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How to spend a perfect day at Bighorn Canyon

A perfect day at Bighorn Canyon

Ranger Tanya Plainfeather Gardner pointed to a hole on Bighorn Canyon’s rim in Montana. “That’s where the stepfather threw his stepson over the side of the cliff.”

Then she explained.

Evil spirits overcame the man when he shoved the boy. Then he left the boy to die. 

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area cliffs
Big Iron’s stepfather threw him over the side of Bighorn Canyon’s cliffs.

Instead, some cedar branches caught the boy and saved him. He hung from the branches for four days until seven bighorn sheep rescued him. The leader, Big Metal, gave the boy a message for the Crow tribe. 

Big Metal named the boy Big Iron. Then he said the river’s name must stay Bighorn. If the tribe changes the river’s name, “there will be no more Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe.” He repeated, “The Apsáalooke (up-SAW-low-gah) will be no more.”

Southeast Montana hosted us, but our opinions are our own.

When Gardner told this story, we were floating down the Bighorn River in a pontoon boat with a group of travel writers as guests of Southeast Montana. The canyon, the centerpiece of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, is 55 miles long. We only saw a small portion of its wonders.

The boat’s motor purred, and the sun shone through the boat’s bimini top. If the view hadn’t been so awe-inspiring, I would have fallen asleep in boneless relaxation.

Table of contents

From Billings to Bighorn Canyon | Afterbay Lake | Crow Country | Fort Smith | Boating in Bighorn Canyon | Geology | Bridger rides the Bighorn River | Lunch in the Black Canyon | Return to Ok-a-Beh | Bighorn sheep | Yellowtail Dam | Robert Yellowtail | Chief Plenty Coups

Ranger David Moore in Bighorn Canyon
Ranger Moore explains the canyon’s history and geology.

Our two park rangers provided different perspectives. First, Ranger David Moore explained the tangle of land ownership in and around the canyon. 

Tangled agencies at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

The reservoir is on the Apsáalooke Reservation. The tribe owns the land from 10 feet above the high-water mark’s bathtub ring. The Bureau of Reclamation owns the Yellowtail Dam. The National Park Service runs the lake from its 450-foot bottom to the tribe’s property line. More state and federal agencies own the land around the reservoir.

I asked him how anyone accomplished anything. He shook his head and chuckled.

Roxie’s reliable report: The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area reaches well into Wyoming. The Wyoming district offers more land-based recreation. The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area’s Montana district is more water-based.

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From Billings to Bighorn Canyon

Bighorn Canyon is two hours from Billings, Montana. During our trip, Brenda from Southeast Montana brought a box of goodies from Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery. I picked a raspberry scone. So soft and delicious!

Related: Tour Southeast Montana from Billings.

I sat across the aisle from Cassie from Visit Southeast Montana. She told me about the crops and life on a Montana farm. 

Why is that wheat so feathery? Oh, that crop is barley. No wonder Billings has a brew trail. 

We saw lots of gated irrigation. The water runs through large white pipes pierced with holes. Gates cover the holes until it’s time to water the crops.

I asked whether the farmers still had to open the gates by hand. Probably, she said. 

Fishing for trout on Afterbay Lake

As we neared the canyon, anglers appeared, casting flies beside their fishing camps on Afterbay Lake. And no wonder. Afterbay offers world-class trout fishing. Bighorn Canyon fishing is superior, even in Montana.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Fifty-eight fish species inhabit the park. Read about Montana fishing in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.

William Clark explored this area during the Corps of Discovery’s return trip. “The river is said to abound in beaver,” he noted.

Related: Visit nearby Pompeys Pillar, where Clark carved his autograph.

Bighorn Canyon Montana: No country like Crow Country

“The Crow country…is a good country,” Apsáalooke Chief Eelápuash (arapoosh) said, “The Great Spirit has put it exactly in the right place; while you are in it, you fare well; whenever you go out of it, whichever way you travel, you fare worse.”

Roxie’s reliable report: Eelápuash means Sore Belly.

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Fort C.F. Smith beside Bighorn Canyon

When we entered Fort Smith, I looked for remnants of Fort C.F. Smith, which started the little town. The fort guarded the Bozeman Trail, a shortcut to Montana’s gold mines. It lasted for two years.

The Lakota hated the Bozeman. The Apsáalooke tried to straddle the divide between the soldiers and the warriors. They despised the miners, but the soldiers might be an ally against their traditional enemies.

Red Cloud declared war on the Bozeman, and eventually, the government yielded. Red Cloud’s warriors burned the fort to the ground when the soldiers marched away. 

The Apsáalooke lost a trading post.

Roxie’s reliable report: Look for a Fort Smith roadside marker at Greybull St. and Harding Ave. The fort’s remains are on private property.

Ok-a-Beh Marina in Bighorn Canyon Montana.
The writers head toward our boat as the rangers await us.

On the boat in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

We boarded our boat at Ok-a-Beh Marina, which the Apsáalooke run. Ok-a-Beh is the English transliteration for Akússe Okahpe, which means extended basin. The area does look like a rough-hewn bathtub. We still were munching the delicious muffins and scones from Stella’s.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The marina has the last flush toilet until you’re on land again. Go to the building’s roof for a beautiful view.

Most of the basin’s walls were green with vegetation, but a red section promised geological wonders to come.

Roxie’s reliable report: Ok-a-Beh rents boats, but you may bring your own. Read the park’s information about boating in Bighorn Canyon, Montana.

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Blue sky, green sagebrush, red and gray walls, blue water, and a white wake: What could be better?

Bighorn Canyon geology layer cake

The canyon’s walls tower as much as 1,000 feet above the river. The recreation area’s rock layer cake has 21 sections of stone. The rock artist used shades of pink, green, maroon, gray, and yellow.

Bighorn Canyon meander
The Bighorn River abandoned this meander in the canyon walls.

The Bighorn River carved its way through the canyon. Occasionally, the river would change channels and abandon its sculpting. These meanders show as dips in the canyon walls.

Jim Bridger and the Bighorn Canyon

Ranger Moore told us about Jim Bridger’s 1825 voyage through Bighorn Canyon. Bridger worked for William Ashley as a trapper. The company had gathered a million dollars worth of furs – including beaver – at the Green River Rendezvous.

Bridger suggested they ship the furs through the canyon. The others thought he was crazy. So they opted to endure the Bad Pass Trail. Bridger, however, built a driftwood raft and set off through the canyon. The dam has tamed the turbulent river, but Bridger had to navigate a wild river.

Ironically, Bridger came out better than the Bad Pass party did. A grizzly bear mauled one of the Bad Passers. At the end of the Bad Pass Trail, the trappers built bull boats and headed downstream to St. Louis.

Bridger’s trip made him the first known person to ride the river through the Bighorn Canyon.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The western park road follows the Bad Pass Trail. Look for ancient cairns and tipi rings.

Black and blue steak salad
My black-and-blue steak salad in its charming stainless steel box.

Lunch boxes in Black Canyon

Five lake miles from Ok-a-Beh, we turned into the Black Canyon Campground for lunch. Dark pine trees line Black Canyon instead of bare stone walls.

After we pulled next to the boat dock, a family was fishing beside us. The piers were on one side and the swimming hole on the other.

Brenda handed us chilled steel lunch boxes. My black-and-blue salad featured strips of perfectly-cooked steak with blue cheese chunks. Sliced cucumbers and avocados with Swanky Roots greens surrounded the meat and cheese. The chunky blue cheese dressing was in a round steel container to keep the greens fresh. 

We even received a steel fork and a cloth napkin.

Project Lunch makes its food daily with locally-sourced ingredients. The company supports Eat. Share. Give. Their Billings community fridge is open to all, without concern for anyone’s ability to pay.

We took a group picture on the docks but had to evacuate because it started to sink beneath our combined weight. Oops!

Then I faced a dilemma. We’d been drinking water on the river for a few hours, and I needed relief. I don’t do outhouses. And these vault toilets float. Did that improve the situation or worsen it? Finally, urgency overcame my reluctance, and I entered. OK, this is bearable.

Did I say “bearable?” Well, a bear warning is on the door.

Angler in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Bighorn Canyon harbors 58 fish species.

Return voyage to Ok-a-Beh

We watched for wildlife but saw little. However, I prepared for a sighting with my real camera and long lens.

We did see human life. Boaters trolled for fish, and we exchanged friendly waves. Others pulled water skiers, and some personal watercraft roared by. Sometimes driftwood passed us and sometimes our driver avoided snags. Birds circled overhead, always out of my long lens’s range.

Bighorn in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

The Apsáalooke kept the Bighorn name, but by the 1800s, the animals were gone. They had fallen victim to overhunting. The park reintroduced the sheep in 1970. Twenty years later, 210 lived in the park, but their population dropped drastically by 2000. 

Habitat improvement has increased the flock to 150 to 200 sheep.

Restraining Bighorn Canyon’s waters at Yellowtail Dam

After we reluctantly left the river, we went to the Yellowtail Dam Visitors Center.

Wildflowers and wild horses
Wildflowers are in the foreground with grazing wild horses behind them.

On the way, we received an unexpected treat. Wild horses from the Pryor Mountains Wild Horse Range were grazing beside the road, and we stopped to see them.

Related: Visit the Mustangs of Las Colinas in Irving, Texas.

Concrete stripes the 1,480-foot high Yellowtail Dam, but it wears the face of irony. Its namesake, Robert Yellowtail, opposed the dam.

While we acknowledge the dam’s cost, we must recognize its contributions. Flood damage dropped, and the dam can produce 250,000 kilowatts of energy. 

Yellowtail Dam
Yellowtail Dam is a thin arch dam. It is 525 feet wide and 1,480 feet tall. Bighorn Lake can hold up to 1.4 million acre feet of water.

Robert Yellowtail and Bighorn Canyon

Yellowtail had earned a law degree from the University of Chicago. His training enabled him to defend the Apsáalooke tribe’s rights. He was the Native American to become a tribal Superintendent. He gained legal protection for Apsáalooke lands and brought them voting rights, but he could not defeat the dam.

The canyon was sacred, and Yellowtail resolved to prevent its flooding. The tribal council voted 80-1 against the dam. But the government spread false rumors against Yellowtail.

The government offered $1.5 million for 7,000 acres. Yellowtail countered. The government should pay $1 million per year for 50 years. Then, when the lease expired, the tribe would receive the dam.

In the end, the tribe only received $5 million for the land, dam, and future revenue. Each tribe member received only $600. The swindle broke Yellowtail’s heart.

Yellowtail had one more battle to fight. In the 1970s, America sought more coal, and the Apsáalooke had it. Yellowtail stopped the Bureau of Indian Affairs from underselling tribal coal and negotiated a contract with a Pennsylvania company.

In January 1988, the Apsáalooke won a court fight. As a result, the tribe received $30 million and $4 million in annual payments.

“When I go to meet [Chief] Plenty Coups in the sky, I want to be able to tell him that the people are in good shape,” he said. 

Six months later, Yellowtail died.

Visit Plenty Coups State Park

Plenty Coups was the Apsáalooke’s final traditional chief and Yellowtail’s mentor. As a boy, he saw visions that guided him throughout his life. He realized that the tribe must work with whites to save its lands. 

During one vision, the little boy saw an older man sitting beneath a tree. A white man’s house stood behind him. The vision revealed that he was that man. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Plenty Coups’ name, Alaxchíia Ahú (alek-chea-ahoosh), means “many achievements.”

Eventually, when white politicians forced the Apsáalooke onto the reservation, Alaxchíia Ahú built that house. 

In 1921, the Army invited Alaxchíia Ahú to attend the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’s dedication at Arlington National Cemetery. After the November 11 event, he laid his warrior bonnet, lance, and coup stick on the grave. The ceremonial items are still displayed in Arlington.

From one chief to another

Before returning home, he visited Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, and stood beside Washington’s grave. Then, in his mind, he spoke to Washington. 

“Great Chief, when you came into power, the streams of your people’s affairs were muddy. But your heart was strong, and your tongue spoke straight. … They remember your words to this day, are helped and made strong by them.

“As you helped your people, help me now…. I, too, have a little country to save for my children.”

When he returned to Montana, the chief added to his house. The addition included a Mount Vernon-style fireplace.

He also announced a significant decision. His home would become the Apsáalooke equivalent of Mount Vernon. “I have spent my life here… I want my people to possess it forever, just as the white men keep the home of their great chief, George Washington.”

Plenty Coups State Park, an hour west of Fort Smith, preserves the chief’s log home, sacred spring, and farmstead.

Despite the dam, the Bighorn retains its name, and the Apsáalooke are still a tribe.

We finished the day with pizza at 3 Brothers Bistro in Hardin and then crashed at the Northern Hotel in Billings.

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