The Warrior Trail Billings to Crow Agency
Highlights: Sacrifice Cliff, Pictograph Cave State Park, Plenty Coups State Park, Pryor Mountains, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Bighorn Lake, Bighorn River
Getting there: Take I-90 Exit 452 (Old US 87) just east of Billings and make an immediate right on Coburn Road.
Coming from I-90, consider this loop as a memorable tune-up before hitting the Warrior Trail.
Bring your camera. And your fly rod. This is a warrior trail in its own right, given that much of it traverses the Crow Reservation and all of it crosses what was entirely Crow country, including the flanks of the mysterious Pryor Mountains.
Start the drive by taking Exit 452 off I-90 on the far eastern edge of Billings and making a quick right on Coburn Road. This short side trip up the ochre-tinted limestone rimrock probably the genesis of Yellowstone National Park’s name leads to two extraordinary pieces of Indian history: Sacrifice Cliff and Pictograph Cave State Park. There are two versions of the tragedy that took place at Sacrifice Cliff in 1837. Story number one is that two Crow teenagers returned from an outing to find their sweethearts stricken with smallpox; the grieving young warriors subsequently blinded their ponies and rode off the cliff. The second version says that as many as sixteen Crows did the same after finding their entire village stricken. To reach Sacrifice Cliff, drive for a mile on Coburn Road, turn right on Canyon Trail Road, and go about a half-mile to the rim Returning to Coburn Road, turn right, and head another three-plus miles to the Pictograph Cave Visitor Center.
The 500- to 9,000-year-old drawings in yawning Pictograph, Middle, and Ghost caves are faded but still visible, revealing the hopes, dreams, and fears of lost civilizations. Paths take you through box elder, sage, and grasses to sheltered rimrock, where more than 30,000 artifacts have been discovered. It is believed that a perfect storm of climate conditions has enabled these paintings to survive.
Return on Coburn Road to Old US 87 (Hardin Road) near the freeway exit, and turn right. Drive about 12 miles to the junction of Pryor Creek Road and turn right toward Pryor (pop. 628) and Plenty Coups State Park, a picturesque day-use area that honors a visionary Crow who became a chief at age 28. Plenty Coups was a great warrior, but he began farming in 1884 and continued to do so until his death in 1932. The two-story home in which he slept when he had white visitors he stayed in a teepee otherwise is now a museum that’s open May 1 through September 30, or by appointment.
After leaving the park, veer west on BIA 91 across the rolling coulee country toward St. Xavier. Off to the right are the Pryor Mountains, famed today for Montana’s best-known herd of wild horses. As the road continues west, it forks about one-third of the way to St. Xavier, and then reconnects 20 miles later. For the more improved of the two, take the left fork, which follows Beauwais Creek. St. Xavier is the site of a Catholic mission that became a boarding school. It was here that the tribe was introduced to basketball in the late 1800s by Jesuit priests as a means of providing exercise and restoring a sense of community.
At St. Xavier, you’ll enter the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and cross the Bighorn River. Turn right on MT 313 and continue to Fort Smith (pop. 122) and Yellowtail Dam It’s worth continuing through Fort Smith and up the winding road into some pretty Bighorn Mountain foothills to the dam and a dead end at the marina. Bighorn Lake is one of the most popular places in the state for motorboaters, jet skiers, and water skiers, and the views of the canyon are spectacular. Below the dam, cold water from the bottom of the lake pours into the Bighorn River, creating what many believe to be the finest 13 miles of trout fishing in the world (after 13 miles, the water typically warms too much to support trout). Stop in at any of the fly shops in Fort Smith or hire a guide; success isn’t as easy as it might seem, given that the 16- to 20-inch fish you’re pursuing are visible near the shores, and you’ll no doubt have plenty of company despite the area’s remoteness. But the right flies and technique will ensure a memorable day.
After a few hours of fishing, retrace your steps to St. Xavier on MT 313 and continue along the Bighorn River toward Hardin. About 10 miles from town, just before the Two Leggins Creek river access, you can take a shortcut east on BIA 1 over the ridge to Crow Agency and the beginning of the Warrior Trail.