The first time I ever stepped foot in Montana was purely accidental. After driving through Yellowstone National Park, mostly in light sleet and snows, we arrived in Mammoth Hot Springs, a few miles south of the Wyoming-Montana line. Dying to stretch our legs, we set out exploring the steaming travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs just as another light snow began to fall.
Eventually, the cleared and the temperatures soared. Maybe we could fit in a quick hike before sunset? A short there-and-back again trek above the springs. We’d be out half an hour, one hour max. That’s all.
One wrong turn, a jaunt around a beaver pond, and 3 hours later we stood overlooking a vast valley into a town we didn’t recognize with music coming from a bar we couldn’t see. If you squinted just right you could see a giant stone structure straddling the road. Definitely not Mammoth.
Gardiner. We were looking down at Gardiner, Montana.
Which meant we still needed to hike several miles back the way we came. With little daylight left and the constant reminder of how every park ranger praised the raging success of the reintroduction of wolves into the park, we double-timed it back south.
Out of breath and barely able to see, we burst from the towering trees into Mammoth Hot Springs, startling a small herd of elk bedding down for the night by the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.
Montana: Take Two
Upon arriving in Billings, known as Montana’s Trailhead, I vowed less time scrambling and more time basking in Billing’s rich history, natural beauty, and National Monuments. With only a few days to explore, efficiency and expertise were paramount. Luckily, Austin Adventures, one of the world’s premier luxury boutique guide services, calls Billings home.
Billings alone boasts 45 miles of trail, hundreds of acres of parks, plus 5 separate mountain ranges just a short drive away a few days are just not enough to tackle it alone.
Not to mention all the National Monuments, National Parks, and State Parks just outside Billings’ front door! To glean the most out of my few days in Big Sky Country, I’d need help from the pros.
And Austin Adventures didn’t disappoint. With their unique knowledge and exceptional service, they delivered Montana history and culture on a silver platter.
Twenty-eight miles east of Billings lies the only spot along the Lewis and Clark trail that bares any physical evidence of their expedition. Neither the first nor the last, Captain William Clark was drawn to 150-foot tall sandstone rock overlooking the Yellowstone River.
Marked with centuries worth of petroglyphs and carvings, Clark too, scratched his name into the side of the stone.
Today, a sturdy 1,000-foot long boardwalk makes for an easy ascent to Captain Clark’s signature and onto the top of Pompeys Pillar. Gazing out over the Yellowstone you can see why Clark, and the natives before him, were drawn to this significant vantage point.
Delve deep into the area’s historical and natural virtues by visiting the vast 5,700 square foot Interpretive Center. Follow along the stone and cement Yellowstone “riverwalk” that meanders from the parking lot, through the indoor center, and ends at the base of the butte.
Along the walk, read excerpts from Clark’s journals, watch a short film titled “About the Expedition, and even try on buckskins like the ones worn by Clark.
Through his unwavering dedication to education, understanding, and peace, Alek-Chea-Ahoosh, or Chief Plenty Coups, changed the course of history for the Crow Indians.
Because of his foresight and vision, he saved thousands of both Natives and whites, earning him the highest honor and respect of both his people and the United States government.
Thirty-five miles from Billings located on the Crow Indian Reservation, visitors have the opportunity to pay their respects to this wise leader and cultural ambassador. Stroll down a peaceful hiking trail that leads to the burial site of Chief Plenty Coups.
Here, one can stand in the quiet presence of the last Chief of the Crow, who was so highly regarded that following his death the tribe voted not to name a new chief.
Before his death, Chief Plenty Coups donated 189 acres of his land for the creation of a park that people of all races and creeds could enjoy in peace.
Finally, in 1965, the land became a Montana State Park. In 1970, his homestead became registered as a U.S. National Historic Place and in 1999 became a National Historic Landmark.
Visitors of the park can walk through the chief’s original log house tucked beneath massive cottonwood trees, sit by a sacred spring, and get up close with the Chief’s teepee while admiring Montana’s magnificent wildlife.
While perusing the park, don’t skip the great museum full of original and replica Native American wardrobes, weapons, and tools. This museum remains the only museum dedicated to Apsáalooke, or Crow, culture in the United States.
Thanks to Hollywood and history books the first and usually only thing that comes to mind at the mention of Little Bighorn is Custer’s Last Stand. However, when one visits the Little Bighorn National Monument, about 60 miles outside of Billings, you realize how much more there is to discover.
One of the biggest surprises is National Cemetery. Here, under the neverending sky of Big Sky Country, approximately 5,000 U.S. soldiers and their family members lay at rest. Like Arlington Cemetary in Washington, D.C., these soldiers served in both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam.
In addition to the scattering of white headstones representing fallen calvary and red headstones marking fallen Indians, you’ll find a monument honoring the horses lost in the battle as well as self-guided drive with audible narration. There are even regular Ranger talks that dive deeper into understanding the deadly conflict.
Refreshingly, the National Parks Service does a stellar job of taking the focus off of Custer. The NPS reminds us that the monument commemorates all involved, not just the 7th Calvary.
We remember the 2,000 Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne warriors who preferred death in battle to losing their ancestral ways.
Time to Celebrate
There’s only one way to celebrate a successful exploration and that’s to raise a glass of your favorite adult beverage. And what are the odds that the “Best Winery in Montana” resides right here in Billings?!?! And cattleman-turned-winemaker, Clint Peck, goes to great lengths to earn such a title.
Several times during harvest, Clint will make the 14-hour one-way drive to Washington’s famous Yakima Valley. While there he personally meets with the various small family grape growers.
He then hauls the fresh grapes back to Yellowstone Cellars and Winery in Billings where he crushes, ferments, and ages his wines right there on site.
From his cellar, Clint Peck continuously produces award-winning artisan wines. Like his dark and moody cabernet sauvignon with bold black fruit and tobacco flavors.
Another favorite is his off-dry blanc. With crisp tropical flavors, mild acidity, and creamy mouthfeel, this wine pairs beautifully with fresh trout topped with lemon and garlic butter.
No wrong turns, lost or wasted daylight this time around. I skipped days worth of research, planning, and exploring and went straight to enjoying a carefully curated and personalized itinerary.
And luckily, Austin Adventures can be from everywhere from Montana to Montenegro. Now to figure out where I want to tackle next!