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Best of Montana Year-Round: Landmarks

Check out the top four iconic historic sites to see in Big Sky Country.

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This campsite is part of Nez Perce National Historical Park, a site that honors both the Nez Perce tribe of Native Americans and the United States soldiers slain in the 1877 battle that took place here.

Big Hole National Battlefield, Wisdom

Southwestern Montana’s Big Hole National Battlefield is part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park, a collection of 38 sites spread across Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. This site honors both the Nez Perce tribe of Native Americans and the United States soldiers slain in the 1877 battle that took place here. There are walking trails and artifacts to view, but don’t venture outside the visitor center before stopping to watch the 26-minute introductory film, Weet'uciklitukt: There's No Turning Back, Battle at Big Hole.

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, Ulm

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Thirteen different Stone Age tribes hunted together in peace at this horseshoe-shaped buffalo jump, possibly North America’s largest. With only primitive spears and bows as weapons, the hunters devised a sophisticated method to fell the bison: herding the animals off a mile-long sandstone cliff. Drivelines still are visible at the top of the jump, and up to 18 feet of compacted buffalo remains are below. From the visitor center, it’s a 1.5-mile hike to the top of the jump and spectacular views of the Rocky Mountain Front, the Little Belt and Big Belt Mountains, the Highwoods, and the Adel Mountain Volcanics.

“This is an important sacred site to the tribes of the area, which the petroglyphs and pictographs on the cliff walls confirm,” says First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park manager Richard Hopkins. “Go to the edge of the jump. Stand and listen to the sounds of the wind or silence. Either way, the soul is invigorated by the energy here.”

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency

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“This is the iconic Indian Wars battle site,” says Gerald Jasmer, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument park ranger and historian. The June 25 and 26, 1876, Battle of Little Big Horn, also called Custer’s Last Stand, has been widely documented in literature, art, and film. It was on this site that Chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull orchestrated the Plains Indian War’s most decisive Native American victory and most crushing U.S. Army defeat (Lt. Col. George A. Custer and all 262 soldiers, scouts, and civilians accompanying him perished).

The site is little changed from its 19th-century appearance, making it easier to envision how and where the battle unfolded. An 1881 obelisk memorializes the U.S. Army dead. In 2003, the "Peace Through Unity" Indian Memorial was added to honor the Native Americans (at least a hundred men, women, and children) who died here. Standing inside this circular earthwork memorial you can look through a “spirit gate” (an opening in the rock wall) and see the U.S. Army memorial 75 yards away. The site also includes Custer National Cemetery, Custer Battlefield, and Reno-Benteen Battlefield.

The Ellen Theatre, Bozeman

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It’s appropriate that the first movie shown at the Ellen Theatre way back on December 1, 1919, was The Miracle Man—because it’s a miracle that the theater has survived for almost a century. “The Ellen is a beloved building by those who grew up in Bozeman,” says John Ludin, executive director of the theater. “It was the place to be and where everybody went to movies for decades. When its doors shut, as many of these theaters did due to economics, it was a blow to the whole downtown.”

With the help of generous donors, a local theater company in search of a performance home renovated the Ellen to its original opulence for a 2008 reopening. “Those who had never been inside were stunned to find such a beautiful and ornate theater in the middle of Montana,” Ludin says. The Ellen was built by the sons of Bozeman founder Nelson Story and named for their mother. No expense was spared, hence all the gilded plasterwork and fancy fixtures.

Makoshika State Park, Glendive

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Makoshika, Montana’s largest state park, is named for a variant spelling of a Lakota Indian phrase meaning “bad land” or “bad earth.” The 11,538 acres of stark terrain are filled with bizarre rock formations set against the big sky. Even though this is prime dinosaur fossil hunting country, no digging or removal of artifacts is allowed. Instead, head to the visitor center to see the intact Triceratops skull on display, take a scenic drive through the rock formations, and hike the nature trails. Seasonal activities include camping, archery, Frisbee golf, and, in June, Buzzard Day, which celebrates the annual return of migrating turkey vultures to eastern Montana.

Bannack State Park, Dillon

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“You get a real sense of what the Old West was like walking the streets of Bannack,” says park ranger Tom Lowe. “Being here, you can’t help but feel like you’re back in the Gold Rush era.”

Site of Montana’s first big gold find (in 1862) and Montana’s first territorial capital, Bannack State Park is one of the best preserved ghost towns in the West. The 1,600-acre park includes over 50 buildings built between 1862 and 1900 for a population that peaked at 3,000. Plan a visit during mid-July’s Bannack Days: a celebration of Montana's early mining history that includes gold panning, wagon riding, and candlemaking.

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Deer Lodge

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Back in 1862, Johnny Grant built the main house at this spot, once the center of a ten-million-acre cattle empire. Four years later, Grant sold the house to Conrad Kohrs, who later became known as the "cattle king" of Montana. Today, the Grant-Kohrs spread is devoted to commemorating the role of cattlemen in American history. The Old West heritage site consists of 88 historic structures and more than 23,000 artifacts, including a collection of historic wagons and buggies, used by people who lived and worked at the ranch from the 1860s to 1960s.

There’s also plenty of living history, too. While a historic site, Grant-Kohrs remains a working ranch. There are cattle, working cowboys, and daily chores to perform. Get a self-guiding map at the visitor center to tour the ranch buildings and trails. Be sure to ask where the cattle are located that day, so you can hike out to see the herd.

Museum of the Plains Indian, Browning

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Look for the yellow-topped tepee marking the spot of the Museum of the Plains Indian. Founded in 1941, the museum tells the story of the Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux, Assiniboine, Arapaho, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Flathead, Chippewa, and Cree tribes. The collection includes thousands of Native American artifacts, such as clothes, weapons, household items, and toys. Among the museum’s permanent exhibitions are three dioramas depicting Native American life in the Old West: carved wood panels by Blackfeet sculptor John Clarke and murals by Blackfeet artist Victor Pepion.

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