MAP OF MONTANA WITH CITIES

For the sake of lodging and dining options, we actually start the Warrior Trail in Hardin (pop. 3,730), a mixed agricultural community of Anglos and Indians on the edge of the Crow Reservation.

Starting the loop, Hardin is largely nondescript but does have a Custer’s Last Stand Reenactment in a field northwest of town every June. Some historical buildings are worth seeing, too, including St. John’s Catholic Church and Hardin Depot, but the area’s history is best captured at the Big Horn County Historical Museum & Visitor Center (406-665-1671). The 22-acre site features more than two dozen outdoor structures and two buildings with exhibits one focusing on the region’s farming traditions, the other on cultural history.

Arriving in Crow Agency (pop. 1,616) is not unlike visiting a Mexican border town. The differences between cultures are almost that dramatic, starting with the language. The exit sign reads Bauxuwuaashee; weathered buildings featuring similar tongue twisters are interspersed with such newer buildings as those at Little Big Horn College and the Crow/Northern Cheyenne Hospital. When embarking on your journey along the Warrior Trail, which starts at the US 212 exit off I-90, stop at the Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Cafe ($, 406-638-2270, B/L/D, shorter hours winter/fall) for a bite and a look at the compelling collection of gifts ranging from the usual jiggers and coffee mugs to fine American Indian art, jewelry, and intricate beadwork. If you’re lucky, owner Putt Thompson will be on hand for history lessons. Listen carefully, and you’re likely to hear the service staff communicating in Crow. Say Kay-Ha (hello), and if they’re not busy, ask for the Crow perspective on the nearby Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (406-638-2621), so named after it was appropriately changed from Custer Battlefield National Monument in 1991. Every American elementary school student knows the story of Custer’s Last Stand or, as the Indians call it, the Battle of Greasy Grass Creek. Led by Sitting Bull, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne overwhelmed Custer and his troops, killing 268 in a battle that galvanized the Anglos against the Indians. The most poignant way to experience the scene is to walk amid the markers where Custer, his 7th Cavalry soldiers and scouts, and the Indians fell. In the better-late-than-never department, a memorial has been erected that offers the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, and Arikara versions of the battle. Most people are content to see Little Bighorn, but about 4.5 miles to the southeast of the main battlefield on a paved road is the Reno-Benteen Battlefield Memorial, now part of the 765-acre Little Bighorn Battlefield complex. The Reno-Benteen site is a tribute to soldiers who tried and failed to arrive in time to assist Custer.

Back on the Warrior Trail (US 212) heading east, you can see the stone monument to Custer on a hill as you look out the passenger side of the car. At that point, you begin to get a sense of why the natives cherish this country. There is a gentle beauty in the rolling grasslands and coulees where ponderosa pines poke out of distant ocher rimrock like many thousands of green pushpins. Painted ponies graze in pastures around the colorful array of small homes, where aging minivans, pickups, and sedans swallowed up by grasses paint a living history.

The north-south Wolf Mountains, visible on the passenger’s side, serve as a rough border between the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. At Busby (pop. 745), just inside the Northern Cheyenne boundary, look up a hill on the south side of the highway for a stone pillar. This is the Two Moons Monument, a tribute to the great chief who led the Northern Cheyenne at Little Bighorn. The pillar is locked behind a chain-link fence, but you can still read the inscription and wander through a circular graveyard commemorating Northern Cheyenne killed in 1879.

At Busby, you have a choice to continue east on US 212 and the Warrior Trail, or turn south on Big Horn County Road 314 along Rosebud Creek toward the Tongue River Reservoir. To stay in the battlefield flow, go 20 miles south on the paved road to Rosebud Battlefield State Park (406-7572298). This is the place where a fierce battle on June 17, 1876, pitting Chief Crazy Horse’s Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne against General George Crook’s forces, kept the cavalry at bay long enough to prevent Crook from helping Custer at Little Bighorn eight days later. Unlike Little Bighorn, which has a visitor center and interpreters, this is a primitive area intended to retain the look and feel of 135 years ago. A short gravel road through private land leads to a kiosk describing the events and a gravel road for touring. The park also has a buffalo jump, rock cairns, and clearly visible teepee rings.

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