Between Glacier and Yellowstone, Experience Two National Treasures

The sun-bleached tipi poles lean shoulder to shoulder, motionless even in a strong wind, stark skeletons of the warm dwellings that once, briefly, stood at the edge of the North Fork Big Hole River. It is a quiet place; even the boggy river makes little sound as it meanders between willowed banks across the valley floor.

Big Hole National Battlefield, Southwest Montana

There is perhaps no better place in Montana to contemplate both the majesty of nature and the complexity of this region’s cultural history.

Here, on a crisp August morning in 1877, a band of approximately 800 Nez Perce was awakened by a cacophony of gunfire from the other side of the river. The Nez Perce were already exhausted; they’d been fleeing U.S. Army troops who had pursued them all the way from Oregon over some of the roughest terrain in North America. That morning, less than 48 hours after setting up camp, they were ambushed by a different group of soldiers who had snuck in under cover of night.

Over the next two days dozens of Nez Perce were killed, among them many women, children and elders. Twenty-nine U.S. soldiers were killed as well.

This would prove to be the last and bloodiest battle in the so-called Nez Perce War, which played out in a series of skirmishes over a four-state area. The remaining Nez Perce retreated northward in a desperate flight for the border, but most were ultimately captured at Bear Paw.

Today, those tipi poles remain a haunting fixture at Big Hole National Battlefield, one of America’s lesser known public treasures. Nestled in a high, wide valley near the southwest corner of Montana, the battlefield doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as places like Glacier National Park or Yellowstone National Park — especially this year, when Americans are flocking to national parks in honor of the centennial of the National Park Service.

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Southwest Montana

But if your idea of a fitting 100th birthday party is a quiet exploration of history and nature, then a visit to the Big Hole National Battlefield might be just the ticket. The historic site features a visitor center with interpretive video and a museum with photographs, artifacts and hands-on displays. You can also take a self-guided tour of the battlefield. Every August, a commemoration of the battle event features ceremonies, demonstrations, traditional Nez Perce music and educational discussions with park rangers.

The battlefield is itself a part of our country’s most unusual national park: the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which is actually a collection of 38 sites spread across Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The sites together trace the path of that fated band of Nez Perce as they fled the U.S. Cavalry.

A little over two hours north of the Big Hole National Battlefield lies another unique public treasure, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. This 1,600-acre ranch at the edge of downtown Deer Lodge was once headquarters to a 10 million-acre cattle empire, established by Johnny Grant in 1862 and purchased four years later by cattle baron Conrad Kohrs.

While most historic sites exist essentially as quiet museums, the Grant-Kohrs ranch remains fully operational — using the techniques and equipment of the late 19th century.

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, Southwest Montana

An on-site blacksmith makes shoes for the draft horses at an old forge. Those horses still power a manual overshot stacker through the fields as workers cut, rake and stack hay the old way. On Wednesdays there are tours aboard a horse-drawn covered wagon. And the historic ranch house is immaculately kept with the furnishings of an era more than a century ago.

Not surprisingly, this is a particularly popular stop for kids. Bird-watchers also flock to the ranch, as it offers an abundance of diverse habitat and birds to match. And adults love the wide-open spaces and trails.

Whether you’re looking for off-the-beaten-track discoveries or just great stops along the route between Glacier and Yellowstone, the Big Hole National Battlefield and the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site deserve a place on your itinerary. And they’re just two of many great destinations in Southwest Montana. The Montana in your mind is the one you’ll find here.