Montana is a vast and varied state of mountains, canyons, river valleys, forests, grassy plains, badlands and caverns. Its Big Sky covers a land area of more than 147,000 square miles, making Montana the fourth-largest state in the nation. It can accommodate Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York and still have room for the District of Columbia. Yet Montana’s population is just 925,865 (2004 estimate), making it the sixth least-populated state.
In Big Sky Country there are six distinct areas that incorporate the history, landscape and culture into a region that offers its own unique experience. These regions, including the cities and towns that are found in them, help make Montana the "Last Best Place."
Custer Country (southeast Montana)
History is the link that unites Montana’s sprawling southeast corner. From prehistoric fossil beds and pictograph drawings to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer Country stakes a sizable claim on the history of the American West.
The Little Bighorn National Monument near Hardin marks the spot where Lt. Col. George Custer was overwhelmed by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Pompeys Pillar preserves graffiti from Lewis and Clarks famed "Corps of Discovery." One of the rivers they traveled, the Yellowstone, still flows freely through Custer Country, and another great river, the Bighorn, flows out of beautiful Bighorn Canyon. Bighorn Lake and Tongue River Reservoir are popular fisheries.
Located near the North Dakota border in southeast Montana, Baker came to life when the Milwaukee Railroad came across Montana in the 1900s. In 1915, a driller, seeking water, discovered natural gas. Many wells in the vicinity later produced oil in abundant quantities. Most of the downtown area was built during this time and in the 1960s and 1970s, when oil and gas exploration was plentiful. The highlight of O’Fallon Museum in Baker is the life-size taxidermy mount of Steer Montana, the largest bovine animal in the world at 3,980 pounds. Wind-carved sandstone formations can be found at Medicine Rocks State Park, located 25 miles south of Baker. Stocked with walleye and perch, Baker Lake is a natural for anglers.
Montana’s largest city, Billings is a regional business hub as well as a cultural, medical, educational and entertainment center. Billings was established in 1882 with the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Museums, art galleries, theaters and shopping are all part of the appeal of this vibrant city. Billings is home to Montana State University-Billings and Rocky Mountain College. Bordered on the north by distinctive rock formations known as the Rimrocks and to the south by the Yellowstone River, Billings is a gateway to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Bighorn National Recreation Area, Yellowstone National Park, the Yellowstone River and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Western and contemporary art from nationally and internationally acclaimed artists dominate rotating exhibits at the Yellowstone Art Museum. Famed Billings artist J. K. Ralston put the West on canvas. His restored cabin and adjacent gallery can be found on the campus of Rocky Mountain College.
A friendly town along the Yellowstone River, visitors can enjoy agate hunting, fishing and rustic Boothill Cemetery. Nearby, at the junction of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers, is the site of Fort Manuel Lisa, the first building in Montana built by white settlers.
The cavalry set up camp at the mouth of the Tongue River on the Yellowstone after the 1876 campaign of "rounding up hostile Indians." Their commanding officer was Col. Nelson A. Miles, and this camp was the beginning of Miles City. It soon became a stopping place on the long cattle drives from Texas. As the cattle industry became more important, it was fitting that the Montana Stockgrowers Association was formed here in 1884. The coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1881 destined that Miles City would become (and still is) a leading cattle market. Miles City is the home of a popular rodeo called the Bucking Horse Sale, held each year in May.
At one time the largest U.S. Army post in Montana, Fort Keogh served from 1877-1908 as a major post at the close of the Indian wars. Several original buildings remain and the old parade grounds are still intact. The Range Riders Museum chronicles the colorful history of the area. This impressive historical center on the west edge of town includes Fort Keogh Officers’ Quarters, Pioneer Memorial Hall, Indian artifacts and the 400-piece Bert Clark Gun Collection.
Located in a historic waterworks plant, the Custer County Art Center features the work of local, state and regional artists. The Wool House Gallery, a 1909 wool warehouse once owned by the Milwaukee Railroad, features railroad artifacts and memorabilia, an art gallery, Huffman prints and steel sculptures.
Roundup (Musselshell River)
Due to its natural geographic design, Roundup, located on the Musselshell River near the Bull Mountains, was once a gathering point for large herds of cattle that grazed up and down the valley. The Musselshell Valley Historical Museum includes a pioneer-era cabin, five-room house, coal mine and 7,000-square-foot exhibit area. The Bull Mountains, south of Roundup, offer beautiful roadside geology and pine trees. Companies, adhering to careful reclamation processes, mine coal in these mountains. North of town are oil wells, evidence of another rich mineral in the area.
Adjacent to the sheltered bay where the Swan River meets Flathead Lake, the quaint village of Bigfork brims with art galleries. The community is active year-round with family events and recreation for all seasons, such as cross-country skiing, hiking, boating, fishing and swimming. The Bigfork Summer Playhouse offers a variety of shows during the summer months. Glacier National Park is only 45 miles away.
East Glacier Park
Sitting on the southeast edge of Glacier National Park, the town provides a variety of visitor services. Within a few minutes of town is one of Glacier’s best kept secrets, Two Medicine Lake and Campground, where guests can enjoy a boat tour, camp and hike on well-established park trails. East Glacier Park is within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s boundaries, and is part of an area historically and culturally important to the Blackfeet.
Hungry Horse (Hungry Horse Dam)
Sitting at the edge of a reservoir formed by Hungry Horse Dam and surrounded by spectacular mountains, Hungry Horse is a stone's throw from Glacier National Park's west entrance. When completed in 1953, the dam was the fourth-largest and the highest concrete dam in the world. Self-guiding tours are available.
St. Ignatius was founded in 1854 by Jesuit Missionaries and is home to St. Ignatius Mission. St. Ignatius had the first residence school for Indians, first hospital, first sawmill and first flourmill in the state. The St. Ignatius Mission is over 100 years old and was built with local materials by Indians and missionaries in 1891. One million bricks were made with local clay, the lumber was cut in nearby foothills and the striking interior murals were designed and painted by Brother Joseph Carignano. There are 58 murals in all, painted on the walls and ceiling.
An insignificant gold camp in 1864, Butte almost became a ghost town, but rebounded in the early 1870s with the discovery of large deposits of silver ore. Marcus Daly came to Butte when the rich strikes of 1874 were reported. Instead of silver, he found the richest vein of copper known. Daly became the head of one of the world's most powerful monopolies, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. By 1900, the Butte Hill and its huge copper deposits were known as "the richest hill on earth." Butte became a melting pot of ethnic diversity as immigrants flocked to the mines for employment. After a worldwide slump in the copper market shut down mining operations in 1983, Butte citizens bounced back with a "can do" attitude. Mining operations resumed in the East Pit in 1986, but have been on suspension since 2000. Today, Butte is a city in transition to a more diversified economy. The Anselmo Mine Yard in uptown Butte is the best surviving example of surface support facilities that once served the mines.
Established in 1887 during the building of the Great Northern Railroad, Glasgow was named in honor of Glasgow, Scotland. The sleepy little shipping station for cattle, sheep and grain woke up when construction began on nearby Fort Peck Dam in 1933. The Glasgow Air Force Base was an important part of the community from 1955-1968. Besides unlimited recreation at Fort Peck Lake and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Glasgow is rich in Hi-Line history. Visit the Valley County Pioneer Museum for its fossils and Indian artifacts, plus railroad, early business, aviation and wildlife collections.
As a trading post, military fort and head of steamboat navigation, this Missouri River town was the world’s innermost port and the "toughest town in the West" from 1860 to 1887. Today, it is the gateway for exploration of the "Wild & Scenic" Upper Missouri River. Attractions include the Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, Montana’s agricultural museum, as well as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, built in 1880 and one of Montana’s oldest masonry buildings. Missouri River ferry crossings at nearby Carter and Virgelle operate March through October.
Fort Benton retains much of its "steamboat days" character. Many of the buildings located within its National Historic Landmark District were constructed during the golden years of the 1880s. The steamboat levee is now a park running the length of the community, with interpretive signs, a bronze memorial to "Shep," remains of the "Old Fort,” the keelboat Mandan and a heroic-sized statue of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea and her son.
The scenic community of Big Sky nestles high in mountain meadows, surrounded by timberland, the Spanish Peaks Primitive Area and the Gallatin National Forest. Majestic 11,166-foot Lone Mountain towers over this paradise. Activities and/or guided services for this area include ranch vacations and activities, hiking, whitewater trips, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, golf, cross-country and downhill skiing and snowmobiling. Hiking is popular in the nearby Lee Metcalf Spanish Peaks Wilderness. For an exquisite view of Lone Mountain, stop by Soldier’s Chapel, built in 1955 as a World War II memorial.