Montana to Michigan: East across the Plains – Part I

Part I: Billings to Black Hills


09 001 001 Map Part I


Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument

The Little Big Horn River meanders peacefully through the Crowe Indian Reservation 2 miles south of the town of Crowe Agency in southeastern Montana. On the hills along that river on June 25 and 26 in 1876 “peaceful” was not the operative word. On those two days there raged a battle which pitted warriors of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army. Warriors of these tribes, led by Chief Sitting Bull, were fighting to preserve their traditional culture as nomadic buffalo hunters. Lieut. George Armstrong Custer commanding the 7th U.S. Army Regiment was tasked to remove these native peoples to the Great Sioux Reservation in Dakota Territory.

THE HISTORY: Beginning with the arrival of the first Europeans in North America there has been contact with Native Americans. Sometimes that was peaceful, around campfires or on treaty grounds but increasingly it led to conflict on the battlefields. The conflict reached a peak following the Civil War as Euro-American settlers resumed their westward movement. In an effort to reduce conflict and believing it was “cheaper to feed than to fight Indians” the U.S. government signed a treaty with several Indian tribes of the Great Plains at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. This resulted in the establishment of a permanent reservation which included the Black Hills of South Dakota and adjacent lands in eastern Wyoming. The government promised to protect the Indians against incursions and attacks “… by people of the United States.”

Six years later, in 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills! A gold rush ensued as thousands swarmed the area in violation of the treaty in spite of efforts by the U.S. Army to keep them out. Efforts to “buy the Black Hills” to avoid another confrontation also failed. The Lakota and Cheyenne left the reservation and resumed raids on settlers and travelers as they approached the area which was designated as Indian domain. They were ordered to return by the end of January 1876 or be treated as hostiles by the military.

When they refused, the Military Campaign of 1876 against the Lakota and Cheyenne commenced. There were three separate expeditions totaling 2500 soldiers and led by two generals and a colonel. The goal was to converge on the Indians led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and other war chiefs who were encamped in southeastern Montana. The tribes encamped along the Little Big Horn totaled 7000 members of which 1500 to 2000 were warriors. Custer and his command of 210 soldiers plus 53 from other regiments were killed. A total of fewer than 100 Indians died in the battle.

As we drove the auto route through the battlefield, stopping periodically and listening at the audio stations, we reflected on the stark beauty of these hills which were covered by a vast bloom of Yellow Sweet Clover and saddened by the tragedy of this repeating historical theme. In 1890 the Army erected 249 headstones marking the location where Custer and his men had fallen. 109 years later the National Park Service began erecting Red granite markers at known locations for Cheyenne and Lakota warrior casualties.


This stop was not on our original itinerary but I am glad we could add it when we changed our route as I previously explained. A reenactment had been planned this day so the crowds were extensive and we abbreviated our visit knowing we had committed to a campground in the Black Hills the following day. We did spend a little time in the visitor center, learning of the extensive archaeological work done in making detailed studies of skeletons and nearby artifacts in an attempt to identify the combatants and maintain integrity and accuracy during documentation of the history. The following painting is considered to be the most accurate portrayal on canvas of the battle and topography.

09 001 006 Painting

This National Monument memorializes one of the last battles of these Plains Indians which represented a centuries long Clash of Cultures as well as the combatants who died there. Repeated conflict between American Natives who occupied but had little understanding of private land ownership and Euro-Americans in their pursuit of Manifest Destiny westward across the North American continent is a prominent and ignoble component of United States history.

Remembering the beauty of our campsite in the Sawtooth National Forest I attempted to repeat that experience in the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming. With that in mind, I had located two national forest campsites not far from the interstate as we headed towards the Black Hills. The distance off our beaten path was not the issue; it was the elevation. Our four-cylinder Forrester clawed its way up the gravel road higher and higher as the road deteriorated and the transmission overheated. However, the view from high on the ridge was spectacular.


As the road began to pitch down with several miles to go (which meant we would have to come back up the following morning) I finally admitted that THIS WAS A REALLY BAD IDEA! We turned around and descended slowly with frequent stops so the brakes would not overheat. Ten miles down the road the warning light indicating the overheated transmission finally blinked off. Using her trusty iPhone my honey found us a campground on the level, with friendly and accommodating hosts, hot water in the bathrooms and a McDonald’s just around the corner which we could patronize the following morning.


Black Hills National Forest

09 01 001 MapB Part I

1980 was the last time I visited the Black Hills. During that trip I read Black Elk Speaks c. 1932 by John G. Neihardt and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee c. 1970 by Dee Brown. To keep this segment of our road trip more upbeat I chose not to reread them.

As we approached the Black Hills from the West we bypassed Jewel Cave National Monument, thinking that Wind Cave National Park would be a better choice because it had more interesting formations and could be combined with one of our drives as we explored the area. We were twice frustrated after driving to Wind Cave (once after calling ahead first and getting the go ahead) because the elevator was shut down due to malfunction.

We settled into our national forest campsite at the Oreville Campground just a few miles north of the town of Custer. It was a perfect base of operations giving us access to the Needles Highway (which we drove twice on different days) and the Wildlife Loop Drive in Custer State Park. It also gave access to Mount Rushmore, the restaurants in Custer as well as the North exit from the national forest leading to either the Badlands to the East or the Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the North. The campground was small, very basic, inexpensive and our site had a window to the sky.

 Custer State Park

The Needles Highway

Custer State Park provides a seven-day access pass for a reasonable fee and that was good because the weather was overcast on our first drive through the Needles Highway. On our second day we started the drive just a few minutes after it opened at 7 AM. Sylvan Lake was as smooth as glass and offered beautiful reflections, don’t you agree?


The rock formations were tall and thin like needles and one even had an opening at the top that looked like a place to pass a very large diameter thread.

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One needle formation has an “eye”

That needle was just 50 yards from our favorite tunnel where on both of our visits we were able to get photos of mountain goats licking moisture from the interior walls of the tunnel. The second time Toni went wild taking pictures of a cute little kid goat which refused to stay down near the road with its mom, repeatedly climbing on top of a rock and bleating for attention.


And of course there were many other rock formations equally unique.


Next, on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway we stopped to snap a picture of the State Game Lodge, the last of the park grand lodges to survive fires and the site of the summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927.


And later we navigated more tunnels and one of the famous “pigtail bridges” in the Park.  Fashioned on the same concept as a circular stairway, these 360° loops in which the roadway passes under itself by means of a bridge managed to gain or lose elevation in a confined space such as a ravine or a narrow valley. Getting a photograph was not easy because there was no way to pull off on the shoulder and stop.


Wildlife Loop Road

The primary attraction of the wildlife loop road is the American Bison. Although we had seen them previously and three other parks, somehow, we never seemed to tire driving through herds of these powerful beasts. Nor did the other visitors and there were frequent traffic jams.


We also saw elk, antelope, a small herd of burros, Prairie dogs and a variety of birds. Here are collection mostly captured by Toni and her zoom camera.


Mount Rushmore National Monument

Although our campground was less than 2 miles from the Chief Crazy Horse Memorial it seemed too much like a tourist trap and we never actually visited there. We did visit the Mount Rushmore National Monument late in the afternoon one day and that clearly was a tourist trap, although a patriotic one. There were thousands of people there at the time we visited and we were in and out in under an hour.

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Late afternoon photo with faces in shadow


Celebrating four notable presidents with the bas relief portrayal of their heads 60 feet in height, sculptor Gutzon Borglum oversaw this project from 1927 to 1941 with the help of his son. In a reproduction of his studio the magnitude, detail and intricacies of this process were explained by a Park Ranger.

Two more major national parks will be explored in the next blog post before we leave the Dakotas.

2 thoughts on “Montana to Michigan: East across the Plains – Part I

  1. So much information here – these places are on my bucket list! I would go to Crazy Horse – mostly because I went there as a child and would like to see it again. Thanks for the stories and photos.


    1. Donna, i see your regular submission of photos–all so creative and often humorous. The Oreville Campground is small and perfectly situated to explore Black Hills–reserve ahead! No Hook-ups.
      Remembering you from Canyon de Chelle — taking care of your dog!


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