A few years ago, I stopped with my family at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. My two kids and I paid our fee and joined the group heading up the paved path toward the entrance, leaving my claustrophobic (and relieved) wife behind to relax and read her book. As is the case with so many state and national parks, our tour guide was part walking encyclopedia, and part stand-up comedian. While we studied stalactites and stalagmites, our guide regaled the group with several memorable questions previous guests had asked him. “Is the whole cave underground?” is one I remember. Also, “Why didn’t they build this closer to the interstate?”
When more than twelve million tourists flood into Montana each year to enjoy our thousands of attractions and activities, both natural and manmade, stupid questions are a natural byproduct. Now, thanks to online reviews from TripAdvisor, Google, Yelp, and other sites, we can easily see that it’s not just silly questions that come from people whose brains may have been squeezed by their perception of being trapped hundreds of feet beneath the earth. These online reviews, especially of the one-star variety, reveal a virtual tsunami of ignorance that folks seem to have no trouble sharing with the world at large. Ridiculous expectations, lack of research, basing an entire vacation on a rumor—the factors that lead to a scathing review are endless. And so are the laughs—mostly unintended—that come from these one-star posts.
Caves, not caverns, are the main attraction at Pictograph Cave State Park just outside of Billings. Indigenous peoples had used the cave walls for hundreds of years to record their history with colorful line drawings and illustrations. While the cave surfaces are roped off from the public, the drawings themselves have faded to the point where they’re barely visible. This is all explained in the interpretive displays that illustrate in great detail the original cave art, and where to look to see its faded remnants. Some folks still seem to tour the park expecting, well, something more. Like this disgruntled visitor, who, adding insult to injury, also had to pay the nonresident entrance fee:
“The pictographs are so faded or destroyed that you have to use your imagination. The best example is in the sorry excuse of a visitor’s center. So, save your $6 state park fee (if you live outside of Montana). If you are a resident of Montana, perhaps it’s time to contact your representative and use state funds elsewhere.” Okay, let’s not bring politics into this, shall we?
Some Montana attractions are as bold and breathtaking as the day they were named. Makoshika State Park is a good example. This dramatic badlands jewel on the eastern edge of Montana wows everybody who spends time there. Well, almost everybody.
“No water, or clean toilet! Some teenage kids were drinking, pot-smoking, one hella big fire. Run their cars and off-road vehicles through other people’s camp. No phone service to call police or park manager. Need to set up some type of cell service out there. Need to set up water buffalo in a few spots. Need police on weekends and holidays. Left at 2AM. Would not ever stay again.”
We’re not entirely sure what this angry camper means by a “water buffalo,” but it’s probably a good idea in general to avoid camping anywhere during graduation weekend.
Along with the myriad outdoor attractions in Montana, there are hundreds of museums of all types scattered across the state. One complex, the sprawling Range Riders Museum in Miles City, can easily keep the curious tourist occupied for half a day with its arcane collections and dioramas. One visitor, however, seemed to be expecting more, although she generously left two stars after writing this clearly one-star review:
“If you can see past the grime, the displays themselves are of limited interest unless you have some idea of what it is all about. A saddle sitting on a log is just a saddle sitting on a log unless you have some idea why it’s there.” To be fair, no one expects to come away from a pioneer museum struggling on the horns of an existential dilemma.
Even Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies, a world-renowned repository of rare dinosaur fossils, occasionally fails to impress:
“We went to the museum hoping for an informative and enlightening experience, instead we found an environment of loosely controlled mayhem resembling a daycare facility.” Just for the record, Loosely Controlled Mayhem would be a great name for an ironic punk band.
And then there’s our weather, which is famously unaffected by negative reviews. How many tourists who visit Montana have had their summer vacations completely ruined by the unexpected appearance of an early summer snowstorm? Judging by the online reviews, a lot. With all the information readily available on the internet, there’s no excuse for anyone to be unaware that snow can fall here in any month that begins with a capital letter. This disappointed glamper was caught off guard at a Gardiner dude ranch:
“We stayed in July and it SNOWED on our way up. I’m a Summer person not a winter one. We could see our breath in the tent so asked for a heater...On our way to breakfast the water in the trofts [sic] was frozen...My husband and I are over 6 foot tall and we’re [sic] promised a queen bed witch [sic] they have in one of the tents but we didn’t stay in that tent. We got the full size bed where our feet hung off in the cold tent! The view was amazing if you can stand the smell of 20 horses next to your car.” Ew, the smell of horses. What did she think a dude ranch was, a rustic collection of Jeff Spicolis?
No matter the inherent beauty of the attraction or its surroundings, someone will come away grumbling. “William Clark, the Original Bart Simpson” was the title of one dismissal of Pompey’s Pillar. How about Medicine Rocks State Park, in southeast Montana? “No clear trails, no ranger on duty, no water, no trash, one vault toilet shared by the entire park, no fires, no maps except an information board at the entrance, and it cost $28 as an out of state camper.”
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?
The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (“So many mosquitoes!”), Painted Rocks Reservoir (“The campground host is a Nazi!”), Prairie Dog Town near Greycliff (“Kiddies may see a cute critter get shot.”)—all victims of one-star reviews. It seems almost every attraction, event, museum, or geological oddity in Montana gets at least one scathing review from someone who might be having a bad day, or (more likely) didn’t do their homework before traveling to the spot.
For me, online research is second nature. For instance, I already knew that, at five-and-a-half feet tall, I’d have little trouble squeezing through the fissures and openings of the Lewis and Clark Caverns, unlike this poor bastard:
“As a person of height and weight (6’ 5” and over 300 lbs) I had a very negative experience in these caverns. I hit my head over 50 times and, for days later, still have a very sore head with headaches. Hopefully, this helps someone from not experiencing the headaches I have today.”
When touring around Montana, a bit of research can help you avoid headaches, both figurative and literal, and perhaps your experience will result in a five-star review.