10 Memorable Ways to Explore Each of Montana's Tourism Regions
Southeast Montana is rich in history and local culture. From the famed Miles City Bucking Horse Sale to the solemn grasses of Little Bighorn Battlefield, this is Montana at its grittiest. Hikers, mountain bikers, anglers, water enthusiasts, and wildlife watchers will find themselves right at home in the southeast corner of Big Sky Country. This is a land where arid mountains meet the Great Plains, a place of history with a bright future. Here are 10 of the best ways to explore the region.
Little Bighorn, now a national monument, marks the battlefield where the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry faced off against the Sioux and Cheyenne in one of the last great battles of the plains tribes. On June 25 and 26, 1876, 263 soldiers including Lt. Col. George Custer died in a battle against several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. A well-designed visitor’s center briefs visitors on the battlefield’s history, and a 4.5-mile road offers a narrated tour throughout the monument site.
Bring the hiking boots and camera for your trip to Medicine Rocks State Park. In years past, Indian hunting parties gathered at the stark sandstone rock formations that give the park its name. Now the rocks offer an Instagram-worthy stop along your hike. Hiking trails line the 330-acre state park, and 12 campsites mean you can simply step outside your tent and stride to the trail. Be sure to keep a sharp eye out for grouse, mule deer, and antelope.
Totaling more than 120,000 acres (including parts in Wyoming), Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is a playground for outdoor lovers. More than 17 miles of trails welcome hikers and backpackers, many offering views of dramatic canyon overlooks. Trail ratings range from easy to hard, with distances from .1 mile to 4.6 miles, meaning it’s possible to knock out several hikes in one day if desired. Bighorn Lake is easy to access and simply awe-inspiring from a kayak or stand-up paddleboard—its cool waters are a refreshing treat on a hot summer day.
The easternmost of Montana’s great rivers, the Bighorn flows from the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming north to its confluence with the Yellowstone River. Boasting an impressive 5,500 fish per river mile, it’s easily a favorite of savvy anglers in the region. The average length of Bighole trout is 17 inches, which means effort spent on the river often pays off in a big way. Connect with a local outfitter for a drift boat trip, or wade fish the river on your own.
Set in the dramatic Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area near the town of Fort Smith, Afterbay Lake is bracketed by dramatic canyon walls. The lake is easily accessed from a boat launch at the Afterbay Campground, making this a favorite weekend getaway for locals. The 181-acre lake is well-suited to kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and other watercraft, and the steep canyon walls look even more impressive from the water. Water temperature rarely rises above the mid-40s, so be sure to have sun-warmed towels nearby when you leave the water.
2018 will mark the 68th year of the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. The rodeo stock (bucking horses and bulls) auction takes place every third full weekend in May, and draws working cowboys and rodeo professionals from around the country. Bring your cowboy boots and worn-in jeans—this is the place where the real cowboys gather. Enjoy the parade, racing horse meet, rodeo and other social events surrounding the historic weekend while knowing you’re getting a sample of "real" Montana.
Walk a dinosaur trail, view Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil remains and browse the newly remodeled visitor center at Makoshika State Park near Glendive. Montana’s largest state park, the badlands encompass 11,538 acres of rugged terrain that was once home to a variety of dinosaurs. While you’re in the state park, enjoy an archery site, scenic drives, hiking trails, camping sites and an outdoor amphitheater. Special events occur throughout the summer.
View artifacts and a documentary in the Cheyenne Indian Museum—this has been their "home turf" for many years, and a stop at the St. Labre Museum will foster a new appreciation for the hardened landscapes and hardy people of southeast Montana. Then take a step back and admire the architecture of the St. Labre Indian Chapel. The unique building was inspired by the storied teepees of Plains Indians, and incorporates beautiful stained glass windows. This state historic site offers a unique look into the region’s rich heritage.
This gem of a trail follows 5.5 miles of a primitive road, providing access to uniquely eroded sandstone and clay formations in the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area. Once the road ends, the trail extends for roughly nine more miles, offering a out-and-back trail with a moderate rating. Vehicles are allowed on the first 5.5 miles, but are recommended to have a high clearance. Both sections of the trail are lightly trafficked and offer stunning scenery with early-season wildflowers.
Enjoy an easy hike at Four Dances Recreation area near Billings. The Special Recreation Management Area offers what many locals call the best views of the Yellowstone River, easily accessed by a looping 1.5-mile trail. For those less inclined to hiking, a quarter-mile footpath from the parking lot offers a stunning view of the river from a rimrock wall. No bicycles are allowed, but hiking and nature watching are popular in the summer, as are snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter.