Believe the hype: MONTANA really is Big Sky country, a region of snow-capped summits, turbulent rivers, spectacular glacial valleys, heavily wooded forests and sparkling blue lakes beneath a vast, deep blue sky that seems to stretch for a million miles. The Blackfeet and Shoshone once hunted bison here and today the state remains a bastion of Western culture, a land of cowboys, ranches, small cities and nineteenth-century ghost towns (when the gold ran out so did the people). In Montana, so the jokes go, locals keep snow tyres on till June, you can drive at 75mph but you’ll still be passed on the highway and half the licence plates are Canadian. Cheap Charlie Russell prints line every wall, and all the railway stations are now bars, offices or restaurants. Grizzly bears, elk and bighorn sheep are found in greater numbers in Montana than just about anywhere else on the continent.
The scenery is at its most dramatic and heavily trafficked in the western side of the state, especially the phenomenal Glacier National Park and the surrounding mountain chains, landscapes that featured heavily in 1990s movies A River Runs Through it and The Horse Whisperer (both filmed in part on Dennis Quaid’s Montana ranch). In contrast, the eastern two-thirds is dusty high prairie – sun-parched in summer and wracked by blizzards in winter – that attracts far fewer visitors.
Each of Montana’s small cities has its own proud identity, and most of them are conveniently located off the east–west I-90 corridor. Enjoyable Missoula is a laidback college town, a glimmer of liberalism in this otherwise libertarian state; the historic copper-mining hub of Butte was once a 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 USA, buzzing with out-of-towners in the peak months.
With the exception of Gettysburg, no other US battle has gripped the American imagination like the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876, the biggest defeat of US forces by Native Americans in the West and the scene of the much mythologized “Custer’s Last Stand”. Once seen as a tragic hero, Custer is better known today for a series of blunders leading up to the battle, and the decisive Indian victory – of combined Arapaho, Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors – helped shape the legends of leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse (see Custer’s Last Stand).
The monument is located on the current Crow Indian Reservation in the Little Bighorn Valley, and you can trace the course of the battle on a self-guided driving tour through the grasslands, between the visitor centre and Last Stand Hill itself, and the Reno-Benteen Battlefield five miles away – there are also several hiking trails. What makes Little Bighorn so unique is that the landscape has remained virtually unchanged since 1876; equally unusual, white headstone markers show where each cavalryman was killed (Custer himself was re-buried in 1877 at the West Point Military Academy in New York state), while red granite markers do the same for Native American warriors, making for an extremely evocative experience. The visitor centre only contains a small exhibit on the battle, so to get the most out of the site listen to a ranger talk or take a free ranger tour; there are also fascinating hour-long bus tours with Crow-operated Apsaalooke Tours, and you can also use your phone to access audio tour commentary.