7 Things You’ll Miss When Leaving Eastern Montana
For the longest time, when people asked me where my grandparents and other relatives live in Montana I’d answer “the boring side.” It took living in San Diego and traveling all around the world for ten years and spending a summer month in Montana recently to finally realize Eastern Montana is anything but boring.
It might not have mountains, but the term “wide, open spaces” doesn’t get any more relevant than in Eastern Montana, and the expanse of the land is impressive to behold.
Small hills intermix with flat farmland for miles upon miles while above it the sky stretches onward in a vibrant blue that is often devoid of clouds. Combine that quiet beauty with the faint skyline of Montana’s towering mountains to the west and you’ll find that this part of the state will soon be beckoning you to come back.
Most visitors to Montana just go to Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park. While these two iconic parks are a must-see, there is so much more to see in Montana beyond them and you must experience the life and sights outside the national parks to truly understand the allure of Montana — including Eastern Montana — and why the locals are fierce in their loyalty to the state.
Here are seven things you’ll fall in love with and no doubt miss after traveling around Eastern Montana.
Wide Open Spaces Under a Big Sky
You might have that old Dixie Chick’s song “Wide, Open Spaces” circling in your brain over and over again as you drive through Eastern Montana. The land is uncluttered with buildings and you can drive for miles upon miles without seeing any type of structure.
What you will see are ranches, farmland, and lots of animals of both the domestic and wild side. Cows will be on one side of you while acres of wheat spread out toward the horizon on the other side. The air smells like dust and sweet corn and the sunsets seem to take over the entire earth. After all, this is Big Sky Country, and the sky truly seems to go on forever when you’re in Eastern Montana.
Farm to Table Cuisine
With so many farms all around, it’s probably no surprise that you’ll find some farm to table cuisine. But in Montana it’s unpretentious, with sandwich shops featuring local ingredients more of a mainstay than fine dining establishments. If you’re lucky, make friends with some farmers and ranchers and be invited to a dinner that is truly as farm to table as it gets.
Pompeys Pillar National Monument
Pompeys Pillar may not be as historically headline grabbing as the Freedom Trail in Boston, but it is home to a remnant of one of America’s defining historical moments.
Pompeys Pillar is a large sandstone butte that juts up from the plains of Eastern Montana next to the Yellowstone River. It is on this rock where the only remaining physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is recorded. William Clark carved an inscription with his name and the date into the side of the rock and then wrote that he had done so in his journal.
So when you’re standing on the wooden platform next to the rock you are also standing right next to where Clark stood in 1806 while exploring the wild west of America after the epic Louisiana Purchase.
Located 25 miles east of Billings, Pompeys Pillar is located off Exit 23 along I-94. The entrance fee is $7 per non-commercial vehicle and there is ample parking right next to the site.
The monument’s Interpretive Center has a museum feel and gives background information on Lewis and Clark’s journey through Montana plus has an interesting short video that helps you get into the mindset of how challenging exploring the Louisiana Purchase was and that Lewis and Clark and their men along with Sacajawea must have been pretty brave to take on such an undertaking.
I recommend going through the Interpretive Center first so you can jog your memory of what you learned in history class and then doing the short walk to Pompeys Pillar afterward. Clarks’ inscription is about halfway up the staircase looping around the sandstone. You can also go all the way to the top for impressive views of the Eastern Montana plains. In addition, there is a lovely river walk along the Yellowstone, which flows next to Pompeys Pillar.
Wildlife in Eastern Montana
While at Pompeys Pillar you learn about the massive amount of buffalo that used to lumber all over Montana. Today you pretty much have to head to one of the national parks to see buffalo, but it doesn’t take away from the allure of seeing the great beasts. Buffalo isn’t the only wildlife you’ll encounter in Montana. Moose, deer, rattlesnakes, wolves, foxes, eagles, bears and many more species all make their home in Montana, both within and outside of the protection of Yellowstone and Glacier, including in Eastern Montana.
In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen a wild bear wasn’t in one of the national parks, but was actually during a drive through the hills of Eastern Montana’s Treasure County. (Which is totally fine with me by the way — I’d much rather see a black bear galloping through the plains than a grizzly bear in the mountains!)
Montana’s Big City
Montana’s largest city is Billings, a city sandwiched between the rolling hills and flat farmland to the east and jagged mountain peaks to the west. Billings is slowly but surely making steps to put itself on the map after being long overlooked by visitors due to the allure of Montana mountain cities like Missoula and Whitefish. Billings is starting to differentiate itself as more than just Montana’s largest and most populated city.
Breweries are popping up all over Billings and there is even a self-guided brewery walking tour you can do now, which includes a craft distillery (Trailhead Spirits) along its path. In addition to jumping on the craft beer scene, Billings is finally starting to take advantage of all those farms and ranches around Montana and has introduced new farm to table eateries that are providing a much needed option to the chain restaurants that had previously dominated Billing’s culinary landscape. Grains of Montana is both a delicious and affordable option for lunch or dinner.
Billings is also an easy starting point to some of Montana’s top attractions. To the west, ski resorts are an hour away and Yellowstone National Park is less than three hours away. Fields rippling with various shades of green growing corn, beets, and other produce can be found right on the perimeter of Billings and beyond. In addition, river rafting and boating can all be found within an hour or two of the city.
Boating in Eastern Montana’s Canyons
Eastern Montana may seem like it’s mostly wild rivers and farmland, but at the edge of the Crow Indian Reservation, there lies a large, sprawling body of water that is one of the best places I’ve ever gone boating: Bighorn Canyon.
The deep blue of the water splicing through Bighorn Canyon was created by the Yellowstone dam, which was built in the 1960s to stop potential flooding from the nearby Bighorn River and which then could also be used as a way to generate electricity for the valley.
Bighorn Canyon is framed by massive red-tinged rock walls that are incredible to float by on a pontoon or speed boat. Do some water skiing, cliff jumping, swimming, or just enjoy the views with an ice cold beer from one of Billings’ breweries.
The lack of crowds at Bighorn Canyon is a common theme around Montana. Leave behind the national parks of Yellowstone and Glacier where most visitors flock to and you’ll find even Montana’s largest cities still have a small town feel.
Eastern Montana in particular caters to solitude as most people use that part of the state as a gateway to get to the mountains in the west.
But for those who veer off the interstate and take time to appreciate the views and soak in the history you’ll find a part of America where small towns and family farms are still the way of life and where you can drive on back roads for miles and miles without ever seeing another car. It’s just you, nature, and that great big sky Montana is famous for.
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