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Montana Road Trip: Bighorn and Beyond

This road trip runs approximately 400 miles through Little Bighorn country, the place where Gen. George Armstrong Custer made his failed last stand against Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. Explore the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument either on a tour or on your own. Visit with the Crow/Apsaalooké Nation, which celebrates its heritage with the largest powwow and gathering of tepees in the U.S. Stand in the footsteps of Capt. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery mission at Pompeys Pillar. To the west, enjoy Billings by exploring its museum scene, going on a brewery tour, and viewing the city from a sweeping overview. To the east, savor cowboy flavor in Miles City by eating at a steakhouse, touring an Old West museum, watching bucking horses in action, or staying in an inn tucked in cliffs overlooking the river.

Billings > I-94 to Miles City > backtrack west on I-94 to exit 72 > MT-384 to Hardin > I-90 to Crow Agency > Crow St. Xavier Road > MT-313 > Pryor St. Xavier cut-across to Pryor > MT-418 > MT-416 to Billings.

You can travel the entire Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from St. Louis to Oregon and never see any physical evidence of the Corps of Discovery expedition, except at one place: Pompeys Pillar National Monument, 30 miles east of Billings. It's the only spot where you can absolutely know that you're standing where Captain Clark stood. The reason? On July 25, 1806, Clark carved his name and the date into the rock formation, which rises 150 feet above the Yellowstone River and rewards visitors who climb to the top with great views of the surrounding landscape. Inside Tip: Go around to the dark side of the pillar to see a great horned owl nest and perhaps even get a glimpse of the resident weasel family.

Billings is home to two contrasting state parks. Lake Elmo State Park is an easy recreational getaway within the city limits, featuring a 1.4-mile nature trail for walking or running, a 200-square-foot dog park, and a stocked 64-acre reservoir for fishing, swimming, nonmotorized boating, and sailboarding. Pictograph Cave State Park, on the other hand, is known as "the birthplace of Montana archaeology" because it was the site of the first major excavation on the northern plains, yielding more than 30,000 artifacts, some of which are thought to be at least 4,000 years old. The highlight: View over a hundred pictographs, or rock paintings, and artifacts left behind by prehistoric hunters who camped in the area. Inside Tip: Go in the morning due to the extreme midday heat in the Yellowstone Valley. Note: A rock slide in early 2015 temporarily blocked access to the pictographs. The area should now be open, but check the park’s website first to make sure.

Billings is the largest city in Montana and has a vital museum and zoo scene. The Yellowstone Art Museum (YAM) offers hands-on programs for adults, kids, and families. At the Western Heritage Center, take in the free High Noon lecture series (hosted each third Thursday at 12 p.m.), which explores how Montana inspires artists, writers, and musicians. Moss Mansion was built in 1903 and holds a wealth of turn-of-the-century antiques and artifacts. Zoo Montana cares for more than 56 different species of animals.

Get your day started in Billings by taking a horseback ride through the Yellowstone Valley with Bitter Creek Outfitters. You'll start at the outfitter's home base, a working cattle ranch, then wind your way through trees, rock formations, grasslands, and wildflowers to a lofty perch atop the sandstone rimrocks that line the valley. From there, you'll see mountain ranges, native birds, and wildlife—and the wide-open spaces that make Montana famous.

Experience all things cowboy with an excursion by Western Romance Company in Huntley. Among the experiences they offer is Happy Pappy’s Holdup, in which guests in buses are “held up” by bandits and taken on a wagon ride to Happy Pappy's Chuckwagon Camp, followed by a cowboy meal with entertainment from Western musicians and cowboy poets. The company also offers horseback rides and the Whoopha Ride, which tours local historic sites, battlefields, and museums. Inside Tip: Make reservations. Good for groups.

In Miles City, be sure to visit the Range Riders Museum, where you can check out the Wagon Depot’s collection of antique vehicles. Then tour the WaterWorks Art Museum, located in a historic waterworks building.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Crow Agency is the must-see site of the epic battle between the U.S. Army’s Seventh Calvary, led by General Custer, and Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. The battle ended badly for Custer and his men, and you can see headstone reminders of the fighting that took place from June 25 to 26, 1876. Best Bet: For more background on the battle, head to the Custer Battlefield Museum in Garryowen.

Chief Plenty Coups State Park outside Pryor is known as the “peace park” for its serene setting and history. Chief Plenty Coups, the last traditional Crow chief, bridged the gap between whites and Native Americans and designated his homestead as a park for all people and cultures. It is one of only three state parks in the U.S. located on a Native American reservation.

The Northern Hotel is a restored gem in Billings. Opened in 1904, the hotel brought grand style to the city. It burned to the ground in the ’40s, was rebuilt, then went up for sale in 2006. Brothers Mike and Chris Nelson purchased it with the goal of making it the most modern hotel in the area. Reopened in 2013, the hotel has added four-star amenities and service, while preserving its Western decor. In the hotel, the casual Bernie’s Diner (try the Vacation Breakfast, a piece of chocolate cake and a chocolate milkshake) is named after the Nelsons’ mother, while the upscale TEN is named after their father, Thomas Edgar Nelson.

Built from 1949 to 1950 out of recycled materials (bricks from an old hospital and a reservation school and timber from an old lumber mill), the Dude Rancher Lodge in Billings pays homage to Western ranch houses built on the frontier. Inside Tip: Look for the various cattle brands (from the ranches that invested in the project) woven into the carpeting.

Boothill Inn and Suites is located near Billings's famous Boothill Cemetery, so named because so many of the interred died violently with their boots on. (Look for a chocolate cowboy boot on your pillow.) Inside Tip: Don’t book through a website; call the hotel directly, and they swear they'll give you a better deal.

There is nothing like a bed-and-breakfast to show you a real slice of a city. In Miles City, two favorites are The Horton House B and B, a classic old home in the heart of the Historic District (each room is themed after locally significant personalities such as Lewis and Clark, Sitting Bull, Charlie Russell, George Custer, and Evelyn Cameron) and the Yellowstone Bluffs B and B, a three-room home that sits on sandstone bluffs overlooking the Yellowstone River and the city beyond.

The closest RV park to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is 7TH Ranch RV Camp and Historical Tours in Garryowen. Best Bet: Don’t have an RV? Stay in a tenting site, a cowboy cabin, or a tepee.

The best way to sample Billings’s thriving alcohol-concocting scene is by taking the Brewery Walking Tour. The 1.5-mile loop takes you to six microbrewers and one distillery (vodka, gin, and small-batch whiskey). For example, Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. serves concoctions such as Grizzly Wulff Wheat, Wild Fly Ale, Renegade Red Ale, Huckleweizen, and Black Widow Oatmeal Stout. Imbibe responsibility, and don’t drink and drive, of course.

Indulge your inner foodie at Billings’s eateries. Try the giant cinnamon rolls at Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery for breakfast. For lunch, hit the Fieldhouse Café, Billings's first and only Certified Green Restaurant, or the Burger Dive, whose fresh and nongreasy burgers, fries, and other comfort foods belie the label “dive.” Dinner should take you to Lilac and its strict from-scratch cuisine or to Walker’s American Grill and Tapas Bar. The “urban Montana” design at Walker's showcases details such as barbed-wire chandeliers, Native American–inspired leather upholstery, mahogany tops, and hand-worked wrought-iron metal shelving and back bar.

Sample local vintages at Tongue River Winery in Miles City. The wine is made using only fruit that grows or that could grow in Montana. Tongue River produces 40 different wines and offers free tastings of most of them plus tours of the vineyard. Inside Tip: The winery doesn’t have posted business hours; instead, call the mobile phone number posted on the door and someone will come around to help you.

Miles City restaurants feature typical Montana hospitality. Head to the 600 Cafe for a cool ’40s retro look and great biscuits and gravy. For lunch, try Main Street Grind, which serves full meals and pastries and other sweets. At dinner, choose between two iconic Montana steak houses: the famous Montana Bar and Steakhouse and its Wild West atmosphere or Montana’s Rib and Chop House, which features specialty Cajun menu items. For Latino fusion fare, go to Mexico Lindo. Best Bet: Try the Kim Chee salsa.

For lunch on your way to Crow Agency and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, stop at Hardin for lunch at 3 Brothers Bistro and Casino (diners love the Italian Stallion bread sticks) or the Lariat Country Kitchen, a great pie spot serving apple, blueberry, cherry, and strawberry rhubarb.

Gear up for your road trip at Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters in Billings. Inside Tip: If you stop by the Billings store, ask for Anita Taubert, who's always happy to share her family's history and make sure that your Western shopping safari will be memorable.

To shop for art and other goods in Billings, visit the historic Montana Avenue shopping district. Tompkins Fine Art represents “contemporary masters and trending artists.” FarWest Gallery offers one of the largest selections of Native American beadwork between Minnesota and Washington State, paintings by renowned Native American artists, and a selection of Western memorabilia, including spurs, saddles, and horsehair hitched (not braided) headstalls made at the Montana State Prison. Toucan Gallery, housed in one of the oldest buildings in town, is owned by a couple of creative professionals—one a designer and the other an artist—with an “art is for everyone” attitude. Translation: They don’t just cater to collectors, and they keep prices reasonable.

Prairie Sisters Vintage Market—founded and run by avid shoppers Laura Branson and Molly Mortensen of Missoula—consists of four weekend vintage goods sales throughout the state, one held in Billings in the fall. The market’s vendors hawk anything from fine antiques to unusual junk, generously mixed with comfort food and bluegrass or folk music.

Girl Ran Away With the Spoon is a working jewelry studio with a full retail shop in the heart of Miles City. It specializes in artisan-quality silverware jewelry, all handcrafted by a two-woman team. Ask for a tour of the working studio to get a feel for the small-manufacturing setup. To find it, look for the giant spoon on the side of the building made from 450 stainless steel spoons.

Join the party at the Billings region’s largest event, which draws around 250,000 people each August. The MontanaFair includes a carnival, entertainment (such as Martina McBride in 2015 and pro rodeo each year), judged events (animal husbandry, crafts, beer brewing), and championships (the Montana State BBQ Championship is held at the fair).

Fill your face with strawberries and dozens of other foods at the annual Strawberry Festival in June in downtown Billings. The highlight: a 65-foot-long strawberry shortcake set up to serve 1,500 at $3 a slice.

The annual Bucking Horse Sale is Miles City’s premiere event. It’s a weekend of activities such as live concerts, horse racing, bull riding, bareback riding, and a trade show. The highlight is Sunday’s Match Bronc Ride, where 20 top saddle bronc riders test the best of the Saddle Broncs in the Burch rodeo string. Another crowd-pleaser is the Wild Horse Races, in which three people try to catch, saddle, mount, then ride a wild horse around a five-furlong track. Mayhem ensues.

Little Bighorn Days in Hardin celebrates life in Little Bighorn country, near the famous battlefield. Events include a quilt show, a historical book fair, a pork dinner benefit, a talent show, an arts-and-crafts fair, an Old West youth parade, the Big Horn Stampede Rodeo, and a street dance. During the festival, visit the "Ford Custer and Plains Indian" exhibit at the Big Horn County Historical Museum, located on 35 acres that are home to 26 authentic historic structures.

The Crow Fair Powwow Celebration in Crow Agency—the 97th annual in 2015—is a gathering of the Apsaalooké Nation to celebrate its traditions and heritage. For five days in August, Native American attendees place up to 1,500 white tepees along the Little Bighorn River. The event includes powwows, parades, arts and crafts, singing, dancing, and drumming, among other activities.

Several services offer tours of the Little Bighorn battlefield, but Apsaalooke Tours in Crow Agency employs mostly Crow Indians as tour guides and prides itself on giving visitors an authentic experience. One-hour tours begin at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument’s visitors center and include a trip to Reno-Benteen Battlefield, the spot where the Battle of Little Bighorn began, and Last Stand Hill.

A beautiful overview of Billings can be seen from Swords Park, plus vistas of five mountain ranges: the Pryor, Big Horn, Snowy, Crazy, and Bear Tooth. Two Crow warriors blindfolded their horses and rode off a cliff to stem the spread of smallpox ravaging their tribe at Sacrifice Cliff viewpoint along the trail through the park.

Continue east on I-94 from Miles City for about 40 miles and you’ll find the friendly town of Terry, which is celebrating its centennial in 2015. Stop in at Sassy One Clothing, a women’s clothing store that highlights its “commitment to helping you look your best.” The Prairie County Museum and Evelyn Cameron Gallery features pictures and other artifacts donated by locals. Prairie Unique is located in a historic 1908 building in downtown Terry and specializes in “made in Montana” goods. The historic Kempton Hotel, opened in 1902, is the oldest continuously run lodging in Montana and claims to have friendly ghosts. Finally, the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area offers the adventurous an undeveloped view of the weathered and eroded ancient seabed deposits that make up the badlands of the northern Great Plains. Inside Tip: Take a hint from the name “badlands.” Drive an SUV or 4WD with high clearance, and be capable of walking out of the area in case you have car trouble.

Embark on another adventure by detouring to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which aptly bills itself as “the grandest canyon in the Northern Rockies.” From St. Xavier, take MT-313 to Fort Smith, approximately 40 miles round-trip. Best Bet: If you are an eager angler, stay at Montana Fly Fishers and the Leaning Tree Lodge, a small fishing lodge in Fort Smith, near Bighorn Canyon.

Read The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer: The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, published in February 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. This recent book gives one perspective on the Battle of Little Bighorn and the life of Custer.

Christmas Strolls are a tradition in many Montana towns and cities. Billings and Miles City are among the many Montana towns and cities that throw traditional Christmas Strolls, festive evenings in November or December when holiday revelers walk downtown districts during hours when shops aren't typically open. Businesses have special seasonal offerings, such as eggnog, holiday cookies, gingerbread houses, lights, and holiday music, plus visits from Santa.

Approximately three-quarters of the Crow tribe's 10,000 or more enrolled members live on or near the reservation—85 percent use Crow as their first language.

Day One: Billings

Day Two: Billings to Miles City

Day Three: Miles City to Little Bighorn

Day Four: Little Bighorn to Billings

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