While many tourists flock to Montana’s renowned Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks, there is an abundance of breathtaking destinations to discover in the Big Sky state, and southeast Montana is undoubtedly one of them! This region is teeming with captivating natural landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and intriguing history. Prepare to embark on an unforgettable journey to discover the Bighorn corner of Montana, where the real cowboys and Indians live!
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Visit Southeast Montana. As always, my opinions are my own!
Montana has lived in my imagination since we began RVing, a place of legend and dramatic landscapes. Our time in southeast Montana brought all that to life! From biking the rolling hills to kayaking deep within a canyon, we had plenty to explore, all set on a backdrop of history. We centered our exploration around the Litte Bighorn National Monument, located near Hardin, Montana. It made a great basecamp.
Little Bighorn National Monument
In 1876, the most written about battle on US soil took place- the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The US Army 7th Calvary clashed with Native Americans in what would become known as Custer’s Last Stand. I’m a history fanatic, so the Little Bighorn National Monument was top of my list to see.
The national monument preserves the site of the battle and is also home to a national cemetery, begun in 1879. Visit the museum for detailed information on the battle and the events which precipitated it, and view the short film.
Within walking distance of the museum, visit Last Stand Hill, where the final defense took place, and the Indian Memorial. The park’s one trail, Deep Ravine, also departs from the museum and winds through a portion of the battlefield.
For the full experience, drive or take a tour along the 4.5 mile Tour Road. The countryside is beautiful but sobering as you find the landscape dotted with white and red markers, where the soldiers and warriors fell. It brought the battle to life in a way I haven’t felt at other historic battlefields, each death noted. The tour road ends at the Reno-Benteen Battlefield, a precursor to the Last Stand.
As part of the National Park System, the national monument has an entry fee, but is covered by the America the Beautiful Pass. If you plan to visit even a few national parks in a year, this pass is a must! Plus, if you’re a veteran or active military, you qualify for a complimentary lifetime pass.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is massive, stretching across southern Montana and northern Wyoming. The area is divided into a north and south district, which aren’t directly connected. It’s a three hour drive between the two, but the north district is only about 1.25 hours from Hardin. The northern district includes the Yellowtail Dam and Ok-A-Beh Marina, along with several campgrounds and boat launches around Fort Smith, MT.
This is an absolute must in southern Montana! The Bighorn Canyon ranges from 1,000 to 2,500 feet deep and is best seen from the Bighorn Lake, flowing through the canyon. The Ok-A-Beh (meaning Bend of the River in Crow) Marina rents pontoon boats, and also had a launch for your own boat or kayak. We picked up kayak rentals in Billings at the brand new popup shop Paddles & Wheels, more on that below.
Driving to Ok-A-Beh through stunning scenery, be sure to stop at the native Crow’s Four Winds Interpretive Site. You’ll likely also encounter free range cattle and horses, so drive carefully.
Launching from Ok-A-Beth, you could paddle for hours! It’s surreal, kayaking through 1/2 mile tall canyon walls you’ll never feel so small. It’s one of the quietest places we’ve been, nothing but the sound of birds and our paddles dipping into the water. It gets busy on the weekends, but come during the week and you’ll often have it to yourself! For a longer trip, there are several boat-in campsites in the canyon.
The area is part of the Crow Reservation, so be sure to treat anything above the lake as private property!
Billings is only about an hour from Hardin, and is the largest city in Montana. The Yellowstone River flows through the city, surrounded by steep bluffs. It’s a great area for both standard and mountain biking.
Paddles & Wheels, a popup shop collaboration between Billings Depot and Scheels, rents bikes, kayaks and SUPs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. We returned our kayak rentals and picked up bikes the next day, before heading to Swords Rimrock Park.
Swords Rimrock Park sits atop the bluff line over the city, offering stellar views. A 2-mile paved trail follows the cliff, with other dirt trail options.
Four Dances Recreation Area
Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Four Dances Recreation Area also sits atop a bluff overlooking Billings. With 765 acres of preserved land, the park has multiple trails and amazing views over the Yellowstone River.
Located just two miles from downtown, it’s a perfect nature escape! Look for wildlife and soak up the views along the 1.7 mile Rim Loop.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument
Located 45 minutes north of Hardin, Pompeys Pillar National Monument has a unique history. In 1806, as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Captian Clark stopped here and dubbed it Pompeys Pillar after Sacagawea’s son, who traveled with the party. Subsequently, the 150 foot tall sandstone pillar became a landmark for pioneers. Clark, and others, carved their names into the sandstone, still visible today.
The monument has a beautiful visitor center and an awesome giftshop! Be sure to watch the video and tour the museum before heading to the pillar. There are 202 steps to the top, where you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views. As you take in the landscape, appreciate the same view as Clark (plus a few silos and roads!).
For RVers, you’ll be glad to know there are plenty of RV parking spaces at the visitor center. I didn’t find much information online, and we were towing our rig en route to western Montana, so we took a chance and were so thankful it worked out!
Explore Crow Country
A core part of Montana’s culture lies with the Native Americans. The state is home to seven reservations and thirteen tribes, one of which is the Crow. If you spend any time in south eastern Montana, you have to explore Crow Country! It’s beautiful landscape, and the Crow are some of the friendliest, most welcoming people we’ve met in our travels.
The Crow Reservation stretches from the Montana border with Wyoming up to Hardin, and encompasses both the Little Bighorn National Monument and the Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area.
The Warrior Trail stretches from Crow Agency to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, over two hundred miles. It crosses both the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in Montana, making for a great roadtrip. Explore everything Crow Agency has to offer, visit the Chief Two Moons Memorial in Busby and shop native crafts in Lame Deer. I can’t recommend this enough! I loved learning about native culture and supporting their local businesses.
Custer Battlefield Trading Post & Cafe
Sitting directly across from the Little Bighorn National Monument, the Custer Battlefield Trading Post & Cafe is Crow-owned. It’s a must whether you’re driving the Warrior Trail or just visiting the national monument. The trading post sells native goods as well as the usual items like tshirts and postcards. The cafe is so cute, with excellent food and service. More on that below!
The Crow’s actual name is Apsaalooke, meaning ‘children of the large-beaked bird’, which was misinterpreted by the whites. The Apsaalooke Tours are native led through the Little Bighorn National Monument. Leaving from the visitor center, the hour long driving tour covers the 4 miles to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield. The tours run Memorial Day to Labor Day, daily from 10am-3pm.
I highly recommend the experience! Not only will you learn about Custer’s Last Stand, you’ll hear about it from the Native Americans’ perspective.
Both Hardin and Billings have some amazing museums! Being the history lover I am, we focused on the history museums. You’ll be surprised how much the county museums in Montana offer- don’t overlook them!
Yellowstone County Museum
The Yellowstone County Museum is an unassuming log cabin across from the Billings airport. It’s hiding two floors of exhibits, the majority located in the basement under the cabin. As you might expect, the county is bursting with history, starting with the cabin itself. Built in 1893, it was moved to its current location in the 1950s. The museum covers everything from Native American culture and stories to pioneer experiences, has a historical firearms display, and so much more. My personal favorite? The sheep herder wagon, accommodations for sheep caretakers in the late 1800s. It was the first RV in Montana!
Open Tuesday to Saturday, the museum is a great place to learn about the Yellowstone area, and it’s free to visit.
Western Heritage Center
The Western Heritage Center is located in downtown Billings, in an impressive stone building from 1901. The center is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and prides itself on its national standards. It houses four major rotating exhibits, along with a permanent log cabin exhibition. The log cabin was built in 1946 as an art studio, and was moved to the center in 2005. One of my favorite exhibits covered the experience of a local Billings pilot with Air America, during the Vietnam War.
In addition to the museum exhibits, the center offers multiple historical walking tours and lecture series. The walking tours range from brothels in Billings to hikes in Swords Rimrock Park. Check out their schedule for more details.
Bighorn County Museum
Located in Hardin, the Bighorn County Museum is huge! You could spend an hour or all day perusing the indoor and outdoor exhibits. This gem should not be overlooked! Inside, you’ll find information focusing on the 19th century in Bighorn County, primarily around Fort Custer and Native American culture. On the grounds, explore numerous historic buildings relocated to the museum, including Will James’ cabins, Lodge Grass railroad house, a schoolhouse and so much more.
The museum giftshop has truly unique souvenirs, including 19th century glass bottles from Fort Custer!
Southeast Montana Burger Trail
Montana is famous for its beef, so its no wonder there’s a Burger Trail in southeast Montana! With over 20 restaurants (and counting), you can find them across the region. Billings has quite a few, along with locations in Miles City, Glendive, Hardin and numerous towns in between. All the Burger Trail restaurants are locally owned and feature everything from a standard cheeseburger to huckleberry & goat cheese gourmet concoctions, to bison burgers.
We could only cover a limited number during our stay, but here are the highlights!
Diamond X Beer Co.
This cute brewery has indoor and outdoor seating. The brewpub offers burgers, pizza, specialty mac ‘n cheese and some lighter options, along with a delicious huckleberry cobbler!
Located in downtown Billings, Stacked is an upscale grill with fancy burgers! Two to note: the award winning ZooM Burger, espresso rubbed and covered in goat cheese, a fried green tomato, honey, cheddar cheese and blackberry jalapeno sauce; and the Caprese Burger, with pesto, fresh greens and mozzarella.
Custer Battlefield Cafe
Located in the Trading Post, the cafe is on the Burger Trail for its bison burger. Can you get any more Montana than that? Another western dish not to miss is the fry bread, whether as an Indian Taco, or by itself with a side of honey!
The closest RV park to the Little Bighorn National Monument is 7th Ranch RV Camp in Gerryowen. We loved our stay here! It’s quiet and peaceful, with two short trails up the hills for stunning views. They also have a cute check-in office and store, along with a newly opened coffee shop. The coffee shop serves breakfast Wednesday to Saturday, with baked goods and one hot option daily. On check-in, we also received tokens for free ice cream bars in the shop. We quickly discovered a love for huckleberry ice cream!
With full hookup sites, restrooms and laundry, this park was a perfect stay. The prices are reasonable, with nightly or weekly rates.
Final Travel Tips for Visiting Montana
We have traversed the state, and these tips hold true beyond southeast Montana!
- Always have cash! A surprising number of businesses do not accept credit cards.
- The weather can be volatile, so plan accordingly. Always pack a rain jacket, and dress in layers.
- While we have had excellent T-Mobile coverage along the interstates and in cities, cell service is limited in much of Montana. If you’re heading into small towns, national forests, or BLM land, there’s a good chance you won’t have any service.
- Keep your gas tank above half! Montana has alot of wide open spaces, and gas stations aren’t nearly as frequent as they are along other interstate routes.
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