Over the years the Montana Ourdoors magazine, put out monthly by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has had several articles talking about Makoshika State Park in far eastern Montana, just outside the town of Glendive. It has always sounded like a great place to visit, but it's a long drive to get there from here. But we were pretty tired of snow and mud and hey, it was spring, so we decided to go looking for more spring-like things.
We hitched up the Happier Camper, put the bikes on the back, grabbed a little food and Sophie, and headed over the divide.
We stopped at Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area on the east slope of the mountains for the night. Earlier in the spring, tens of thousands of Snow Geese and other migratory birds stop there to rest and feed up before heading farther north to their breeding grounds. We were too late for that spectacle, but it was a fine place to camp and get some exercise.
We had a nice evening riding our bikes around some of the ponds checking out the birds.
In the morning, we drove the rest of the way to Glendive and Makoshika State Park. The entire drive was interesting but troublesome — it was spring, it was April, and everything was dry; we saw very little green. Not good, and a sign of the year to come. It was late in the day when we got to the park, and we had no idea where we wanted to camp. We headed into the park and were about to head down a road to a campsite on the map when we stopped to let another vehicle pass us. The driver said we might not want to go down that way because it was hard to turn around with a trailer, and suggested another site. We took his advice and ended up at the Pine on Rock campground. It's on a mesa-like finger peninsula that sticks out into a section of private land. Unfortunately that means the land below had cattle grazing on it, and it looked to be rather "well-used". But it was pretty none-the-less, although we didn't see any wildlife.
We had a great spot all to ourselves overlooking the badlands. It was a bit windy but the big rock, out of which was growing the campground namesake pine tree, sheltered our picnic table pretty well. Dona cooked us a quick dinner and we took Sophie for a walk around the campsite. We didn't have a lot of options because everywhere we went it dropped steeply to the private land below.
The next day we got on our bikes and rode a couple of miles to the trailhead for the Ponderosa Trail hike we wanted to do. It was a loop that went down into the bottom and past a bunch of crazy rock formations. We wanted to hike in the morning as even though it was only April it was getting pretty hot in the afternoons.
There was a wide variation in the rock formations, depending on the kinds of rock at any particular place.
We had hoped to catch the spring wildflowers, but we were too early for most of them. We did fine some Pasqueflowers.
There are a lot of fossils in the park, but we didn't really know where to look. Some day I'll go on a hike with a geologist who can point things out and maybe I'll get an idea of what to look for. In the meantime, I'm overwhelmed by the amount of terrain and have trouble getting motivated to look very much.
The next day we took another short hike down to see a natural bridge. It was a pretty nice bridge, nice and sturdy and wide enough to walk across easily.
Then we headed south to Medicine Rocks State Park. It is about 100 miles south of Makoshika, but when we checked out our map we saw we were close to the North Dakota state line and there was a "Little Missouri National Grassland" just across the border. This is one reason we prefer maps to GPSes. So we took some dirt / gravel roads to see that on our way. It was not at all clear where we were going, and sometimes it wasn't clear that we were on the right road. But the road kept going more or less south, and if we kept going that way eventually we would hit highway 12 which would take us west to Baker, Montana, and from there we could get to Medicine Rocks. Unfortunately, we didn't see much of the Little Missouri River. And most of the grasslands we saw looked pretty heavily grazed. All in all, the Little Missouri National Grassland appeared to be not well administered, beat up and overgrazed in places... to the point that it wasn't always clear when we were in the National Grassland and when we were on private ground. Maybe lots of potential, but as with most things, the details matter. At a minimum, they could use some better signage. And maybe a kiosk or two with a map.
Reading the above link, the grassland is the largest National Grassland in the country. Who'd-a-known? It's also a mismash of federal, state, and private land, which explains the disorienting nature of our drive. A good reason to have a detailed state map / atlas.
After a while we reached highway 12 and from there it was smooth sailing to Baker and then south to Medicine Rocks. Medicine Rocks State Park is cool! It's no wonder it is a special place for Native Americans. All sorts of crazy sandstone outcrops in the middle of the rolling great plains grasslands. There are only a few (seven, I think) campsites at the park. We had our pick; while there were a few other day-visitors, no-one else was camping overnight.
The Medicine Rocks are sandstone formed from sand and silt deposited by a silty, slow moving river winding its way down to the shallow ancient sea that once covered the region. Fossils found in the rocks show the edges of the sea were populated with mollusks, turtles, palm trees and water lilies, among other things.
We spent the afternoon hiking around, exploring some of the rock outcrops, arches, holes, nooks and crannies. A few rocks had lots of graffiti carved into them. Most were recent enough to be considered vandalism, but a few were old enough to be of interest. I'm not sure why Henry ?vensen in 1928 carved an image of a tall ship in the rocks; he certainly didn't sail here in one. Maybe he was visiting the United States, and he arrived here from Europe in one.
When you look out on the prairie there are no trees to be seen except in the few places where the medicine rocks stick up. It's a strange landscape. Clearly the climate doesn't want trees to grow here "normally," but the rocks must capture and keep enough extra moisture for them to survive. I suspect it's mostly the additional cooling shade provided by the rocks that prevents evaporation, plus maybe some snowdrift build-up.
There were quite a few geese around, and many had nests on top of various pillars. They goslings would be safe from things like coyotes, but it seems like they would be a sitting duck (goose) for eagles.
The information brochure for the park said to watch for rattlesnakes, but we didn't see any on our hikes. We enjoyed the evening light as the sun went down.
After a good night's sleep, we cooked a good breakfast, packed up the camper and headed home.