MONTANA’s wondrous Big Sky country, along the northernmost edge of the US portion of the Rocky Mountains, is a region of snowcapped summits, turbulent rivers, spectacular glacial valleys, heavily wooded forests and sparkling blue lakes. The scenery is at its most dramatic and heavily trafficked in the western side of the state, especially the phenomenal Glacier National Park. By contrast, the eastern two-thirds is dusty high prairie – sun-parched in summer and wracked by blizzards in winter – that attracts far fewer visitors. Grizzly bears, elk and bighorn sheep are found in greater numbers in Montana than just about anywhere else on the continent.
Each of Montana’s small cities has its own proud identity. The enjoyable town of Missoula is a laidback college town, a glimmer of liberalism in this otherwise libertarian state; the historic copper-mining hamlet of Butte was once a barren union stronghold; the elegant state capital Helena harkens back to its prosperous gold-mining years; and Bozeman, just to the south, is one of the hippest mountain towns in the US, buzzing with out-of-towners in the peak months.
Wheat, lumber and mining form the contemporary base of Montana’s economy. Tourism is the state’s second biggest earner; however, apart from skiing, the harsh climate generally restricts many outdoor activities to the summer months.Read More
Gates of the Mountains
Gates of the Mountains
One of the region’s more worthwhile excursions is on a two-hour boat tour through the stunning Gates of the Mountains, 25 miles north of Helena off Hwy-287 (June–Sept hours vary, generally hourly Mon–Fri 11am–2pm or 3pm, Sat & Sun 10am–4pm; $14; t 406/458-5241, w www.gatesofthemountains.com). This dramatic stretch of the Missouri River, which enters a gorge between sheer 1200ft-tall limestone cliffs that rise abruptly from the northern shores of a tranquil lake, was named by explorer Meriwether Lewis. The area offers unmatched scenic splendour and plenty of excellent hiking and backpacking opportunities, not to mention an eye-opening array of wildlife, including black bears, eagles, bighorn sheep, beavers and mountain lions.
Custer’s Last Stand
Custer’s Last Stand
During an erratic career, George Armstrong Custer was one of the central American military icons of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Though he graduated last in his class at West Point in 1861, he became the army’s youngest-ever brigadier general, seeing action at Gettysburg and national fame through his presence at the ultimate Union victory at Appomattox, with his own troops blocking the Confederate retreat. However, he was also suspended for ordering the execution of deserters from a forced march he led through Kansas, and found notoriety for allowing the murder in 1868 of almost one hundred Cheyenne women and children. His most (in)famous moment, though, came on June 25, 1876, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, known to native tribes as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
Custer’s was the first unit to arrive in the Little Bighorn Valley. Disdaining to await reinforcements, he set out to raze a village along the Little Bighorn River – which turned out to be the largest-ever gathering of Plains Indians. As a party of his men pursued fleeing women and children, they were encircled by two thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors emerging from either side of a ravine. The soldiers dismounted to attempt to shoot their way out, but were soon overwhelmed; simultaneously, Custer’s command post on a nearby hill was wiped out. Although American myth up to the 1960s established Custer as an unquestioned hero, archeologists and historians have since discounted the idea of Custer’s Last Stand as a heroic act of defiance in which Custer was the last cavalryman left standing; the battle lasted less than an hour, with the white soldiers being systematically and effortlessly picked off. This most decisive Native American victory in the West – led by Sitting Bull – was also their final great show of resistance. An incensed President Grant piled maximum resources into a military campaign that brought about the effective defeat of all Plains Indians by the end of the decade.