Plevna (pop. 182) is only slightly more vibrant, but the town named for Bulgarian railroad workers does have a bar and small store, though any fuel needs for your body or your car will be met 13 miles down the road in Baker. If you hadn’t gassed up in Miles City or found a place to overnight, Baker (pop. 1,875) is the place, for it’ll be chancy in Ekalaka. Baker has a couple of cafes, motels serving the oil and gas boom in the nearby Bakken formation, and a mid-sized lake that looks from the right angle as if it had been plucked from Minnesota and dropped onto the prairie. As the location of one of the largest lakes in the area, Baker lures boaters, fishermen, and snowmobilers from miles around. Baker has a trio of restaurant/casino combos for dining, the best of which is the Tavern Big Game Casino. Because of the energy frenzy in western North Dakota and parts of eastern Montana, Baker has added more motel rooms, most recently the Red River Inn & Suites.
The highlight of this route is Medicine Rocks State Park, a jumbled collection of sandstone hoodoos where Indians came on vision quests. The Sioux called it “Ina-oka-la-ka,” or “rock with hole in it.” Upon seeing the giant pocked boulders for the first time, former President Theodore Roosevelt, who traveled the West extensively remarked, “as fantastically beautiful a place as I have ever seen.” The 330-acre park features trails and 12 isolated campsites scattered amid the boulders, some of which rise to 80 feet. You’ll also notice that it seems everybody who’s ever visited Medicine Rocks from ancient cultures to contemporary local teen-agers has carved their initials, names, pictures, and/or messages into the vulnerable sandstone. Park officials estimate the number of inscriptions at more than 15,000, allegedly including Roosevelt’s.
Ekalaka (pop. 343) originally was called Ijkalaka, named for an Oglala Sioux Indian whose hand in marriage was given to David Russell, the first white settler in the region, for eight horses and a 100-pound bag of sugar. Ekalaka’s pleasant setting in an agricultural valley belies perceptions most folks including Montanans, few of whom have ever been here have of eastern Montana. Though its primary function is to serve the ranching community, there’s plenty in the way of visually appealing landscapes, especially to the south. More sandstone buttes sculpted by wicked prairie winds and driving rains rise above 4,000 feet in the pine-studded Eklalaka Hills. Carpets of these ponderosas rise to flat-topped prairies with views of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, all of which are within 60 miles. Most noteworthy among the natural formations are the Chalk Buttes and Capitol Rock National Natural Monument, which looks remarkably like a famous building in Washington, D.C. Look for little falcons called merlins darting across the sky.
There isn’t much to do in Ekalaka proper other than admire the white-washed wood county courthouse, but be sure to visit the Carter County Museum, which is famed for its two-headed calf and nearly complete duckbill dinosaur. Though other places in Montana get more fanfare for dinosaur digs, it’s arguable that Ekalaka is the choicest locale. The first and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex was found near here, along with sea reptiles and ancient shells. Either replicas or real bones are on display throughout the museum. Ekalaka does have a cafe, bar, and gas station, but all are open or closed on a whim not surprising for a community that was at the end of the paved road until a few years ago, when asphalt was laid heading south to Alzada.