Pompeys Pillar staircase and boardwalk closed. The Bureau of Land Management Billings Field Office is restricting access to the staircase and boardwalk that leads to the top of Pompeys Pillar.
The Entrance Gate is closed to vehicles Oct – April (Walk-ins welcome year-round). The Interpretive Center is closed Oct – April (Trails and Vault Toilets open year-round).
A Living Journal of the American West
Pompeys Pillar National Monument encompasses 51 acres on the banks of the Yellowstone River with a massive sandstone outcrop covering about 2 acres at its base and rising 120 feet high toward Montana’s Big Sky. The monument’s premier location at a natural ford in the Yellowstone River, and its geologic distinction as the only major sandstone formation in the area, have made Pompeys Pillar a celebrated landmark and outstanding observation point for more than eleven thousand years of human occupation. Hundreds of markings, petroglyphs, and inscriptions left by visitors have transformed this geologic phenomenon into a living journal of the American West.
History of Pompeys Pillar
Pompeys Pillar was part of the original 1803 Louisiana Purchase. It was in the public domain until the mid-1800s when a treaty made it part of the Crow Indian Reservation. A later action removed the area from the reservation but gave Crow tribal members the first right to homestead the lands. In 1955, the Foote family purchased the property.
After the 1989 tourist season, rising insurance costs forced the Footes to close the area. In December 1989, interested groups and citizens, along with public agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, formed an action group to explore ways to protect the site and get it back into public ownership. These efforts culminated in November 1991 when BLM purchased the site and surrounding land. BLM spent the next several months preparing the area for public visitation, making improvements needed to ensure public health and safety, and constructing a modest, temporary visitor contact station and a boardwalk to access the Pillar. The site was reopened to the public in May 1992. The action group formed in 1989 evolved into the Pompeys Pillar Historical Association; it assists BLM in managing the area by providing a cadre of volunteers at the site.
Pompeys Pillar contains the signature of Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Clark’s inscription is the expedition’s only remaining physical evidence visible on the Corp of Discovery’s trail. An interpretive center at the site recounts Clark’s journey through the Yellowstone Valley in 1806. The Pillar overlooks the Yellowstone River about 25 miles east of Billings, Montana.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is approximately 3,700 miles long, extending from Wood River, Illinois, to the mouth of the Columbia River, near present day Astoria, Oregon, following the historic outbound and inbound routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The purpose of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is to commemorate the 1804 to 1806 expedition through the identification; protection; interpretation; public use and enjoyment; and preservation of historic, cultural, and natural resources associated with the expedition and its place in U.S. and tribal history.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument is one of many significant sites along that trail.
With the discovery of gold in western Montana and the homesteading elsewhere, the first large-scale incursion of European-Americans underway. The Yellowstone River served as a major transportation corridor, bringing trade goods and supplies as far as Billings, Montana, about 25 miles upstream from Pompeys Pillar. In 1875, Captain Grant Marsh, pilot of the steamboat Josephine, became the first to raise an American flag on the summit of Pompeys Pillar.
1873 Campsite of Army and Surveyors
The middle and lower Yellowstone country was filled with troops during the middle 1870s. The third transcontinental railroad survey expedition made its way through the middle Yellowstone Valley in 1873. On March 15, 1873, this group of about 375 civilian surveyors and more than 1,500 cavalry and infantry troops, including 10 companies of the 7th Calvary under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, camped at the mouth of Pompeys Pillar Creek, across the Yellowstone from Pompeys Pillar. On the morning of March 16, 1873, American Indians who had worked their way into the brush at the base of Pompeys Pillar fired on the troops.
Northern Pacific Railroad and Pompeys Pillar Railroad Station
The Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1882 and provided transportation through the Yellowstone River Valley. Passengers stopping at the Northern Pacific Railroad station a half mile south of the Pillar routinely visited the Pillar to view Clark’s inscription. In 1882, the Northern Pacific Railroad decided to protect Clark’s signature by covering it with a heavy iron screen.
By the late 19th century, the agricultural potential of the rich Yellowstone River valley had become apparent to settlers, land speculators and Congress. Although much of the Yellowstone Valley, including Pompeys Pillar, lay within the boundaries of the Crow Reservation, legislation directed the Crow tribe to cede the Yellowstone Valley. The lands were settled shortly after the turn of the 20th century when the Huntley Irrigation District was established.
In addition to William Clark’s signature, Pompeys Pillar is marked with over 5,000 of other etchings and drawings. Fur trappers of the early 1800s, military expeditions, railroad workers, and early settlers used the sandstone as a registry of their passing.
- Native American Heritage
Early Occupation Sites
Pompeys Pillar is within the territory historically acknowledged as the homeland of the Apsaalooke, or Crow people. The Pillar’s name in the Crow language, Iishbiiammaache, is variously translated as “Where the Mountain Lion Lies,” “The Mountain Lion’s Lodge,” or “Where the Mountain Lion Preys.” Pompeys Pillar is at a strategic ford of the Yellowstone, and its remarkable appearance virtually guaranteed its place as a natural landmark for the native people of the Northern Plains through the region’s more than 11,000 years of occupation.
In addition to the Crow people, Pompeys Pillar has been a landmark to numerous other American Indian people, including members of the Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Blackfeet and Salish tribes.
Archaeological evidence of past occupation of the Pillar area by Native Americans has been discovered at various depths below ground. These materials appear to be the remains of hunting and living camps, probably occupied by relatively small groups of people for short periods of time. The remains of butchered bison and other animals along with mussels from the nearby Yellowstone River are scattered among flaked stone tools and debris around small surface hearths. The ancient camps were buried by slow-moving flood waters soon after abandonment, preserving organic and other materials in place, with later occupations leaving remains on the new, higher surfaces.
The Yellowstone River has long been of significance to the Crow people. Clark made several entries in his journals seeing “signs” of the Crow, but never actually encountered them. On July 18, 1806, he noted seeing the “Smoke” of the Crow Indians. On July 19th, the Clark party passed an “old indian fort on an island,” and one expedition member, George Shannon, reported that there was a “remarkable Lodge” downstream near the mouth of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River (now managed by BLM). The Yellowstone Valley has long been the heart of Crow Country and is steeped in Crow history.
Sacred Burial and Ritual Sites
The Pillar was used for centuries as a favored campsite by Crows and other groups as they traveled through the area on hunting, trading, war or other expeditions. Ethnographic and archaeological evidence suggest that the Pillar was also a place of ritual and religious activity. In his journal, Clark noted evidence of Native American presence, “The Indians have made 2 piles of Stone on top of this Tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals....”
The presence of aboriginal rock art is an indicator of ritual behavior. The placement of prehistoric rock art in the Northern Plains is not random. It is clear that the places where rock art occurs were place of importance to the ancient artists. Pictographs and petroglyphs have been found on the Pillar.
- Natural History
The Pillar and the cliffs across the river are composed of sandstones and shales of the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek (Lance) Formation. The Hell Creek Formation, ranging from 75-65 million years ago, represents the last strata of the Cretaceous Period. The Hell Creek Formation has been found to contain the fossilized remains of dinosaurs and primitive mammals. Although no animal or plant fossils have been documented at Pompeys Pillar, significant fossils have been found in similar sandstone beds nearby.
In fact, William Clark may been the first to record a paleontological find in the area immediately downstream from Pompeys Pillar. “I employed my Self in getting pieces of the rib of a fish which was Semented within the face of the rock. ...it is 3 feet in length tho a part of the end appears to have been broken off.” It is thought that this reference is to the discovery of a fossilized rib in the uppermost Hell Creek Formation. The rib probably came from a terrestrial dinosaur. The most common terrestrial dinosaurs of that period in this area were the hadrasaurus, triceratops, albertosaurus and tyrannosaurus.
Yellowstone River and Associated Riparian Habitat
The Yellowstone can be characterized as a meandering braided prairie river. The Yellowstone is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states and provides rich, fertile farmland and habitat for many wildlife and bird species. The riparian areas along the river contain several cottonwood community types. Many standing cottonwood trees within the flood plain are estimated to be more than 100 years old.
The area is more than a static piece of history or a crossroads for bygone cultures. It is alive with wildlife. Clark noted seeing wildlife in abundance here and elsewhere along the Yellowstone, “for me to mention or give an estimate of the different Species of wild animals on this river particularly Buffalow, Elk Antelopes & Wolves would be increditable. I shall therefore be silent on the subject further.” Pompeys Pillar is still home to many wildlife species and is designated a Watchable Wildlife Viewing Area. Deer, fox, coyotes, raccoons and numerous small mammals, amphibians and reptiles call the Pillar home. Much of the wildlife population is a result of the site’s thriving riparian zone, a healthy plant community of grasses, willows and cottonwood trees that stabilize the river bank and provide important habitat. At the time William Clark traveled through the area, he made note of seeing hundreds of buffalo, elk, wolves and deer. Today, although the area supports a variety of wildlife, it is not to the extent nor diversity that Clark noted. The more common species include mule and whitetail deer, raccoon, fox, bobcat, coyote. There have been a few mountain lion sightings.
The Yellowstone River near Pompeys Pillar supports a remarkable diversity of bird species. Many neo-tropical migratory bird species use the riparian corridor for nesting and/or as safe resting cover during migration. More than 160 bird species have been observed on or near Pompeys Pillar, including waterfowl, songbirds, shorebirds, woodpeckers, raptors, swallows and game birds. Some birds observed in the area are on the BLM's sensitive species list: the ferruginous hawk, the loggerhead shrike, Franklin’s gull, Forster’s tern, the northern goshawk, the sage grouse, the peregrine falcon. Peregrine falcons have historically occupied rocky cliff habitat near Pompeys Pillar. Twenty-one peregrines were released east of Pompeys Pillar in 1996.
The Yellowstone River near Pompeys Pillar is a transition zone between a cold and warm water fisheries. As such, fish species representative of both temperature zones have been recorded in this reach. Common fish species include goldeye, common carp, flathead chub, emerald shiner, western silvery/plains minnow, river carpsucker, shorthead redhorse, longnose sucker, white sucker, mountain sucker, channel catfish, stonecat, burbot, smallmouth bass and sauger.
Threatened and Endangered Species
Two threatened/endangered species occur in the Pompeys Pillar area or have biogeographical ranges that overlap the area. Bald eagles (threatened) have occupied nests in the vicinity of Pompeys Pillar, but no black-footed ferrets (endangered) have been found in the vicinity of the Pillar.
- Visitor Information
Rates & Fees
When the Monument is open (see below for season and hours), a $7 standard fee is charged for each vehicle. There is no separate fee for the interpretive center. All fees are returned to the site and used to maintain and improve the facility. All valid federal recreation passes are honored at the site.
Private Vehicle Standard Fees
Rates are based on number of passengers.
- 6 passengers and under--$7
- 7-25 passengers--$12
- 26+ passengers--$20
Open April 28 through October 31.
Interpretive Center hours:
- April 28-September: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
- October: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Commercial/Group Vehicle Fees
- Commercial group rates are based on vehicle capacity.
- Vehicles capable of seating 6 passengers and under--$25
- Vehicles capable of seating 7-25 passengers--$40
- Vehicles capable of seating 26+ passengers--$100
Even when the Monument is closed, visitors may still walk into the site during daylight hours. The walk from the gates to the Pillar is about 3/4 mile. Special arrangements can be made during the off-season for school programs and other special events. Facilities available are the boardwalks, walkways, and vault toilets. All buildings will be closed.
The boardwalk up the Pillar leads to Clark's signature and continues to the top of mesa. It is approximately 1,000 feet long and contains about 200 steps.
Day Use Area
The day use area is ideal for picnicking or relaxing. It is adjacent to the Yellowstone River and shaded by large cottonwood trees.
The interpretive center, restrooms, parking lot and day use area are fully accessible.
Pets must be on a leash at all times.
Natural and Cultural Resources
Please respect our heritage and treat the Monument and its resources with respect. Do not deface any tree, shrub, rock, or ancient Indian artifact. Do not touch petroglyphs or remove any artifact. Not only is this illegal, but it erases evidence of past generations and deprives others of the knowledge about these sites.
Friends of Pompeys Pillar
The Friends of Pompeys Pillar provides substantial and much needed support for the Monument. This 200-member, nonprofit organization supplies more than 35 volunteers to assist visitors at the site and to operate the interpretive center. Profits from this enterprise assist with operation of the Monument. More than 2,500 hours of volunteer time are donated each year.
The Pillar overlooks the Yellowstone River about 25 miles east of Billings, Montana. The area is easily accessible from Interstate 94, using exit 23, or from Montana Highway 312. The Pillar is a sandstone butte or mesa and covers about two acres at its base and stands about 150 feet high. Because it is the only sandstone outcrop on the south side of the Yellowstone River for several miles in either direction, it has been a landmark for centuries.
Pompeys Pillar is at a natural ford in the Yellowstone River. In addition, the mouth of Pompeys Pillar Creek on the north side of Yellowstone and the mouth of Fly Creek on the south form natural passageways leading to the river ford at Pompeys Pillar. As a result, the area has been a crossroads throughout history for hunters and their prey such as the once-prominent buffalo herds. In addition to Clark’s signature, the sandstone is marked with literally hundreds of other etchings and drawings. Clark noted evidence of Native American use, “The Indians have made 2 piles of Stone on top of this Tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals....” Fur trappers of the early 1800s, military expeditions, railroad workers, and early settlers used the sandstone as a registry of their passing. In a very real sense, Pompeys Pillar’s sandstone facets hold a vivid history of the unfolding West.