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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Aug 25 2015

Deep in the Powder River Valley

The rugged landscape that once helped protect Native inhabitants now makes for a wonderfully wild experience

Exploring Montana, Featured

On September 1, Montana Wilderness Association will release Buttes, Breaks and Badlands: Off the Beaten Path in Southeast Montana, a geotourism map of everything that makes this part of the state special, including its wildlands, museums, and eateries. MWA's AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Forrest Theisen, who helped create the map, describes one of the many adventures you can have with the map serving as your guide through this largely undiscovered part of Montana.

The Powder River winds it’s way through grassland prairie from the slopes of the Bighorn Mountains in northern Wyoming through southeast Montana to the Yellowstone River, carving out intricate river breaks and badlands along its way. The area’s few inhabitants are mostly hearty ranchers who graze their cattle along the river’s fertile shores.

The area has a tragic yet captivating history of conflict, including several battles during the American Indian Wars. In the 1860s, as conflict between American forces and Native American tribes in the region intensified, Major General Grenville M. Dodge ordered punitive attacks against the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, a campaign that came to be known as the Powder River Expedition. Ten years later, the Reynolds Battle sparked a host of conflicts in the area in what became known as the Great Sioux War of 1876. In the late 19th century, Native Americans found shelter from white settlers in the remote and rugged country of the Powder River, which had been given to them in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Driving along the gravel road southwest of Broadus, the landscape seems little changed since then. Thirty-five miles southwest of the Broadus, the unincorporated community of Moorhead sits at the center of this wild country, but you would never know it. At no point do you ever see any sign of a town.

After passing sporadic ranches along the river, the two roads that follow the river’s winding flanks meet. Just north of this junction lies the Moorhead Recreation Area. This BLM-managed campground provides access to over 25,000 acres of surrounding public lands, as well as the Powder River.

Before driving 35 miles down gravel roads to the remote Moorhead area, far from any services, fill up on food, gas, and information in Broadus. For supplies, maps, and some friendly local advice, as well as an amazing collection of taxidermy, head to Powder River Taxidermy. The family-owned business serves as the gateway to the area’s wild and remote public lands. For more information about the history of the region, head over to the volunteer-run, donation-supported Powder River Historical Museum. This hidden gem houses an amazing collection of Native American artifacts, including thousands of arrowheads and a collection of items from the Reynolds Campaign of 1876.

With a base camp set up at the Moorhead Recreation Area, the opportunities for backcountry hiking, bird watching, wildlife viewing, hunting, and horseback riding are endless. Anglers can also drop a line in the Powder River, a mostly undiscovered fishery. To experience the true character of this rugged country, trek or ride a horse into the vast public lands to the northeast, where you’ll find red striated badlands, sandstone cliffs, and jagged ridgelines. The ruggedness that sheltered Native inhabitants from outside threats now protects the area’s wild character. Spending a star-riddled night in the area will no doubt enhance your Earthly perspective of our universe.

- Forrest Theisen, MWA's AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer