Jurassic Park has nothing on what lies beneath the earth in Montana’s Badlands. Dinosaur bones and near-complete skeletons have been found all around southeastern Montana. They’re found buried under the soil and exposed along cliffsides of sandstone worn away by millions of years of rain, snow and ice.
Torrents of water washing in from the Rocky Mountains 65 million years ago cut through the Badlands over several millennia, causing erosion and leaving fossils in their wake, explained Makoshika State Park paleo intern Anthony Gordon.
Makoshika, Montana’s largest state park at 11,000-plus acres, is one of 14 places along the Montana Dinosaur Trail (mtdinotrail.org) where dinosaur enthusiasts can see dinosaur bones and other fossils unearthed around the park in Glendive. The museum in the park’s visitor center has the head of a triceratops, found just outside the park boundary.
“Dinosaur tours are a big thing around here and bring in a large revenue for Eastern Montana,” said park manager Riley Bell. “It brings families out this way and is a great thing for children. We have a lot of hidden treasures out here.
Riley Bell points out a Triceratops found on land near Makohika State Park.
The roads less traveled through Southeast Montana are filled with stunning sights that often go unnoticed by tourists destined for the state’s better-known attractions — Yellowstone and Glacier national parks among them.”The Southeast has always been a hidden gem for Montana,” said Nicole Gonzalez, media manager for the Montana Office of Tourism. “And it’s garnering more attention, which is amazing for the local communities.”
The park, which also has miles of trails for hiking, along RV hookups and rustic camping, was a highlight of my recent trip to Montana. Here are some other key takeaways from my visit to Big Sky Country.
A HAUNTED HISTORY
Montana is a huge state with a small population, so if you get off the main highways and travel the dirt roads, it’s easy to feel quite isolated, and chances are you’ll encounter at least one abandoned, creepy-looking building or house. But spend the night in the small town of Terry and you may encounter a ghostly apparition at The Kempton Hotel, the oldest continuously operated hotel in Montana. Owner Russ Schwartz said there are four spirits roaming the old rooms and hallways.
“I’ve figured out who the ghosts are,” Schwartz said, counting them off on one hand.
Two are children who died of typhoid at the hotel; one is a nurse who came to town to help with the typhoid epidemic and became a victim of the virus herself; and the fourth, Bernie Kempton, was the son of the man who built the hotel in 1902.
Book a room at kemptonhotel.net, if you dare.
FUN ON THE WATER
The Bighorn River is one of the best trout-fishing rivers in America. The river runs through a spectacular canyon and, unless you are a member of the Crow Nation, whose land borders its banks, the only way to see it is from the water. A cruise will take you past beautiful cliffs streaked brick red from the oxidized iron minerals found in the sandstone and some of the most spectacular rock formations you’re ever likely to see.
Katie Steele and her husband, Tyler, own Shade Tree Outfitters (bighornproguide.com) and specialize in water fun along the Bighorn — fishing, boating, picnicking. You name it, they can probably arrange it, Katie said.
“I love sharing the beauty of this river with other people,” she said as she steered her 18-foot Smokercraft downriver.
Katie Steele of Shade Tree Outfitters.
If you’re not quite ready for the big leagues of fishing, you might find your footing at Big Horn Valley Ranch (bighornvalleyranch.com), one of just a handful of resorts in Fort Smith on the Crow Reservation. It’s also one of the few places around that offers full-service dining. The resort has cabins with Wi-Fi and small kitchens. Private baths are offered in a central bathhouse.
In the center of the resort is a large stocked pond where you can wet a line and get a few tips from outfitter Paul Garrison. He’ll bring the equipment if you don’t have your own, and with his help, you might just reel in the big one.
Paul Garrison wets a line at sunset at Big Horn Valley Ranch.
RIDING THE RANGE
From saddles to fancy ladies’ hats, the Range Riders Museum in Miles City (rangeridersmuseum.com) is a tell-all walk-through history of the West. The museum, founded in 1939, has a collection that’s taken more than 70 years to amass and now encompasses more than 38,000 square feet of unexpected finds under one roof.
The Range Riders Museum in Miles City, Mont.
Exhibits cover everything from the dinosaur age to the history of Native Americans who first lived in the area, and the soldiers and pioneers who followed. It’s a remarkable look at the people and things that became Montana.