Vistas of treeless slopes, coulees, and sandstone bluffs wrap the hillside where George Armstrong Custer fired his last bullets. Even on a clear spring morning, brightened by blooming yuccas and trilling meadowlarks, gun smoke and panic seem to hang in the air. The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument lies down the road from Hardin, a town of 3,500 bordering the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana. Hardin runs on cows, coal, casinos—and the past.
If you visit Hardin during this year’s Little Big Horn Days, June 21 through 25, you can see Custer’s Seventh Cavalry receive yet another drubbing (www.custerslaststand.org). The annual reenactment—part historical drama and part equestrian pageant—always draws a crowd in sympathy with the winning side.
The local tribe scouted for Custer and never did take much joy in his defeat. Still, pride runs strong. Any time of year, you can visit the beautifully wrought statues and metal sculptures at the Apsaalooke Veterans Park in nearby Crow Agency. The six-foot metallic eagle feathers on the giant coup stick are worth the stop. A wall of honor lists tribe members who fought in battles from the Little Bighorn to Grenada. Read the list and wonder how a 19th-century Crow ever earned the name Alligator Stands Up. Or plan a trip in late August, when a city of tepees rises for the Crow Fair. This festival of dancing, singing, drumming, and feasting is a giant reunion and celebration of the Crow Nation. In the powwow tradition, guests are welcome.
A short drive north to the Yellowstone River—the longest undammed watercourse in the lower 48—connects you with another great name. In 1806 Captain William Clark carved his signature into a sandstone overlook now known as Pompeys Pillar, one of the few physical remains of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Anglers generally have another spot in their sights. The brown and rainbow trout in the upper Bighorn can keep you busy for a day or seven. A guided float trip is the surest way to hook up. Just bring your waders, fly rod, and $300 to $400, plus tip. You know it’s been a great trip when you arrive home with a portrait of a four-pound rainbow—or perhaps just the haunting vision of a doomed leader shouting orders to his men.
Enjoy a picnic in the past amid the shops and houses of the 22-acre Big Horn County Historical Museum, just off I-90 at exit 497. (406) 665-1671, www.museumonthebighorn.org.
This article was first published in May 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Idaho & Montana map, Northwestern CampBook, and Idaho, Montana & Wyoming TourBook. Hear daily ranger talks at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (www.nps.gov/libi). For more information, contact the Hardin Area Chamber of Commerce, 10 E. Railway St., (406) 665-1672, www.hardinmt.com.
Custer Battlefield Trading Post Café in Crow Agency at Highway 212 and I-90. (406) 638-2270. Purple Cow Restaurant Diner off I-90 at exit 495. (406) 665-3601.
American Inn $60–$100. Pool, waterslide, AAA discounts. 1324 N. Crawford Ave., (800) 582-8094.