This post is sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Montana is a state rich in Native American culture – past and present. If you’re interested in learning more about the history and heritage of America’s first people, there are four parks in Montana that are worth visiting: Rosebud Battlefield State Park, Little Bighorn National Battlefield, Chief Plenty Coups State Park, and Pictograph Cave State Park. In this blog post, I’ll tell you a little bit about each park and what you can expect to see and do there.
We like to combine outdoor recreation with learning in our travels, and this itinerary to three Montana State Parks and one National Battlefield does that. We hiked a bit and played in the water, and learned about the Native American people whose traditional homeland we were traveling through.
Montana is home to 12 Indian tribes: Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Chippewa, Cree, Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, and Little Shell Chippewa. And there are seven Indian reservations in Montana; Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Fort Peck, Fort Belknap, Rocky Boy’s, Blackfeet, and Flathead. The Little Shell Chippewa (state recognized) does not have a reservation.
As I mentioned this post will cover three Montana State Parks and one National Battlefield in southeast Montana. We have visited these sites multiple times trying to get a better understanding of Montana’s indigenous past in order to better understand its present and I want to share with you ways to best experience it for yourself.
From a logistical point, it makes the most sense to visit the sites in this order: Pictograph Cave State Park – Chief Plenty Coups State Park – Little Bighorn National Battlefield – Rosebud Battlefield State Park (or vice versa).
From a chronological perspective, visit in this order: Pictograph Cave State Park – Rosebud Battlefield State Park – Little Bighorn National Battlefield – Chief Plenty Coups State Park. But, that would be a crazy way to do it and have you ricocheting back and forth across southeast Montana. I recommend keeping this chronology in mind and visiting these sites in the first order.
I will list some recommended reading for background on the history you’ll be learning about in each place. And each description will include tours or other ways to have a deeper experience (if available).
Rosebud Battlefield State Park
This Montana State Park commemorates the Battle of the Rosebud, which was fought on June 17, 1876, between Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors and the U.S. Army. The battle was a prelude to the Battle of Little Bighorn, which took place two weeks later.
To the Northern Cheyenne, this battle is known as “Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.”
On our last visit, we were met at the State Park by Rose Williamson of Indian Battle Tours. She is a fabulous storyteller and really brings the battle to life. I’ve also taken a tour with her at Little Bighorn Battlefield, and as at Rosebud, it greatly increased my understanding and interest.
There are interpretive signs that explain the battle, picnic tables, and a vault toilet. A short loop road takes you through the park with stops to see sights including Conical Hill, Kobald Buffalo Jump, and Crook’s Hill.
There are mowed paths for walking or you can take off cross country. Just watch for rattlesnakes.
- I wrote about Rosebud Battlefield State Park in this article about visiting Montana Battlefields.
- You can read about our camping trip at Tongue River Reservoir State Park about 13 miles from Rosebud Battlefield.
- Read before you go: Rosebud, June 17, 1876: Prelude to the Little Big Horn by Paul L. Hedren
Little Bighorn National Battlefield
Little Bighorn National Battlefield is one of the most visited national parks in the country. This is the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, which was fought on June 25-26, 1876, between Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and the U.S. Army. The Native Americans were led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse; the army by Lt. Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
The Lakota call this battle “The Battle of Greasy Grass.”
This National Battlefield is administered by the National Park Service and there are interpretive programs offered daily in season as well as ranger-led walks and talks.
There are several self-guided walking trails including one to the Indian Monument. There is also a driving tour with 12 stops. One of the most popular is Last Stand Hill, where Custer and his men made their final stand, which is also an easy walk from the visitor center.
The visitor center has an excellent museum with artifacts from the battle as well as audio-visual presentations. Apsaalooke (Crow) tribal members lead bus tours from the visitor center daily in the summer through Apsaalooke Tours. Rose Williamson of Indian Battle Tours does private tours.
- I wrote about Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in this article about visiting Montana Battlefields.
- Read before you go: There are a lot of books about the Battle of Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors by Stephen Ambrose is a good start.
Chief Plenty Coups State Park
Chief Plenty Coups State Park is a Montana state park located in Crow Agency, Montana. It is the site of the former home of Chief Plenty Coups, the last traditional chief of the Crow Nation.
The park includes a museum with exhibits about Plenty Coups and the Crow people as well as a replica of his log cabin. There are also hiking trails and picnic areas.
This state park is definitely worth a visit when you are in southeast Montana. We have been several times and always learn something new.
- Read more about Chief Plenty Coups State Park in this post about Montana’s Best State Parks.
- Read before you go: Plenty-coups: Chief of the Crows by Frank B. Linderman.
Pictograph Cave State Park
Pictograph Cave State Park is located just outside Billings, Montana. The cave has one of the largest collections of prehistoric rock art in North America with over 100 pictographs (painted images) dating back 2000 years.
There are two caves you can visit, Pictograph Cave and Ghost Cave. A 0.75-mile loop trail goes to both caves. Bring binoculars as the pictographs are fading and can be challenging to see well. The trail is paved but at an incline.
In addition to the caves and the trail, you’ll find a picnic area and an interpretive center with exhibits about the cave art, as well as the plants and animals that live in the area.
I really enjoy just sitting in the shade at this park. The big trees make for a lovely picnic spot.
- Read more about Pictograph Cave State Park in this post about Montana’s Best State Parks.
- Read before you go: Montana Before History: 11,000 Years of Hunter-Gatherers in the Rockies and the Plains by Douglas H. MacDonald and Six Hundred Generations: An Archaeological History of Montana by Carl M. Davis both include Pictograph Cave in their histories.
There are many ways to experience Indigenous culture when you visit Montana. These are just a few of the parks and sites that we have visited and enjoyed in southeast Montana.
For more Montana State Parks that commemorate or celebrate Tribal culture, check out First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park in this post about Montana’s Best State Parks.