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We all know about Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. We’ve seen the grizzly bears, the bighorn sheep and the waterfalls. But Montana has far more to offer than the obvious. Here are five incredible destinations in Southeast Montana you might not have heard of, but you’ll want to see when you visit Billings, this summer.
5. Calypso Trail
The Calypso Trail, which winds through the most scenic areas of the Terry Badlands was named for an old railroad stop which has been out of service for more than 100 years. It’s been used as a freight road, a wagon trail and even a bootlegging route during prohibition. Today the trail is used solely for recreation. Although its vistas are shrouded from travelers on the nearby interstate highway, the Terry Badlands possess some of the most unique topography in Montana. It’s the perfect place for anyone in the mood to get way, way off the beaten path (and has a vehicle that doesn’t mind a little rough terrain). Though it isn’t difficult to find, any resident of the little town of Terry, Montana, will be happy to point the way to travelers in doubt. Just watch for the rickety old railroad bridge crossing the wide expanse of the Yellowstone River. Once you’ve crossed it, you’ve arrived.
4. Medicine Rocks State Park
Medicine Rocks State Park is another scenic stop with extremely unusual, almost bizarre topography. To find the park head south from Baker, on Highway 7. The blacktop winds through winsome prairie habitat, rising and falling in a seemingly endless stretch of grassy rolling hills. Suddenly strange pillars of sandstone jut up amongst the bales of hay and rustic farm houses. Almost out of nowhere what appears to be a city of squatty sandstone towers, pockmarked and carved by wind and snow to have the look of Swiss cheese, rise from the hills, marking the entrance to the park. The location received its name from Native American hunting parties who often camped in the area and believed it to be a “place of big medicine.” Any visitor to this most singular of state parks will undoubtedly feel the same.
3. Pompeys Pillar National Monument
Whether your main interest is history or scenic beauty, Pompeys Pillar National Monument is worth a stop. Located about 30 minutes east of Billings, the massive sandstone pillar was named after Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the young son of Sacajawea whom William Clark had nicknamed “Pomp.” During the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s return journey, the two explorers split up, with Meriwether Lewis taking the northern route and Clark heading south to travel along the Yellowstone River. Stopping at the pillar, Clark commented in his journal about the abundance of Native America carvings in the soft sandstone, and wanting to make his own mark, carved his name and the date of his arrival at the site. Railroad men, ranchers, and finally the federal government, saw the signature’s importance and preserved it. Today the site boasts a beautiful, modern visitor information center and museum, as well as interpretive ranger walks, living history presentations and much more. The monument is also a wonderful place to relax along the Yellowstone River. A wooden boardwalk leads visitors from the base of the pillar up to Clark’s signature. Those willing to face the many steps can continue up the boardwalk to the top of the pillar, which offers spectacular views of the Yellowstone Valley and the river itself.
2) Makoshika State Park
At more than 11,000 acres, Makoshika State Park is Montana’s largest state park, and is home to some of the most spectacular badlands wilderness in the West. The name Makoshika is a variation of a Sioux word meaning “Land of Bad Spirits.” Some believe it got its name from the Sioux due to the many dinosaur bones and skulls protruding from the dirt. Eastern Montana and the western Dakotas are the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils, and paleontologists from across the country have come to Makoshika to unearth its treasures. For those in need of some recreation, Makoshika offers miles of trails which wind through bizarre sandstone rock formations and colorful layers of earth, with each color revealing a different time in history. A scenic drive winds to the top of the plateau, where campers can set up their tents under shady trees and admire the incredible view below. A host of prairie wildlife species inhabit the park, including birds, mammals and reptiles.
1) Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Whether you enjoy architectural marvels, world-class fishing, breathtaking scenery, or historic discovery, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is a must-see for any visitor to Montana. The canyon offers a different landscape than anywhere else in the state, with 1,000-foot cliff walls towering over a lake which stretches through this remarkable rift in the landscape for 70 miles. On the rim, you can follow the path of the Bozeman Trail, which once carried soldiers and miners into the rich gold fields of western Montana, and upon which the Sioux Chief Red Cloud launched his war against the U.S. Cavalry. Pontoon boats can be rented at either end of the canyon to explore the lake, or visitors can drive and hike the rim to discover breathtaking views. ♦
— Story by Nick Mann courtesy, Visit Southeast Montana