Four Days in Montana – Weeks of Planning to Get Here

If you are just interested in our short stay in Montana please feel free to skip forward in the post. I find the need to over-explain why Montana and the planning process to get here.

Planning to Get to Montana

Most of what RV bloggers write about is no secret, it’s information that can be found in hundreds of websites if one searches long enough. We want to keep your attention, no matter if you are new to traveling or have been at it for years. We often don’t know if that one single sentence hit home, where the reader was surprised, moved emotionally or says to themselves “I had no idea.” For me, blogging has to include the notion that someone can start reading from the very first post on this site to the last and get something out of every page. Not necessarily a go-to place to learn it all, but a place where they can read the story of our journey and all it took to get here beginning years before we left the driveway. I hate to leave out anything important or depend upon – well they (reader) will just figure it out on their own eventually. I’m thankful to all who have provided guidance to me in any form.

Often I meet folks at campsites who are interested in long-term or full-time RVing and rather than spew out all the details beyond answering their questions, I hand them a business card with my blog address and suggest they take time to read it from the beginning just as I did with plenty of other blogs while planning for our future in an RV. I began following blogs in 2013, many of which the travelers are a group of friends who began their journey at roughly the same time. I am now seeing them, one by one, begin the next journey by coming off the road, building homes or whatever their idea of living is beyond RVing. And, unfortunately, a couple bloggers I started to follow have died or are in poor health. I appreciate reading about their lives regardless if they are traveling or not. Yet there are others that began traveling years before I began reading blogs and they have no intention of ever coming off the road. Here I am, two years into actual travel added to around six years of planning and I feel like I am the next generation, the torch is handed off and it will not be long before we are the “experts”, especially as only 20% who begin a life on the road will stay there more than five years. Two years is a long time in this lifestyle, especially the first two years, those that know it don’t require an explanation.

The hard part of this post is having to think back months and recall why the heck we decided to take this route and why was Montana part of it. Route planning is no simple thing and probably the most important step when you are dragging a 15,000 pound camper around the country safely and prefer not to cover the same ground at $3.44 or more a gallon, wear out expensive tires or break yet another part on the RV.

Planning this summer trip began during the winter months. Not to be confusing but our spring trip, that got us to Michigan, was planned in detail while at the time I was drafting what-if plans for the summer. I’m currently doing what-if planning for next spring having completed most of the fall and winter plans.

We knew we wanted to explore the upper peninsula of Michigan and see family in Howell Michigan. So I booked two weeks near family as soon as we all agreed on the best dates for the visit which included average temperatures and avoiding black fly issues up north. I found several unreserved spots in each of two state park campgrounds with space for our rig. I then let my trip planner (RV Trip Wizard) suggest a route between Florida and the first spot in Michigan. Then we decided to visit friends in Traverse City Michigan we had meet during our winter stay in Florida, so I added that stop on the route and booked our camping spot as soon as possible, sometimes leaving weeks of unscheduled time between booked stops for travel. I checked my go-to sources which quickly revealed four places in the upper peninsula of Michigan that were must-see locations. I called a campground to book our first stop in the Upper Peninsula where the campground manager alerted me to reserve our spots quickly as the Upper Peninsula is the summer vacation spot for all of Michigan. Darn, I now had to book four more stops way in advance, again letting the route planner suggest what highways to take. I prefer just to book a couple major stops and fill in the remainder as we travel but not more than two months in advance other than when kids are out of school on summer vacations or during a few holidays.

At this point in the story all our main stops in Michigan are booked. During the actual trip, I’ll be changing what highways we take to each destination as I learn more about the area and roads. We talked about going to Yellowstone Wyoming and making a north to south run down to a couple other national parks before turning east back towards next winters location. Why? Well frankly because Yellowstone seems to be a place everyone else takes their RV as a must see location. So what was the best way to Yellowstone for us which might add several interesting places along the way? Knowing we would be taking off from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan we would most likely travel along I-94. I called a campground in Billings Montana as soon as we knew we would be coming that way. The campground manger laughed and said don’t come. The park was full for the entire season and she has never seen it this busy. Damn, now what. Good thing there are plenty of interesting stops in this country. But to be sure, I checked a map of potential places I’ve been keeping for future visits.

My spreadsheet of ideas of where to go will place blue markers within Google Maps. We are trying to find alternatives to visiting busy Yellowstone this year. Well heck, we have already been in the Black Hills around Rapid City South Dakota. I discover others have recommended stops mostly in the Yellowstone Wyoming area but there were a few along the east side of the Bighorn Mountains. I knew little about the Bighorn Valley area, where mostly I’ve noted over the years just a few campsites others have recommended. You see, one is never a couple hundred miles between great places but you have to turn around at some point or just add them to a great big endless loop of places. Or one can drive north to south along a line, jump over a couple hundred miles and do it again – probably all the way to the Pacific.

So I Guess Southeastern Montana Is the Place to Go – On the Way Elsewhere

I’d heard about Theodore Roosevelt National Park as being one that is not crowded. So I added that to the trip as a major destination and quickly reserved a campground months in advance, again leaving weeks in the schedule for the drive with at the time, unreserved campgrounds. I had to study up on the Bighorn Mountain area and was not comfortable with winging it in terms of elevations along the route. I wanted to know what highways had major mountains as this would have been my first ever experience pulling a heavy RV as high as 9,666 feet in elevation had we wanted to jump over the Bighorns for a short trip into say Cody Wyoming. I decided to stay in the foothills of the mountains and take day trips which turned out to be a great idea. More on that when I get to our Wyoming post in a few days. Now remember, at this point in planning we still had not left our winter spot in Florida. We would be in Michigan, having planned all the interesting points in between on a refined route before I confirmed many other camping spots along this summer trip.

I had no issue with breaking our general rule of no more than 200 miles of travel each day. We were going to be on interstates for the longest period in the last two years. Our longest daily drive would turn out to be 240 miles.

Okay, so now we know Roosevelt National Park is along the way to the Bighorn Mountains. So, I ask myself, what’s about 200 miles from there which might have interesting places for 50 mile day trips without the RV? I checked sources and called a campground. Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn River and Pompeys Pillar National Monument. We could also drive to Billings Montana or look for unplanned beauty along the Yellowstone River from The Fort at 49 RV Campground, Custer Montana.

I described the RV park to Karen, wanting to set realistic expectations and get her buy-in to stop there. It is in the middle of beautiful nowhere at the fork of two roads. Access to a state highway will save us miles as we cut over from I-94 to I-90 on the way to I-25. Altitude is about 2,500 feet at the RV Park. The drive from North Dakota would reveal unanticipated beauty. I’ll describe the trip over to Montana in one sentence. When you leave westward from Roosevelt National Park the views along I-94 are like you never left the national park. I can’t take a photo while driving but downloaded a couple from Google Earth. Here is a YouTube link to someone’s video along the route if you are interested.

Google Earth view – Drive from Roosevelt National Park to Montana over I-94 westbound

Custer Montana Area With Day Trips

Just a warning to readers who prefer concrete pads, no dust and no wind for camping spots. You will not find that spot in this area. Like so many travelers, we have been putting up with views through the haze of forest fire smoke. Even saw a couple burnt grass areas along this drive. Ranger in western North Dakota said the area was in drought last year, and severe drought conditions this year. They expect next year to be worse.

The Fort at 49 (exit 49) RV Park has six power poles next to water and sewer hookups. Management will tell ya to park at a pole number which are not labeled. You can face your camper whatever direction gives you the best view. There are 12 camping spots with each pole having one 50 amp and one 30 amp side. So get there early if you want a 50 amp spot. Most folks we met were traveling through for an over-night stop. Wow, we unexpectedly enjoyed our stay. We spent more $$ eating meals in the campground restaurant than on the camping spot. Management are very fine chefs. On Friday and Saturday nights it’s best to make a restaurant reservation. As I think back there are maybe three small buildings in view of the campground for 10 miles in any direction. Locals love this place. We met several RV’ers who are traveling to and from Washington State. We had a restaurant meal with Beverly, a solo-traveler. I noticed the ladies dressed up for dinner. Lucky me had two very attractive gals at my table. Wonder what the cowboys at the other tables thought about that. We enjoyed listening to Beverly’s story which includes many miles of travel in a motorhome. She and her husband owned and sold a resort. He has passed away. Sounds like she has owned and driven about one of everything motorhome related and now travels in a Class B plus. Beverly – We hope you are enjoying time with your family in Minnesota and arrived safe and sound! Karen says hello. As usual I did not get a photo of our new friend for the blog. Beverly had come over to our camping spot looking for her cat. I got Wyatt out of the RV and figured he would track it down. I spotted the cat in the shade under an RV. Beverly leaves a window open with a ladder next to it so the cat can come and go as needed.

Fort at 49 (exit 49) RV Park. All long pull-throughs. Easy in, easy out with full hookups. No problem finding fuel down the road in Custer. Clouds every night so we never saw that Big Montana Sky with view of stars. The Yellowstone River is across the street. The interstate noise at night is minimal.

Pompey’s Pillar National Monument

Louis and Clark split up on their Journey with Clark exploring the Yellowstone River. Sacagawea was with him. She showed him a high rock area that he would name Pompey’s Pillar. He named it after her infant whom he called Pomp. Take some bug spray with you. There are vending machines for water. More than 250 steps will lead you to the top. Half way up is Clark’s signature among hundreds of other’s to include Native American rock carvings. This must be the only green lawn for miles as it’s irrigated with water from the Yellowstone River which you can walk to as well. Here is a YouTube video I posted from the top. A volunteer (workcamper) described the area as having been a shallow sea at one time. Some believe the cliffs of the Yellowstone were the edge of the sea. Some believe the sea had barrier islands and this area was just one of them, hence the large areas of sandstone.

This is Clark’s real signature. He describes carving it in the rock within his journal.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

My sister Lisa gave me a book about Custer two years ago which included his Indian fighting days. I also read a book months ago regarding the investigation into what happened at the battle. Later in Wyoming we would visit a museum where artifacts and weapons the Indians took from the soldiers were recovered at yet another battle. More on that in my Wyoming post.

I’ll not go into much detail about the battlefield other than to mention a few take-ways I found notable after visiting the park. First, the battlefield is huge. No wonder troops had trouble moving around and rejoining. Markers are set out along walking and driving paths. Locations of Indian dead are red while soldiers are white. The attached National Cemetery holds many graves of those killed during the Indian Wars. Over the years the American Indian tribes have complained about not being property represented at the battlefield so there have been changes. You get here through the Crow Reservation area and pass through private land within the park to get to its extremes along the Little Bighorn River. The visitors center was not that good, probably because I had read so much prior to arrival. At the top of a hill is where Custer and his remaining 40 plus troops were killed, to include his brother. As you drive back towards it along the vehicle tour, you can see a long string of white markers (dead soldiers) leading up to the last stand hill as the soldiers retreated and were killed along he way. It will take at least six hours to see it all if you know little about the battle. We spent about three hours there. At the top of last stand hill are three handicapped parking spots, otherwise you walk a long path uphill from the visitor’s center.

National Cemetery. Soldiers with families.
Interesting monument listing those killed out west, where and when.
This battlefield is huge. See the roadway between hills. I can see now why Reno and others wandered about shooting in the distance which eventually stopped.
They had time to setup a field hospital. This is the marker.
Crazy Horse attack area, just below last stand hill. White markers of soldiers strung out along the path to the hill. We have seem Crazy Horse’s place of death at Fort Robinson Nebraska. His image on the mountain in South Dakota and know where he gained fame.

I’ll end this post where I started – route planning and why go this way in Montana. So way back in 2013 Karen told me to put a stop on the spreadsheet for the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo Wyoming. She prioritized it as a 1, mean drive there no mater what. Well the route from Custer Montana took us south to Buffalo. Later, while thinking about what route to take back towards our 2021 winter spot I figured why not drive southeast and take the Oregon Trail. We have been rewarded with great views of Montana and like so many other states, we will most likely come back.

We are currently stopped in Wheatland Wyoming with US 26 (the Oregon Trail) directly in front of us. I’m heading outside to start the generator. They have cut the power off a second time to work on the lines.

2 thoughts on “Four Days in Montana – Weeks of Planning to Get Here

  1. Since we started full time at 53 many of the friends we made early on have now come off the road, though a few are still going strong. Since we continue to spend our summers here in IL we often try new routes, our route to CO next week is different than we’ve done before.

    We’re all planned out till April 1, when we’ll head back here from AZ. The state and county parks in Phoenix are ones you have to do early or you’ll be out of luck for getting a two-week stay without lots of moving. Since we don’t have to plan out our summers right now I get a break from continually planning.

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    • We are actually thinking about finding a favorite summer location and not traveling during that time. Then go wherever for winter/spring/fall. Thinking it would be more relaxing to not have to fight the crowds and also take a break from all the planning. Turns out Karen is also more of a nester than I am, so having a place to call “home” for a few months will help her.

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