As our explorations of Yellowstone neared their end, we started to think about our next destination. When we left Colorado, we had no solid plans after Yellowstone. We considered Glacier National Park, but once our waterpump began to fail, we ruled out further boondocking until we could replace it. Ever since my Montana fishing trip in 2016, I had wanted Anna to see Bozeman and Livingston, MT. Besides the Puget Sound area, Bozeman and Livingston were on my list of possible places to settle. We had also heard good stuff about Cody, WY and once we started researching routes around Montana and Wyoming, we realized that the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was on our route and the annual re-enactment was scheduled for 23-25 June.
Ultimately, we decided to stay in Livingston and use that as a home base to explore both Bozeman and the Paradise Valley. After Livingston, we would drive 4-hours east and visit Little Bighorn over the anniversary and re-enactment weekend. Finally, we would wrap up our trip with a couple of days in Cody, WY before heading back to Colorado and the in-laws’ driveway.
Bozeman and Livingston, Montana
We left Yellowstone through the west entrance and followed the Gallatin River into Bozeman. With out a reliable water pump, we were limited to full hook-up campgrounds and ended up making reservations at the Livingston KOA. I’ve previously stayed at another Livingston RV park and it was really nice, but we went with the KOA because they had a pool.
We rolled into Bozeman around 1pm and decided to stop somewhere for lunch. We usually have lunch in the Airstream, but after two weeks of boondocking in two National Parks, we were ready for a meal at a restaurant. Anna fired up the Yelper and we found Clark’s Fork, a nice lunch place just outside of downtown in a big box store area with plenty of parking for the rig. Our parking spot was an easy walk to the restaurant, an REI, and a Starbucks; it was a good lunch stop that checked a lot of boxes for us. Once we pried ourselves away from civilization, we finally wandered into the Livingston KOA and got set-up for the next three nights.
As the Yellowstone River was high and dirty from all the snowmelt, fishing was ruled out and we spent Wednesday June 21st exploring downtown Livingston. We wandered around and explored several different shops before having lunch at Gil’s Goods, another awesome local restaurant. We eventually made our way over to the weekly Farmers Market, then returned downtown for a couple of beers at the Katabatic Brewing, before finally heading home to the KOA and some swimming.
On Thursday, we drove the 40’ish minutes back to Bozeman and spent the morning at the marvelous Museum of the Rockies (another ASTC.org member) before heading downtown to grab lunch and explore Bozeman.
We spent about 2-1/2 hours strolling the exhibits at Montana State University’s Museum of Rockies (MOR). They have an extensive and well-curated collection of locally discovered dinosaurs, including the largest T-Rex skull ever unearthed. They also have very informative exhibits of early pioneer and Native American life, but make no mistake, we were really there for the dinosaurs.
After MOR, we headed downtown to another local restaurant that Anna found on Yelp. Anna (or maybe Yelp? I’ll go with Anna…) nailed it again and we had a fabulous lunch at Starky’s. Afterwards we wandered Main Street peaking into a couple of bookstores, a fly shop, a coffee shop, and a couple local outdoor retailers. I came across the new posthumously published Jim Harrison book, A Really Big Lunch, and since we were in Bozeman, I had to purchase it. By 6pm we were back at the KOA, swimming and thinking about getting ready to pack up and head out the next morning.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
On Friday morning, after a quick trip back into town to procure some fresh bread at Gil’s Goods, we regretfully said goodbye to Livingston and drove the 200 miles east to the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Camping options around the Little Bighorn Battlefield are few and far between. A year ago I spent a week fishing and camping at a very nice campground on the Bighorn River. Although an hour from the battlefield, we debated staying there and doing a little tailwater fishing along with Little Bighorning, but decided against it. Harnessing the power of Campendium we came across the 7th Ranch RV Park. With several impressive reviews, and a convenient location just a few miles down the road from both the battlefield and the re-enactment, we couldn’t have been happier with our decision.
After unhooking and getting our campsite set up, we drove over to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument’s Visitor Center to get the lay of the land. We picked up their Junior Ranger booklet, tried to watch the movie (we couldn’t because it was SO CROWDED), and sat in on a wonderful Ranger Discussion of the battle. This gave us the background information we needed to enjoy the next day’s festivities. The next morning we packed up and drove over to the site of the re-enactment, located in the same spot as Sitting Bull’s camp on the side of the Little Bighorn River.
In late-June of 1876, approximately 1,500 – 2,000 Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Warriors defeated Custer’s 7th Cavalry—263 U.S. Soldiers were killed in the battle. This battle was part of a larger strategic campaign to force the capitulation of the remaining northern plains Indians to return to, or move to, the newly established reservation in present day South Dakota. The Indians were a mixture of reservation renegades and holdouts from the Fort Laramie Treaty. Of the Indians camped alongside the Little Bighorn River in June 1876, many (including the Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse) had rejected the treaty and didn’t feel compelled to comply with it. Others were refugees from the South Dakota Reservation, escaping the invasion of white prospectors and entrepreneurs that started after Lt Col George Armstrong Custer’s 1874 expedition into the Dakota Territory discovered gold in the Black Hills. These Indians were defending their way of life, fighting against encroachment, broken promises, and enacting revenge for past atrocities.
In all, we spent two days touring the battlefield and attending the Battle of Little Bighorn Reenactment. Owen earned the Junior Ranger Badge and we all walked away with a deeper understanding of a complex and heartbreaking period in our Nation’s history.
There are markers scattered throughout the Little Bighorn battlefield that represent the spots where individual Soldiers fell. This is the only battlefield in the world with this type of display and it really helps you understand how events unfolded over those hot and dusty two days in June 1876. In places, the White markers (U.S. Soldiers) and the Red markers (Indian Warriors) are commingled. You can almost see the battle and the many individual skirmishes in your mind’s eye. It’s a touching tribute to everyone who fought here.
Of course no one really won. The Indians may have won a tactical victory, but as the legends of Custer’s Last Stand grew to mythical-like proportions, the Battle of Little Bighorn became a strategic defeat for the Indians of the Northern Plains. The politicians used Custer’s Last Stand as a rallying cry to gain leverage to pacify the Indians. Pacification meant the systematic slaughter of the Indians’ primary food source—the Bison—and the destruction of their villages. Within a year of the battle, most of the hostile Plains Indians had been pacified and the U.S. Government, without compensation, took the Black Hills.
We were on the fence about visiting Little Bighorn and we were definitely on the fence about attending the reenactment. While the reenactment was in equal doses hot, dusty, kitschy, and corny, it was executed with a lot of pride and sincerity and was one of the highlights of our June swing through Wyoming and Montana. The Indian reenactors that played Warriors and the white reenactors that played the 7th Cavalry have tremendous pride in their heritage and their role in preserving the history of both this battle and the larger war. Many of the reenactors are direct descendants of veterans of the battle.
Driving the auto-tour route through the battlefield, walking the trails amongst the red and white markers, and listening to the Ranger Discussions all had a profound impact on us. While Anna and Owen finished up the Junior Ranger booklet, I walked the Deep Ravine Trail from the Visitor Center. At first it was simply a way to kill some time and get some exercise, but as I walked down to the Deep Ravine and further away from the crowds, I started to have a strange and, I dare say, almost religious-type experience. At the end of the trail, I turned around and looked back towards the visitor center. I saw several groups of white markers stretching along the trail and down the hill. Each group was spaced rough 15-20 yards apart. What wasn’t apparent as I walked down the hill was suddenly staring me in the face as I looked back up. In my mind, I could see the cavalry soldiers of Company E retreating down from Last Stand Hill, looking for safety in the nearby ravines and the Little Bighorn River. With a very little imagination you could easily see the soldiers fighting off the approaching Indians, and dying in their effort to reach the perceived safety of the river valley. This quiet stroll on a hot and dusty trail, among the white markers and tall grass turned into what I can only call some sort of transcendent experience—something that I’m still trying to digest and comprehend. I guess that is what travel is supposed to do. Maybe that is something I was looking for on the Big Big Trip?!?!
As a Nation, we are still dealing with our past and trying to understand how it fits into (and impacts) our society today. As I read the news each day and watch the world around us go through the daily gyrations of He Said/She Said/Social Media Said, I become disillusioned, frustrated, and sad. How can we improve and grow as a nation and a society if we continue to look for confirmation of our beliefs, if we don’t break free from our biases, and we don’t critically think about our past, our present, and our future? We need to look at the world around us. We can’t ignore the more ugly sides of our history and our present. We need to seek the truth and trust the facts. Every once in a while, we need to break away from the crowds and walk down a hot and dusty trail and take a look at the world around us from a different perspective. That’s the only way to understand our past, to see our present through a different lens, and to continue to grow into the great society that our founders predicted.
To learn more, click here for a more in-depth history of the Battle of Little Bighorn. I also I recommend Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.