Missouri River at a place we call

View from the north side where the Marias flows

Decision Point. This site was named for a choice made by Lewis & Clark near present-day Loma, Montana. The Missouri then flows in to the Mississippi River. What a trip!

Rock City is on private land but the landowner allows public access with no advance permission required. If roads are wet or muddy, don’t go.

Let’s talk art.

The kids and I have been to the C. M. Russell Museum multiple times so we decided to try something new. We visited Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, a contemporary art museum housed in an old public school building in Great Falls. This multi-story sandstone building was built in 1896. The kids were impressed with so many things before we even started looking at the art – the grand entrances, the “creaky” narrow-strip oak floors (they noted their floors are wide-plank) and the super-tall ceilings.

Paris Gibson Square

The exhibits are definitely unique and the building’s former classrooms house a nice variety of art. One room featured a temporary exhibit of art made from concrete, another was all about hearts and health.

My favorite room at Paris Gibson Square is the Lee Steen room and I was eager to get to it. Lee Steen lived in southern Montana and made what some people would call outsider art. He collected garbage (today we call that recycled products) and used it to decorate deciduous trees.

His collection of People Trees circles the perimeter of one room, and each time I visit I try to imagine what was going through his mind. The kids were as fascinated as I was and we spent a lot of time looking at each People Tree. As we left the building and drove home they were still talking about the art.

Let’s talk history.

A room full of “People Trees”

We could cover many history topics but decided to focus on Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery. The entourage came up the Missouri River and hit a snag in their timeline as they neared present-day Great Falls in June 1805. Waterfalls. Not just one, which is what they were expecting, but a series of five waterfalls that all had to be portaged.

Today, just downstream from Black Eagle Falls, sits the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center operated by the U. S. Forest Service. There are many history lessons in this Center and it deserves multiple visits to absorb it all.

The sandstone-colored building is built into a bluff along the Missouri River, designed to blend with the landscape. The story told at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center focuses on the Corps’ interaction with the Plains Indians and their trek westward to the Pacific.

Learning about Captain Lewis’ encounter with a grizzly

President Thomas Jefferson tasked the Captains and the Corps with searching to see if the land he purchased (the Louisiana Purchase), extended north of the 49th parallel. He also requested them to document their travels and note vegetation and wildlife.

The Corps of Discovery traveled by celestial navigation and I have taken the kids to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center to do night sky viewing. A local astronomy society sets up high-powered scopes in the parking lot of the Center eight times a year to view the sky and teach about celestial navigation.

On our recent visit to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center we learned about the dugout canoes (oh, so heavy) that were portaged and hauled overland to get around the falls. A diorama details this arduous task and the kids looked at every element. It was decided that a miniature version of the dugout canoe in the Center entrance looked like a poorly crafted skateboard! We also talked about cactus (prickly pear)

Viewing the diorama of portaging the waterfalls

and what it did to the expedition’s feet. A mounted grizzly bear is posed next to an artist’s rendition of Lewis when he encountered a bear and had forgotten to reload his muzzleloader. A lesson in being prepared!

The landscaping surrounding the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center features native plants. Each plant’s name is on a small plaque in the ground next to it. We were too late in the season to see anything blooming but this will be a future visit.

After spending time inside the Center, we walked the trail that took us behind the building to a statue of Seaman, the huge Newfoundland dog Captain Lewis purchased to take on the journey. And of course, that was a great photo op to document our school day!

Seaman, Captain Lewis’ Newfoundland dog

I tend to assume that kids have short attention spans, and sometimes they do. We could have stayed longer at this “classroom” though.

Learning is fun for both adults and kids.


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