Montana family on a road trip at Makoshika State Park

Things to Do in Southeast Montana Without the Crowds

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This post is sponsored by Visit Southeast Montana

In recent years, I have discovered that there are so many things to do in Southeast Montana without the crowds of some of the more popular parts of the state. There may be a few less amenities, but in my mind it’s worth it for the solitude, wide open spaces, and fascinating cultural and natural history.

We took this road trip in the fall of 2020. You know what that means. We wanted to travel responsibly, for our own health, the health of local people, and the health of the outdoors. We mostly visited places where we could be outside by ourselves or social distance. When we did go indoors we wore masks.

Things to Do in Southeast Montana Without the Crowds Makoshika Montana badlands

Montana Travel Guidelines

Safety first, adventure second. When traveling in Montana, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Know local public health guidelines before you arrive
  • Understand locations and services could be limited
  • Stay home if you are sick

You can find out more about Montana Coivd-19 guidelines here and Southeast Montana’s Covid-19 resources are here.

I wrote about another Southeast Montana road trip here. I went to a few different places on that trip.

Main street in Wibaux small town montana

Southeast Montana Road Trip Itinerary

This is a quick looks at our itinerary around Southeast Montana. Keep reading for all the details on each stop.

Day 1 – Backroads, Dinosaurs, and Geology

  • Drive the backroads
  • Makoshika State Park
  • Historic Bell Street Bridge
  • Stargazing

Day 2 – Stone Church, Steer Montana, and Walks

  • Bloom Coffeehouse and Eatery
  • Historic Wibaux
  • O’Fallon Historical Museum, Baker
  • Baker Lake
  • Matthews Recreation Area
  • Tiltwürks Brewhouse

Day 3 – Antiques, Boutiques, and Battlefields

  • Downtown Miles City
  • Little Bighorn Battlefield
  • Billings


Things To Do in Southeast Montana

aerial view of Montana backroads with fall colors

Day 1 – Backroads, Dinosaurs, and Geology

Drive the Backroads to Glendive

We left Billings after breakfast and decided to take the backroads part of the way to Glendive. It’s easy to get off the highway and see a little more Montana. There were only a few other cars throughout our drive.

We went northeast from Billings on I-90 and quickly turned onto I-94.

There are several sections where you can leave the highway and then return, so you aren’t committed to an all-backroads or and all-highway drive. Three routes we recommend:

  • From I-94, take the Pompey’s Pillar exit and go east on Custer Frontage Road. If you have time, a stop at Pompey’s Pillar National Monument is well worth it. You can read about it in my post on Lewis and Clark sites in Montana. We had too many other things we wanted to fit in, so we enjoyed the drive parallel to the Yellowstone River and the Interstate to Custer.
  • From Custer, we went north on Musselshell Trail Road across the Yellowstone River and turned right on Peace Bottom Road, which turns into Myers Road (State Hwy 311) to Forsyth. This was the prettiest section, to me, and gets you away from the Interstate.
  • From Forsyth, take Old Highway 10 as it parallels the Interstate to Rosebud. From there, return to the I-94 to Glendive.

family having lunch at a picnic table in Montana surrounded by autumn leaves

We stopped for a picnic lunch at Myers Fishing Access  (in the second recommended section) and had the place to ourselves. It’s in a beautiful grove of cottonwoods and right on the river. The Lewis and Clark Historic Trail goes through the area and looked great for a little walk, but we were focused on throwing rocks in the river and eating lunch.

Makoshika State Park

kid running in off the beaten path Montana Makoshika State Park

Makoshika is Montana’s largest State Park and it’s filled with hoodoos, capstones, sink holes, and dinosaur fossils. The badlands are a fascinating landscape and we always enjoying hiking there.

The visitor center houses triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex fossils along with other badlands interpretive displays. Dinosaur fossils have been found in the park and you can hike the 1.0-mile  round trip Diane Gabriel Trail to see hadrosaur vertebrae that have been partially excavated.

The Capstone Trail (0.5-mile loop) passes a natural bridge, along with other wacky landscape features. The Twin Sisters are probably the most photographed features in the park and can be reached in 0.1 miles.

three people sitting on a natural bridge in Montana State Park

There are other trails in Makoshika that lead you deeper into the badlands and I definitely recommend using them to get out there, just be ready for hot, dry weather in the summer and cold the rest of the year. If it’s wet, skip it all together because the landscape turns to gumbo and is almost impossible to walk on.

Check the Makoshika website before you go as the visitor center has reduced hours in the off-season. The park itself is open daily from 7 am – 10 pm.

Makoshika State Park, 1301 Snyder Avenue, Glendive

Historic Bell Street Bridge

mom and son looking off the Historic Bell Street Bridge at the Yellowstone River

After an afternoon in Maksohika, we ordered a pizza from The Gust Hauf and walked over to the Bell Street Bridge while we waited. The bridge was built in 1926 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s currently a bike and pedestrian trail, crossing the Yellowstone River. Since the bridge is so long, it actually spans more than the river and is a great place for wildlife watching in the cottonwoods below.

The Gust Hauf, 300 West Bell Street, Glendive ; Bell Street Bridge, 598 West Bell Street, Glendive

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in Glendive where masks were requested in the public parts of the hotel.

Stargazing in Makoshika

moon rise in badlands

That evening we went back to Makoshika to see the stars. Unfortunately for us it was a full moon, which was gorgeous but not starry. If the night sky is dark when you are there, be sure to stargaze.


Day 2 – Stone Church, Steer Montana, and Walks

two boys using binoculars on the prairie

Bloom & Vine, Glendive

woman walking out of coffee shop in Glendive Montana

Henry and I left the kids asleep at the hotel and had a breakfast date at Bloom & Vine — Coffeehouse, Eatery, and Evening Wine Bar. The café is in a greenhouse and has a lovely courtyard in the back. They have live music and other events, but the morning we visited was all about breakfast and caffeine.

We sat inside at the distanced tables and watched a stream of locals come through getting their morning coffee, breakfast, and/or pastries.

Bloom & Vine, 209 Gibson Street, Glendive

Historic Wibaux

lava stone church roadside attractions in Montana

Fueled up–both our bodies and our car–we continued east on I-94 to the little town of Wibaux (pronounced We – bō). We parked at the Pierre Wibaux House Museum. The museum was closed for the season, but we peeked over the chain link fence into the courtyard. From there we walked toward the river to read interpretive signs about Wibaux the cattle baron and the eponymous town.

Then we circled around through the historic downtown and wandered up Orgain Avenue to Old St. Peter’s Catholic Church (make sure you go to the old St. Peter’s; we stood in front of the new one for five minutes wondering why we were looking at it.) The church is covered in lava rock and very interesting. If you are into roadside attractions, like me, then you’ll want to see this.

From the church we continued west on Orgain Avenue to Carol Park and the statue of Pierre Wibaux. In his will, he commissioned the statue of himself to look over the rolling landscape and badlands.

An interesting part of Wibaux history from Wikipedia: “Theodore Roosevelt had a famous encounter with a bully at Nolan’s Hotel in Wibaux (Mingusville, at the time) shortly after moving to the North Dakota Badlands in 1884. Arriving at the hotel late at night, Roosevelt was accosted by a drunk sheep herder carrying cocked revolvers in both hands, and ordered to buy drinks for the crowd. Roosevelt pretended to move towards the bar, then punched the man three times in quick succession, causing the drunk to fire his revolvers as he fell. The future president then took away the man’s guns before several other occupants of the hotel dragged him out into a shed.”

The whole walk took about an hour, stopping to read interpretive signs and picture the past.

Wibaux is one of those places you don’t know you are interested in until you get there and look around. Then, you want to know more.

Pierre Wibaux House Museum, 112 Orgain Avenue, Wibaux

O’Fallon Historical Museum, Baker

woman in mask with taxidermied steer

The drive from Wibaux to Baker feels very remote and there isn’t any cell coverage. It is quintessential southeastern Montana prairie.

Our first stop in Baker was at the O’Fallon Historical Museum. We learned about the homesteaders in the area and looked into the one-room schoolhouse. There’s a jail in a house, and most famously, Steer Montana. You can take your picture with the taxidermied steer — the largest in the world. Steer Montana used to travel the country and people would pay to see him. It’s free for you!

There is so much in the multi-building museum complex — dinosaur fossils, vintage clothing,  frightening doll collection, large jar of grasshoppers that all came from one stalk of corn during a particularly bad grasshopper year, and so much more.

We got a Montana Trivia book in the gift shop and the boys ceaselessly asked us questions for the rest of the trip. Thanks to our visit to the O’Fallon Historical Museum, we could answer several of the questions, including one about the grasshoppers.

O’Fallon Historical Museum, 723 South Main Street

Baker Lake

We made a quick stop at Baker Lake with the intent of going for a walk, but it was so windy that we decided to enjoy the view from the car and move on to lunch. It’s an unexpected and lovely spot with a play park, walking trails, beaches, docks, and of course the lake. If the weather is at all decent, stop and wander. I’ve heard the fishing is good.

Compass Coffee

We grabbed bagel sandwiches and wraps for lunch in Baker. Compass Coffee has a charming atmosphere, good food, and caffeine! It’s a big space with socially distanced seating. We were ready to drive to Miles City.

Compass Coffee, 21 South Main Street

Matthews Recreation Area, Miles City

woman holding binoculars and bird watching in Montana

Our first stop in Miles City was meant to be the Waterworks Art Museum. I wrote about a previous visit in this post, but the museum was closed for a week when we arrived this time.

Instead we drove to the northeast end of town and Matthews Recreation Area. This BLM area is great for bird watching, picnicking, wildlife watching, throwing rocks in the river, and enjoying some time outside.

There are vault toilets, grills, and campsites.

Matthews Recreation Area, 249 Tusler Rd, Miles City

Tilt Würks Brewhouse

toasting with beer in miles City Montana

This juke box-themed brewery is a fun place for dinner. It’s a sports bar, so there are a lot of T.V.s, which we don’t love, but the food and beer makes up for it. I had the sesame ginger salad and a Hit and Run Sour beer. Yum!

Tilt Würks Brewhouse, 420 Pacific Avenue

We spent the night at the Miles City Hotel and Suites. They are making extra efforts to sanitize, the staff wore masks, and they request guests wear masks in public areas. They are still serving a continental-plus breakfast and have a staff member making waffles etc, instead of having guests do it themselves.


Day 3 – Antiques. Boutiques, and Battlefields

antique tea cups and saucers on a shelf

Downtown Miles City

candy display in Miles City antique mall

Miles City is known for being the home of the World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, held the first weekend of May, but the sale isn’t the only reason to visit Miles City.

We started our day at Vintage and Rustics in Montana, an antique mall and soda fountain/café that is full of nostalgia.

We grabbed tea and hot cocoa and sat down among the locals. I can highly recommend the cinnamon rolls. Vintage and Rustics is home to the original Woolworth lunch counter/soda fountain that was put in during the 1940s, and several folks were bellied up to the bar.

The antique and vintage mall spans most of the block and could hold your browsing attention for hours. In addition to vintage and antique items, they sell candy and gifts.

There are a bunch of other cute shops in Miles City (Buy MT and Miles City Saddlery to name a couple). We wandered through downtown poking our heads into shops that caught our fancy.

Before leaving Miles City, we grabbed lunch to-go at Main Street Grind.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

child near Indian Memorial wire sculptures of spirit warriors on horses

Little Bighorn Battlefield is always a moving experience. I’ve visited recently, but it has been at least eight years since Henry and the kids have been there. Anders and Finn don’t really remember their first experience, so it was nice to revisit the place and history.

Little Bighorn National Battlefield “memorializes the US Army’s 7th Cavalry and the Lakotas and Cheyennes in one of the Indian’s last armed efforts to preserve their way of life. Here on June 25 and 26 of 1876, 263 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer and attached personnel of the US Army, died fighting several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.” NPS

You might know it as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

family looking at interpretive signs at Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana

The visitor center was closed, but we used the map-brochure handed to us at the entrance kiosk to plan our trip and get an overview of the battlefield’s history.

We started at the main parking area and walked up to Last Stand Hill and the 7th Cavalry Monument. From there we crossed over to the Indian Memorial and then back to our car.

We then drove the 4.5-mile tour road to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield and walked the short loop trails there.

There are interpretive signs along the way to help you picture what took place here. Many of them have a phone number that connects to audio narration.

In addition to being a sacred and historic place, it’s also quite scenic. We spent about two hours here, but you could see it in less time, though I don’t recommend it, or take more time to soak it in.

Little Bighorn National Battlefield756 Battlefield Tour Road, Crow Agency

yellowstone river aerial photo

Billings

From Little Bighorn, we drove back to Billings and spent a couple days exploring the city. You can read about our Billings adventures here or here.


If you are thinking about a road trip to Southeast Montana, let me know in the comments. I’ll try to answer any questions!

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