Regional history is one of my favorite parts of living in Montana. In my eyes, there are few things that beat standing in the same spot as William Clark did over 200 years ago. So, naturally, living in Billings means I have access to some pretty amazing history-themed day trips!
On a gorgeous fall morning I opted to take our Pompeys Pillar Loop. Traveling east on I-94 I headed for Pompeys Pillar, just 30 miles from Billings. For those unfamiliar, the Lewis and Clark Expedition took place from 1804 to 1806 to explore the Louisiana Purchase made by Thomas Jefferson in 1803. The Corps of Discovery traveled from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon and back. The Expedition’s exploration of Montana was vast and on the return trip Lewis and Clark split up and William Clark explored the Yellowstone River while Meriwether Lewis explored further north. They eventually met back up where the Yellowstone and the Missouri rivers converge. Pompeys Pillar is significant because on July 25th, 1806 William Clark carved his name into the sandstone rock outcropping, now known as Pompeys Pillar, leaving the only remaining physical evidence that the Expedition even happened. Pompey is named for the son of Sacagewea, the young Native American woman that accompanied the expedition with her infant son. For more information on the Pillar check out their website.
Pompey’s Pillar National Monument not only offers incredible history, but also breathtaking views of the Yellowstone River Valley. The Interpretive Center is home to some J.K. Ralston paintings and other spectacular historical information. There are 202 wooden, somewhat rickety steps to climb to reach the top of the Pillar, and you’ll find Clark’s signature about half way up. When you look at the signature, take the moment to stop and appreciate that you have taken the same steps as William Clark did to get there. At the top, on a clear day, you can see the five mountain ranges; Bighorn, Pryor, Crazies, Snowies and Beartooths, Clark also looked upon the day he was there as well as some spectacular views of the Yellowstone River. If you packed a lunch, there are great trails along the river for you to have a picnic along the path. Along those trails you will enjoy the nature of Montana complete with native birds, rabbits, deer and more!
During the off season from October to May, the interpretive center and front gate at Pompeys Pillar is closed, but you can park and walk in, which I recommend doing. It is a very serene walk and having the Pillar to yourself is pretty cool!
After Pompeys Pillar I hopped back on the interstate heading east. On this trip, I found a little hidden gem even I didn’t know existed. Shortly after Waco there is a rest stop worthy of a stop and stretch. Behind the restrooms there is a gentle trail leading to some pretty special views. Warning, in the summer time there is a chance of rattlesnakes on or around the trail! But take a moment to stop, take the short walk, and breath in. You’ll be experiencing vistas few others have seen but you won’t soon forget.
Back on the Interstate, continue east until you reach Exit 49 to Hardin. This two lane highway gives you gorgeous farm land views along the Bighorn River. I stopped to explore the Grant Marsh Fishing Access and Wildlife Viewing area. While that day I only saw birds, I enjoyed a pleasant moment by the river and embraced the quiet. Continuing on to Hardin, I followed the road to the interstate and headed south to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield – the third most visit attraction in the state of Montana.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield is the site of General George Custer’s Last Stand against Sitting Bull and the Sioux and Cheyenne. Expect to spend around 3 hours at the Battlefield if you have a passion for history. This landscape is essentially the same as it was back in 1876 when the battle took place, so I recommend getting in on a ranger talk. With their help, I can see the story come to life on the hills of the battlefield and it becomes easy to imagine exactly what it actually looked like that day. For more information on the battlefield click here.
After your visit at the Battlefield, stop in at the Trading Post across the highway and try the famous fry bread or an Indian Taco. I promise you will not regret it. From there you have a quick 50 minute interstate drive back to Billings!
My favorite history day trip! Keep in mind you can always visit the Battlefield first and then head north to Pompeys Pillar. Whichever order you choose to do it in, I hope this helps guide you to some of southeast Montana’s best attractions. For a complete map of my loop click here. Enjoy the trail!