Makoshika State Parkphoto credit: Visit Montana

Top 5 Places to Hike & Camp Out Here

April 2022

by brenda maas, Visit Southeast Montana

Summer planning is underway – and it’s likely, being a Montanan, that outdoor adventures are on your list. For many, that includes hiking and camping. While the mountains to the west are undoubtedly majestic and full of their own beauty, we challenge you to try something different: head east and explore Southeast Montana.  

From the rustic and remote Calypso Trail in the Terry Badlands to the unexpected national forests, Southeast Montana offers a plethora of hiking and camping options for the true adventurer.   

Makoshika State Park  

If you have not yet been to Montana’s largest State Park, what are you waiting for? With nearly 11,000 acres to explore, you have plenty of space and opportunity for discovery. Hike the popular Cap Rock Trail to walk across a natural bridge. Or request a backcountry permit for the trail less traveled. Are you interested in a truly unique camping experience? We recommend booking early or during the week to reserve the teepee site (#15). Plus, rumor has it that a sheepherder’s wagon may be a new lodging option this year.   

Dino-loving families will enjoy the Saturday morning paleo adventures for an insider’s look at an excavation site and the fossil lab where specimens are cleaned and curated. Makoshika rangers also offer periodic programs throughout the summer. No matter what you do, be sure to take in a Makoshika sunrise or sunset – that alone is worth the trip.  

Medicine Rocks State Park  

Located on the far eastern edge of Montana between Baker and Ekalaka, this park is small but mighty. Recently designated as an International Dark-Sky Sanctuary, Medicine Rocks provides the darkest of the dark night sky viewing plus monthly programming to help you learn more about what is happening over our heads. Camping is first-come, first-served, and we know that once you set your eyes on this place, you will fall in love with the distinctive Swiss-cheese-like rock formations that give this park its name. The Dalton Trail is just under a mile – walk it at sunrise for a mystical experience.  

Custer Gallatin National Forest  

While we think of national forests, we naturally think of the Beartooth Mountains and Red Lodge area. However, there’s more to the story. The Ashland and Sioux Ranger Districts offer camping, hiking, horseback riding, and more across distinctive rolling grasslands interrupted by steep rock outcropping, dotted with Ponderosa pines. Try Red Shale or Ekalaka Park Campgrounds, and don’t miss Poker Jim Butte for a stunning view. We suggest early summer for the wildflowers and more mild weather. 

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area  

If you have not yet ventured to Bighorn Canyon (North Unit) near Fort Smith, get on that – STAT. Located within the Crow Reservation (thus, land “up top” is private, not public), the 71-mile-long Bighorn Lake straddles the Montana-Wyoming border. It lies below cliffs towering 1,000 feet in the air. Rent a pontoon during the summer months from Ok-a-Beh Marina for the day to explore the myriad mini-canyons in this amazingly immense gorge. For camping, check out the Afterbay Campground at Fort Smith or BYOB (bring your own boat) for boat-in-only camping. We suggest Black Canyon for a leisurely paddle and proximity to floating latrines. Be sure to stop at the Visitor’s Information Center to view Yellowtail Dam, which created the lake and downstream trout fishery in the late ‘60s.    

Terry Badlands  

Designated as a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) and managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Terry Badlands are relatively untouched by modern civilization. For an overview of badlands, try the Terry Scenic Overview via the Scenic View Road. Then, to get down and dirty on the opposite side of the WSA, traverse the Calypso Trail (dry roads and a high-clearance 4WD are a must) to the Natural Bridges Trailhead. This hike will take you over – you guessed it – natural bridges. Plus, you’ll see buttes, grasslands, coulees, and hoodoos in the 3.5-mile loop. Camping is primitive, independent, and frequently surreal. As with our other recommendations in Southeast Montana, we suggest taking in a sunrise, sunset, and wide-open night skies out here.   

Whether you are out for a short weekend or a week-long excursion, we encourage you to get up-close and personal with the roads less traveled in Southeast Montana. Then stop in the closest small town to share your experience with the locals – you may even learn a few of their secrets.  

Learn more about these locations and more at SoutheastMontana.com or call 406-294-5270. 

Originally printed in the April issue of Simply Local Magazine

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