Planning Your Time
Most travelers will explore southeast Montana along I-90 and I-94, which traverse the region. I-94 enters the state at Wibaux, a small ranch town with a rather splendid French-influenced stone church and a long history that brings together French noblemen and Teddy Roosevelt. I-94 meets the Yellowstone River at Glendive, where scenic and austere badlands are preserved in Makoshika State Park. I-94 then follows the Yellowstone through a badland-rimmed valley to Miles City. Founded as a military fort after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Miles City was the center of the cattle trade for the entire northern Great Plains for many years, and it’s still unabashedly a town where the Old West spirit lives on. The Range Riders Museum tells the story of the region’s long and eventful history. The Wild West isn’t all history in Miles City: Late May’s Bucking Horse Sale is a cross between a rodeo and a bacchanal that truly brings the cowboy spirit to life. A clutch of new hotels at I-94 exit 138 makes this a good spot to spend the night.
As I-94 passes west along the Yellowstone toward Billings, a flat-topped butte rises from the irrigated fields of corn and alfalfa. Pompey’s Pillar, now a national monument, was a landmark noted by William Clark as he passed down the Yellowstone in 1806—he even carved his name on the hill’s soft sandstone walls. Stop and explore the landscape and hike to view Clark’s autograph—one of the few physical remnants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Billings is Montana’s largest city and a good base for exploring southeastern Montana. The downtown area has several good restaurants, busy watering holes, and cultural institutions like the Yellowstone Art Museum and the Western Heritage Center. Just outside of Billings is Pictograph Caves State Park, which preserve ancient Native American cave drawings.
I-90 enters southeastern Montana from the south and passes just below the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. One of the most disturbing and resonant sites in all of Montana, the battlefield has a good visitors center and historic drives that interpret the calamitous events of June 1876. The actual battle site still feels profoundly haunted. If you visit in late June, consider attending Custer’s Last Stand Reenactment, the centerpiece of a weekend’s worth of events in and around Hardin called Little Bighorn Days.
Between the routes carved by I-94 and I-90 lies the extreme southeast corner of the state, a land of vast ranches and Indian reservations. Worthy of a road trip, this is a landscape of far-flung rural communities, pine-fringed buttes, and wildlife—large populations of grouse, deer, and antelope make this a popular spot for hunters. Ekalaka, one of the state’s most remote towns, is also one of the most authentically Western. It’s also near Medicine Rocks State Park, a landscape of sandstone promontories that were sacred to local Indians.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition