5 Places to Find the Authentic Wild West in Southeast Montana

Native woman in authentic wild west garb and braids points out over the prairie grasses of Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Rose Williamson stands on Reno’s Skirmish Line at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

I visited Montana to find out if the real Wild West still lives. In this age of smart-phone selfies and Hollywood cowboys, could I really discover evidence of the True West experience? This is what I found…

1.) Spirited Wild West: Native Guide makes Indian Battlefield Come Alive

In these times of politically correct and well-rehearsed talks from national park rangers, it’s refreshing to hear Rose Williamson tell the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn from her Native viewpoint. Rose, a Crow tribal member, paints the picture of Custer’s defeat while riding along with you at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument to Major Marcus Reno’s Skirmish Line and other places along the route. The Native guide’s spirited storytelling makes Southeast Montana Wild West history come alive.

Rose’s Crow ancestors, she tells, were scouts for Col. George Custer and fought with him and his men against their long-standing enemies, the Sioux and Cheyenne. “The warriors were riding horses before they could walk. They were in non-stop warrior training all their lives,” her voice rises above the sound of mournful winds blowing tall prairie grasses. “The soldiers did not taste battle until they enlisted. 40% were European, just farm boys. The warriors came up this ravine from the encampment down there,” she recounts dressed in True West fashion. We strain the mind’s eye to see the images that she describes coming through the rye from the Little Bighorn River Valley below.

“Bullets and arrows flood the sky,” says Rose swooshing her arm in an arc above our heads. When the warriors reached the Reno skirmish line, they taunted the soldiers. Rose narrates: “You are only boys! You should have brought more Crow and Shoshone and to fight us!” When she pauses, the hills are silent. Rose leads us to another lookout in the park to grab the next view of the authentic Wild West.

Not much has changed here since the 1876 battle

White grave markers mark the place where a soldier died on theis true west prairie battlefield.
White gravestones mark the place where each soldier fell. Red markers mark the spot where warriors died.

Not much has changed here since the 1876 battle. Custer, too, strained to see Oglala Sioux and Northern Cheyenne in the wooded encampment near the river. “Look for the worms in the grass,” one of the Native guides urged Lieutenant Charles Varnum, who coordinated Custer’s Crow and Shoshone scouts. Neither officer could discern the immense herd of Indian horses, estimated to be 18-20,000 animals, through their field glasses. If they had, Montana Wild West history might have been altered.

Get your own taste of the real Wild West in the third week of August when Rose rents eight tipis during the annual Crow Festival. Visit Indian Battle Tours for tours or tipis.

2.) Real Wild West artifacts and memorabilia: Broadus, Montana

Silver-haired woman points to display case of authentic Wild West artifacts. Behind her displays line the walls.
Volunteer docent Twila Talcott points to authentic Wild West artifacts at Powder River Historical Museum.

Powder River Historical Museum, part open-air museum, part natural history museum, showcases real Wild West artifacts and memorabilia. Make sure that you interact with the friendly volunteers; they are one of the best parts of this museum. Most have been involved in farming and ranching all their lives and can pull back the curtain on western life with True West stories of their own. These kind folk aren’t reenactors; they are simply sharing their real lives with visitors like me who seek the authentic Wild West.

Remnants of the Calvary intrigue those seeking the Wild West

Bullets and casings unearthed at Powder River Battlefield in display case
Bullets and casings unearthed at Powder River Battlefield, a precursor to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Powder River Historical Museum, part open-air museum, part natural history museum, showcases real Wild West artifacts and memorabilia. Make sure that you interact with the friendly volunteers; they are one of the best parts of this museum. Most have been involved in farming and ranching all their lives and can pull back the curtain on western life with True West stories of their own. These kind folk aren’t reenactors; they are simply sharing their real lives with visitors like me who seek the authentic Wild West.

The Real Wild West: Homey museum assembled from local historic buildings

Interior of llog home furnished with pioneer housewares including braided rug, patchwork quilt and cast iron cook stove.

This homey museum assembled from local historic buildings far exceeded my expectations as I walked from exhibit halls filled with guns, spurs or rodeo trappings to period log cabins. The Calvary artifacts found at the nearby site of the Battle of Powder River – a disastrous precursor to the Battle of the Little Bighorn – in yet another exhibition building particularly intrigued me.

Of course, I had to walk past tractors and an interesting array of mining equipment to get to the gallery of classic and antique cars that included a Model T one-ton grain truck.

Southeast Montana Wild West history

You’ll definitely want to spend more time than you planned (no, really!) when Montana Wild West history comes alive in Broadus. If you have to extend your stay in this one-stoplight town, no worries. Stay at Sagebrush Inn and Suites. Locally owned and smartly operated.

3.) Experience the authentic Wild West at the Bucking Horse Sale in Miles City

horse bucking high in the air with cowboy contestant riding
Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, Miles City. Photo courtesy of Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development.

Out here, rodeos are one way to experience the authentic Wild West, and the world-famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale is the granddaddy of them all. Back in 1914, Miles City ranchers brought off the range the wildest horses for the Miles City Roundup. They sold the horses to the highest bidders — some were rodeo stock buyers and breeders. That still happens every year at the Bucking Horse Sale, a rodeo that showcases some of the best bucking stock in the US. Called the Cowboy Mardi Gras, the rodeo launches with a Thursday night concert, Friday night bull riding followed with a street dance on Friday. A parade on Saturday morning starts the show again and then another dance that night that shuts the streets down for blocks. All that plus bronc and bareback riding by world-class riders. Boy howdy!

If you’re not in town May 14-17, 2020 (the dates of the next Miles City Bucking Horse Sale), then drink up some cowboy culture on at the Range Riders Museum, Miles City Saddlery or Montana Bar.

Getting FOMO while exploring exhibits of chaps, cowboy hats and saddles at the museum? Then mosey over to Miles City Saddlery, where you can add boots, hats, saddles and western wear to your personal wardrobe. The historic shop has been a world leader in custom saddle making since the turn of the century, so make sure to check out their collection of authentic Wild West saddles in the mini-museum upstairs. It’s true grit Southeast Montana Wild West history.

Miles City’s watering hole delivers authentic Wild West 

When you can taste the dust in the air, it time to saddle up to the Victorian bar at Montana Bar. The downtown Miles City’s watering hole is where bronc riders and bucking stock dealers go to bend an elbow. Lunch and dinner also available, but we enjoyed dinner at the lovely Black Iron Grill.

4.) Real Wild West Just Got Wilder

Unstoppable Stacey poses among the gaping jaws and serrated teeth of Carter County Museum’s “Wyrex”
The gaping jaws and serrated teeth of Carter County Museum’s “Wyrex” would scare any cowgirl!

Nothing could be wilder than a Tyrannosaurus rex, the enormous meat-eating dinosaur that could leave even the bravest cowboy shaking in his boots. Plenty of T-Rexes have been exhumed in southeast Montana, which has been called a “hotbed for T-Rex” by paleontologists.

According to the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, some of the finest paleontological discoveries in the United States are housed there. At the museum, which is part of the Montana Dinosaur Trail, you can

  • sift for dinosaur bones,
  • take a selfie with a T-Rex mounted in the stalking position or
  • ogle at the two-headed calf.

The museum’s T-Rex, named Wyrex after its discoverer Don Wyrick, a local rancher/cowboy, is actually a cast of the original. Its real bones are in a Houston lab, but its story is truly part of Southeast Montana Wild West history.

Ekalaka’s “secret menu” of visitor attractions

While you are in Ekalaka, grab some finger steaks at Wagon Wheel Café. The tasty delights are a version of chicken fingers, and you can get them breaded or bare. Ask your server about The Church of Hank Williams. It’s on Ekalaka’s “secret menu” of visitor attractions. If they let you in on the mystery, you’ll be guided to an old mechanics’ garage on the road to the airport. It’s a bring-your-own kind of place where you can sit down with the good ol’ boys; I mean “parishioners.” Services are held almost every day around Happy Hour.

5.) Relive the True West at Montana’s longest continually operated hotel

The two-story Kempton Hotel looks to be 1 block long in this turn-of-the-century photo.
Not much has changed to the exterior of the Kempton Hotel - as seen in this authentic Wild West photo taken near the turn of the century.
Kempton Hotle with white siding and two-story porch looks so similar to as it did in the historic photo,

Relive the True West at the longest continually operated hotel in Montana, the Kempton Hotel in Terry, Montana. Rooms filled with treasures of the old west include well-worn saddles draping the open stairway, original photos, and a library filled with historical books and maps.  Teddy Roosevelt slept here and you can, too. Bully for you!

Crossroads of the True West

% truss bridge spans the Yellowstone River, yellow badlands formation in foreground.
The decommissioned Milwaukee Railroad bridge is a reminder of the real Wild West days. It spans the Yellowstone River near Terry, MT.

The wide-open spaces and badlands around Terry were a crossroads of sorts over the centuries of the True West. The confluence of the Yellowstone and Powder Rivers is nearby, which created an intersection for native people and others traveling by water.

  • In 1806, Frontiersman William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition established a camp on the Yellowstone River one mile downstream from where the town of Terry now stands.
  • Seventy years later, Custer set up a supply depot at the mouth of the Powder River on his way to the fateful battle at Little Bighorn. Supplies came via steamship from the east.
  • During the railroad era, two railroads ran through Terry. You can walk along the truss bridge that once carried the long-gone Milwaukee Railroad over the Yellowstone River. The north bank of the Yellowstone, directly west of the bridge is an excellent place to search for Montana Moss Agates, BTW.

Photo ops and places to play at Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area

Author Stacey Wittig stands with back to camera and arms outstretched overlooking Terry Badlands. Dark clouds in background
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey stands in awe of the real Wild West at Terry Badlands in southeast Montana.

Discover plenty of wide-open photo ops and places to play at nearby Terry Badlands, designated a Wilderness Study Area by the Bureau of Land Management. However, be forewarned: when rains come, the yellow soil becomes thick, unforgiving mud that the locals call “gumbo.”
“It’s kinda like standing on a bar of soap if you get any rain out here,” warns Dale Galland. So watch the weather before venturing out into the Terry Badlands with vehicles or on foot.

While in Terry, don’t miss Prairie Unique, where you’ll find Montana-made foods, home décor and True West gifts. That’s where Dale hangs his hat when he is not out exploring the Terry Badlands with his drone. 

Head ‘em up and move ‘em out to Southeast Montana, where there is plenty of evidence of the welcoming and authentic Wild West.

As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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8 thoughts on “5 Places to Find the Authentic Wild West in Southeast Montana”

    • Haha! The big snows hit just AFTER I got back from Montana. Here’s a cool tip: $70 flights to Billings from Mesa, AZ. Only $140 RT on Allegiant.

    • Thanks, Katie! Just take I-94 straight west! I used to hitchhike there for Presidents Weekend. And you know how cold it is President’s Weekend!

    • Thanks, Stephen. Glad to bring back some memories for you! I spent a lot of time in Montana when I was is college – skiing, snowshoeing, backpacking. It was so great to get back there after all this time.

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