Southeast Montana, proof that the journey is as good as the destination.
Secret Destinations for Yellowstone Travelers
Headed to Yellowstone National Park? Southeast Montana offers so many fascinating side trips, you’ll never ask, “Are we there yet?” In fact, this wildly varied part of The Last Best Place may end up being the highlight of your entire trip.
Here, you can see, do and learn things that relatively few ever get to enjoy—most don’t know of the wonders waiting just a short way off the beaten path. Southeast Montana is your chance at unique, uncrowded adventures in the true West—places that win your heart and run away with your imagination.
History Bigger Than the Big Sky Itself
This country is brimming with astonishing stories—many of them that happened millions of years ago!
It took eons to set the stage—endless stretches of geologic time that gave shape to this landscape. Amid the buttes, cliffs and canyons at Makoshika State Park, paleontologists have discovered some of the most impressive dinosaur fossils known, including Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and even 75-million-year-old dinosaur eggs. Jump off I-94 at exit 213, follow the signs through Glendive and you can see it all for yourself at the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum. Or, you can even join a real dinosaur dig at the nearby private Baisch Ranch. There, you can hunt for dinosaurs and even take home the fossils and petrified wood you find (something you can’t do in the parks).
If you need even more dinosaur thrills, venture a bit further to the other end of the Hell Creek Formation at Ekalaka to see the impossibly weird rock formations at Medicine Rocks State Park, and take in the dino collection at the Carter County Museum.
You’ll not only be walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs, but you’re intersecting the trail of Corps of Discovery adventurers, Lewis and Clark. To get a real feel for their quest through uncharted territory, climb Pompey’s Pillar, a massive sandstone butte on the banks of the Yellowstone River right beside I-94 at exit 23. On the way up, you’ll see William Clark’s actual signature carved into the rock—the last remaining on-site physical evidence of the historic trip. From the top, you’ll see the view largely as they did more than 200 years ago.
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men camped here at Pompey’s Pillar, too—in 1873, a few years prior to Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Head over to Crow Agency, Montana, either by way of I-90 east of Billings or by the cutoff road, Highway 47 between Custer and Hardin, and you can walk through history at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Being at the battlefield, viewing Last Stand Hill, the Indian Memorial and the museum, you’ll sense the events in a way no book could ever convey. What’s more, there’s a spectacular live reenactment of the battle every year, held on or around the actual anniversary date of June 25 along with a whole week of events as part of Little Big Horn Days.
Teepee Capital of the World and Bucking Horse Bonanza
Crow Agency today is also home to the annual Crow Fair and Rodeo, which boasts the largest modern-day native American teepee encampment in the world—more than 1,500 teepees arrayed near the Little Bighorn Creek, just as they might have been hundreds of years ago. The Crow Fair itself has been happening since 1904, usually held the third week of August, showcasing native crafts, music, dance and traditional costumes. There’s a daily all-Indian rodeo, featuring the best native riders in the West, plus daily horse racing (and yes, you can wager on the horses).
Some of the rough stock for this rodeo and many others throughout the West come from the world-famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. Each year in mid-May, cowboys converge on Miles City, about 140 miles east of Billings on I-94, for four days of riding, racing and rocking out at the kickoff concert.
It’s events and locations like these outside Yellowstone Park where you feel like not just an observer but a real participant.
Along with living history and summer events, Southeast Montana is perhaps most notable for outdoor adventure in spectacular natural settings.
A great starting point is Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, accessible from Fort Smith, Montana, south of Hardin on Highway 313. Hikers can choose from some 27 miles of trails that wind through the canyon (challenge: find which trail takes you to a ghost town) and up to scenic overlooks. The canyon is home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, mountain lions, black bears, hundreds of bird species and even wild horses.
Bighorn Canyon’s 70-mile-long lake and towering, 1,000-foot walls make for spectacular sightseeing by boat. You might also want to sink a line in pursuit of the lake’s huge walleye and other native fish species while you’re at it. In the crystal-clear tailwater below Yellowtail Dam, rainbow and brown trout in great abundance attract anglers from around the world.
Another not-to-be-missed locale is the Terry Badlands Wilderness Area near the little town of Terry, Montana, between Glendive and Miles City. Within a mile or two of I-94, you enter a landscape that looks and feels quite a lot like another planet, and the further you go, the more alien it seems. Established trails traverse the colorful, rugged terrain; the palette changes with the light and season, and rockhounds love the Terry area for its abundance of agate.
Your Own Adventure, Your Own Schedule
Despite all that’s going on in Southeast Montana, sometimes it’s great to have no agenda at all. Go ahead and wander over to the famously remote Jersey Lilly saloon in Ingomar. Rub elbows with the locals at a cozy hometown cafe in Broadus or Baker. Pull over at that trailhead. See what you find around that next bend.
A Southeast Montana journey is the context that makes a visit to Yellowstone National Park truly meaningful. The secret finds in this part of the country are separate from the park and yet inexorably connected to it—hidden treasure that makes time spent here that much more valuable.