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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Aug 11 2015

Think East!

Immerse yourself in Indian country on your way to exploring the Ashland Ranger District

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.

When folks in Billings are looking to get out of town and do some hiking or horseback riding, they typically think west. They think of the Absaroka-Beartooths, the Crazies, or Yellowstone. Very few think east.

East of Billings, hidden in a vast open landscape of rolling hills and infinite open horizons, lie some treasures that would stun even the most seasoned and well-traveled hikers and horseback riders around the state. One of those treasures is the Ashland Ranger District.

At just over one-and-a-half million acres, the Ashland Ranger District of the Custer National Forest is the largest continuous block of federal land in eastern Montana. The area provides boundless opportunity for outdoor recreation, including hiking, riding, camping, hunting, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Included in this block of federal land are three designated hiking and riding areas – the Tongue River Breaks, Cook Mountain, and King Mountain Hiking and Riding Areas, all of which are closed to motorized use and together make up more than 40,000 acres of pristine wild country. These hiking areas do not contain any maintained trails, and so visitors must blaze their own trail or follow winding game trails blazed by herds of mule deer, pronghorn, and elk.

Immersed in Indian Country

From Billings, the Ashland Ranger District is accessible via I-90 and U.S. 212. Along the route there are many opportunities to get out, stretch your legs and your horizons, and experience the rich history and unique local cultures of southeast Montana. If you left town early, as you should if you want to experience all the area has to offer, stop in Hardin for breakfast and head to the Bighorn County Museum. Check out the museum complex’s 26 historic buildings, including an old railway station complete with rail and train cars. Once you’ve filled up on breakfast and homestead history, continue down I-90 to Crow Agency.

U.S. 212 east of Crow Agency has been designated the “Warrior Trail.” This trail commemorates the history of the Powder River campaign of the American Indian Wars. The trail begins at the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn, where a national monument memorializes the fallen Native American warriors and U.S. soldiers who fought and gave their lives in June of 1876. If you’ve never visited the battle site, it is easily worth the stop. Park rangers and Native American guides give tours of the battlefield where white gravestones mark the spots where hundreds of soldiers fell. Stand on top of Last Stand Hill where Custer made his famous last stand against Cheyenne and Lakota forces. If you get swept up in the history (as I’m sure you will) and have worked up an appetite, head across the street to the Custer Battlefield Trading Post, which serves up Indian tacos and buffalo steaks alongside Native American artifacts and crafts.

Before you head out to the wild country of the national forest, be sure to fill up on gas and supplies in Ashland, your last stop before hitting the trail. If it’s your first time in the area, stop by the Ashland Ranger District field office to grab a few maps. If you still have an itch to get in some more culture and history, be sure to head to the St. Labre Mission’s Cheyenne Indian Museum. The museum showcases Cheyenne culture and history through their large collections of beading and quillwork, including moccasins, leggings, buckskin dresses, and pipe bags. For more information about Cheyenne culture or to get more information about places to visit, check out the Chief Dull Knife College’s Cultural Center in Lame Deer.

After soaking up all this culture and history, it’s finally time to hit the trail, but you may have already spent the whole day away, so pull into the national forest and camp at one of the many campgrounds, the closest to Ashland being Red Shale Campground.

Exploring the Ashland Ranger District

With a good night’s sleep, you’ll want to get up early. You won’t be able to get all three hiking and riding areas in within a day, so if you only have one to choose, head for the Tongue River Breaks. This hiking and riding area feature sandstone pillars standing more than 30 feet tall and high cliffs among heavily forested rolling river breaks. The area is sacred to the Northern Cheyenne, so be sure to tread lightly and leave any natural or historical artifacts as you found them. An old unmaintained wagon trail bisects the area. Follow it for miles into the heart of the breaks, where you may begin to understand the sacredness of the landscape.

One of the best qualities of the Ashland hiking and riding areas is the solitude and quiet that comes with leaving the crowds of western Montana and exploring areas that most Montanans have never heard of. You may just love the Tongue River Breaks enough to spend a night or two on a ridge overlooking the rolling forested hillsides or down in an ephemeral stream valley on a soft prairie meadow.

Not too far from the Tongue River Breaks, the King Mountain Hiking and Riding Area offers a slightly different perspective. A drier landscape with fewer Ponderosas than the Tongue River Breaks, the area is dominated by grassland prairie, offering open views of rock formations and stretching bluffs. Birds of prey nest in the rock formations within small caverns eroded by the wind. Mule deer and pronghorns graze miles away along valley bottoms lush with grass.

For a more strenuous hike, head to the Cook Mountain Hiking and Riding Area, where you can climb to one of the highest areas in the region. Cook Mountain, at over 4,300 feet, may not appear to be much on paper, but the short climb requires a gain of about 1,000 feet, depending on your starting point. The peak offers seemingly infinite views over the Custer National Forest and surrounding prairies. Choose your route well, as intricate systems of intermittent streams and steep ridges and valleys carve up the landscape.

All of the Ashland Ranger District surely cannot be explored in one short trip. Be prepared to spend at least a week if you want to see everything this huge national forest has to offer, including such events as a Shakespeare play on top of the Poker Jim Butte overlooking the Tongue River Breaks, where beautiful, bright orange sunsets shimmer on summer nights. Also, be sure to stop at some of the charming and colorful small towns that dot the warrior trail and the trip back to civilization. Friendly folk would love to tell you more about the rich local history and the land they call home.