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A fine (and thrifty) Montana weekend

Whoever originated the thought that “the best things in life are free” surely couldn’t have come up with a better description of a weekend I experienced this October in Southeastern Montana. First, the aspens along the Bighorn River and throughout the area were at their peak of golden color. Second, with my trusty “America the Beautiful” Senior Pass, the lifetime National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass that is available for a mere $10 to all U.S. Citizens or permanent residents who are age 62 or older, I was able to get both admission to 120,000-acre Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and a campground stay overlooking Afterbay Lake with my motor-home, both totally free of charge.

The centerpiece of this National Park Service site is 71-mile-long Bighorn Lake, created by Yellowtail Dam and surrounded by massive Bighorn Canyon itself. The site is popular during the summer with fishermen, waterskiers, scuba divers and mere sightseers like me, but at this time of the year, except for a few anglers, I just about had it all to myself.

Also using my pass and without charge, I was also able to visit Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, less than 50 miles distant by road. The monument encompasses the site of the storied battle in late June, 1876, between Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment of about 600 men, and Lakota (Sioux), Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors, who, with their wives, children and elders, were encamped approximately 7,000 strong along the banks of the Little Bighorn River.  Combatants on both sides were fighting to protect their own ways of life, and the tribes also to protect their families close at hand.

Tragically for all involved, every one an American, this became not only “Custer’s Land Stand,” but a victory for the tribes that nevertheless marked the beginning of the end for the traditional Plains Indian nomadic lifestyle. Since the park’s tour route largely overlooks the site of the native encampment, it is very easy for visitors today to follow the progression of the battle action.

Fall foliage along the Little Bighorn River

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument