A mention of Montana brings to mind the snow-covered Rockies, mountain lakes, grizzly bears and fly-fishing in a mountain stream. It is the scenic western region of the state that is most frequently depicted in travel magazines and where most vacationers head during a summer trip, perhaps on their way to Yellowstone or on a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Highway across spectacular Glacier National Park. This is the Montana most of us know. There is more to Montana than its mountain west, however. In fact, there is much more.
We took a short trip to explore eastern Montana. Starting in Billings, the state’s largest city (pop. 107,000), we followed the Yellowstone River northeast through Miles City, Glendive and Sidney to the confluence with the Missouri River, near the Montana-North Dakota border. Following an enjoyable afternoon at a historic trading post, we spent the remainder of our time touring the northeast corner of the state.
Big Sky Country
In a few days, we saw and experienced much more than you might expect in this sparsely populated region. It involved some driving, and we were either on the road, eating, or exploring new places ten to twelve hours each day. It would have been nice to have had another couple of days, but that wasn’t in the cards during this trip.
We stopped at one special place along the banks of the Yellowstone River where the only physical evidence along the route taken by Lewis & Clark is preserved. We also enjoyed an amazing small-town music store, a shop with the most extensive array of cowboy boots we have ever stepped into, a “pioneer town,” assembled with loving care by energetic residents of a small town, and one of the most spectacular state parks anywhere in America.
We toured a dam, attended a reenactment of a fur trading rendezvous where we sampled grilled buffalo, hiked the Montana badlands, enjoyed a Native American powwow, rode in a barely restored Model T, ate lunch at a saloon in the middle of nowhere, knocked back a cold micro-brew in a bar owned by the small town’s only medical doctor, and took in an excellent theater production of “The Buddy Holly Story.” Best of all, we met some of the friendliest people on earth. All this, and more, in a large swath of Montana few travelers take time to visit.
Special Places to Visit
So, where are some of eastern Montana’s special places? We can only vouch for the places we visited. Considering that we discovered all these wonderful places in only three days, there was probably a lot more to see and do if only we would have had a little more time. However, that’s water under the bridge since we are now back home in Georgia. Of course, this gives us an excuse to get back out that way.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument: This small site operated by the Bureau of Land Management preserves the inscription of William Clark, who signed his name and date on July 25, 1806, during the return trip of the Corps of Discovery. The national monument has a nice visitor center with a gift shop, exhibits, and excellent video of Clark’s stop here. A path takes visitors to a set of stairs that leads up to the inscription. From there, visitors can climb additional steps and gain a panoramic view of this beautiful area. The site is 32 miles northeast of Billings, just off Interstate 94.
Miles City Saddlery: Miles City became a major destination for Texas cattle drives following the 1881 arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Now the town of 8,500 hardy souls is home to one of the most interesting boot and hand-made saddle stores in the West. Even if you don’t need a pair of boots, and don’t have a horse to saddle, browsing the over 1,000 pairs of cowboy boots is a treat. The upstairs is full of collectible saddles and old western attire. Just down the street is the historic Montana Bar that recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.
The Prairie County Museum and Cameron Gallery: At this museum in the town of Terry, the gem is the display of black and white photographs taken by Evelyn Cameron, who arrived in Terry on her honeymoon in 1889. She became an accomplished photographer who left a vast treasure of photos showing the landscape, wildlife and early settlers. Her negatives and daily diaries were discovered in 1978 in the basement of a family friend, and her life became the topic of an Emmy-winning 2005 PBS documentary.
Hell Creek Music & More: Just as surprising as Miles City Saddlery is the Hell Creek Music & More store in Glendive. The store stocks over 200 guitars, including a unique Uli Jon Roth model with a retail price of $25,000. Guitars are displayed along two walls, making for an enjoyable browsing session. If you want a change of pace from the guitars, walk through a store opening to the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum with its 38-foot Tyrannosaurus rex. You will also discover boxes of vintage comic books.
Makoshika State Park: Taken from a Lakota phrase meaning land of bad spirits, or “badlands,” Makoshika in Glendive is one of the most scenic state parks we have had the pleasure of exploring. The erosion of clay and shale capped by more sturdy sandstone has produced a rugged and beautiful landscape. Over 10 species of dinosaurs have been found in this area that at one time experienced a sub-tropical climate. A visitor center has exhibits that include the skull of a Triceratops dinosaur.
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site: Fort Union dominated fur trade on the Upper Missouri for nearly 40 years until near the end of the Civil War, when large numbers of whites began migrating west. The reconstructed fort is on the exact site of the original that was dismantled by the U.S. Army in 1867. The National Park Service visitor center in the bourgeois house that sits inside the palisade walls offers exhibits and information on the history of the fort. The site is 23 miles northeast of Sidney.
Pioneer Town & Museum: What a pleasant surprise this turned out to be. The civic-minded citizens of Daniels County (pop. 1,800) have assembled 35 historic structures, numerous classic cars, and lots of antique farm equipment into Pioneer Town on 20 acres just west of Scobey. One of the highlights of our visit was circling the town in a Model T. Our ride even included crossing an old bridge that had been moved to Pioneer Town from another part of the county. Guided tours lead visitors to an old movie theater, a mercantile store, a vintage gasoline station, and more while providing information on the area’s history.
Fort Peck Dam: America’s largest earthen dam created our country’s fifth largest reservoir, Fort Peck Lake. Visit the museum exhibits and sign up for a dam tour. When you’re finished with the tour, head for the Fort Peck Sumer Theatre to take in a first-class production. This magnificent chalet-type building was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1934. The theater served as a movie house for dam workers and ran movies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Live productions are offered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from late May through late August. Fort Peck Dam is 19 miles southeast of Glasgow.
David and Kay Scott are travel writers who live in Valdosta, Georgia. They are the authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges. Visit the Scotts at http://mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html.
Camping in Eastern Montana
We discovered two particularly nice public campgrounds during our tour of eastern Montana. Makoshika State Park outside Glendive offers 21 sites, six of which are pull-through. Some sites handle large rigs but no hookups are available. The outstanding location more than makes up for the vault toilets and lack of hookups, at least for one or two nights. Information and reservations are available at stateparks.mt.gov.
The Corps of Engineers offers a number of campgrounds near Fort Peck Lake. The nicest of these is Downstream Campground near Fort Peck Dam. It has 86 sites, most with electrical hookups of either 30- or 50-amp service. Three restrooms have flush toilets, and two have showers. A variety of activities including basketball, horseshoes and volleyball are nearby. Of course, fishing and boating are both quite popular. The daily fee for electric sites of $16 to $18 is a bargain especially if you have a senior Interagency Pass that reduces the fee by half. For information or reservations, visit recreation.gov and enter Downstream in the search box.
In the Billings area, Billings KOA and Yellowstone River RV Park & Campground each offer a pleasant RV environment a short distance south of Exit 40 on Interstate 90.