Article and Photo by J.B. Chandler
The bear that once lived in this cave has not lived here for some time. The glaciers and the waterfalls disappeared far before the bear lived here, and all share pages in this story of the Bears Den. Let’s take a closer look at this secluded spot on the Montana landscape.
Even with a curiously paved road heading north of Joplin, getting to the Bears Den is easier driving a vehicle with good clearance. A rustic sign sends us over a rise and a jagged, yellow sandstone canyon comes into view. My octogenarian guide with a new knee proves getting around is easy enough. Yet the giant slabs of rounded sandstone are like rocky bubbles, too difficult to traverse directly, so we must meander up, around, and about, returning to look over the cliffside. The narrow, short canyon is a mile long, if generous, but can reach heights of over 100 feet. Eagles and hawks nest in the small caves randomly pock marking the walls. Leaning over the edge of one cliff, we have our first sight of the Bears Den.
After a dry winter, the grass is as yellow as the sandstone. The leafless trees allow us to see the cave clearly. Getting closer onto the next ridge, the chokehold of rock above Bears Den comes into focus. We must work our way above and beyond, and then back down to the chokehold (which I called the Cauldron) to see where all that glacial water was channeled. Those leafless tree limbs make for poor hand holds, but we easily make it to the ground level of the Bears Den. The large entrance is topped by the dry falls, that chokehold, which flows from the gash in the Cauldron. This long-gone glacial waterfall is critical to understanding the formation of the Bears Den.
Imagine a sheet of ice, hundreds of feet thick, stretching for thousands of miles north, and it’s all melting, really quickly melting. As that glacial waterfall cascades over the edge it meets the frothing, churning area of water below called the plunge pool. Given time, this pool will further erode the softer rock underneath the stronger overhanging material, called undercutting, and eventually the heavier overhang will collapse. The glaciers, the waterfalls, and the bear are all long gone, and since the undercutting is holding up the overhang, we have ourselves a small cave – the Bears Den.
The entrance is over ten feet tall and twenty feet wide, but only reaches back for 30 feet. In these recesses are the marks of the earliest visitors. The 01s and 04s are for the 1900s, not the 2000s; in fact 1892 is the oldest date seen. (Our Montana landmarks need no new dates or any sorts of vandalism.) Further out from the entrance, other rocks (perhaps broken overhanging from years before) carry the names and dates of other visitors. We see some deer tracks and many birds in the area, but there probably has never been a bear in the Bears Den. No bears, but plenty of sights and a good hike exploring the Sweetgrass Hills of North Central Montana.