This 121-mile loop will take you through some spectacular badland country crowned with rock spires and arid plateaus while dipping into river bottoms and open rangeland. On the northern part of the loop, you will wind around knobby hills on the Crow and Cheyenne Indian Reservations. Special attractions along the way include the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Museum, Rosebud Battlefield, the Tongue River and Tongue River Reservoir, and the Saint Labre Mission. While you can do this drive year round, you may find some of the gravel roads closed in the winter time when there is severe weather.
The loop starts at the town of Lame Deer. Take the Hwy. 39 exit six miles west of Forsyth towards Colstrip. Go 51 miles to the town of Lame Deer. This popular meeting place for the Northern Cheyenne people was named after an Indian Chief who was killed by U.S. soldiers under the command of General Nelson A. Miles. At this site, the General’s soldiers looted and burned Lame Deer’s camp. Stop and visit the tribal museum here. At the nearby cemetery are the graves of two chiefs who fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn—Dull Knife and Little Wolf. If you can time it right, the Fourth of July Powwow here has Native American dance contests, a parade, and drumming exhibitions.
At Lame Deer, proceed west on Hwy. 212 toward Busby. This little hamlet sits where Custer allegedly made his last camp. Stop and visit the Chief Two Moon Monument where the remains of seventeen Indians killed in nineteenth century battles are buried. These remains were buried in 1993 after being held at the Smithsonian Institution, the Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and the National Museum of Health and Medicine for studies.
Just west of Busby, look for the Tongue River Road turnoff. This road is paved single lane with no shoulder until the turnoff to Tongue River Reservoir. As you look around you, imagine buffalo herds, grazing antelope, and Indian encampments. This land looks pretty much the way it did 100 years ago. Crossing scattered forest and rangeland, it follows the bottomlands of Rosebud Creek. If you go through here in the fall, you’ll be greeted by the brilliant reds and golds of turning cottonwoods and dogwoods. Over to the west are the low lying Wolf Mountains. Stay alert for cattle, antelope and deer crossing the road.
After about 20 or so miles, begin to watch for signs directing you to Rosebud Battlefield State Park. Stop awhile here and breathe in the history. A description of the battle here can be found earlier in this section. Had this battle not occurred, General Crooks men would have joined with Custer’s troops and the outcome of the Battle of the Little Bighorn may have had a different outcome.
Leaving the park, head south on CR314 and follow the signs to Decker for approximately 12 miles where you’ll find the turnoff to Tongue River Reservoir State Park. This area is rich with the yellow, red, and brown bluffs which create the badlands carved out by the Tongue River and its tributaries. Stop here and play as long as you like. There is boating, fishing, and campsites. There is also a marina with limited supplies.
When you’re ready to go, take the road around the reservoir heading east. You’ll find it very curvy with several steep pitches. If the road has been graded, it is a decent road to drive on. However, the summer travel can turn it into a washboard surface late in the summer. As you head north, you will pass the earthen dam which creates the reservoir. From this point on you are traveling through the Tongue River Canyon. As much of the land along the river bottom is private, watch for cattle on the road.
It’s a good idea to move slow along this stretch. The road is gravel, often narrow, and there are no guardrails. Whenever you come to an intersection, follow the signs to Birney. Turn right on Four-Mile Road (CR 566). In about two miles the road splits. Bear left. A couple of miles past Deadman’s Gulch, the road crosses the river and takes you up to the plateau. Here you can see Pyramid Butte and the red bluffs to the north.
Continue on the the little town of Birney. It is here that General Nelson Miles attacked a band of Oglala Sioux, led Chief Crazy Horse, and a band of Cheyenne led by Two Moon. As you head north out of town you will go up the hill to another fork. Bear left. The Tongue River Road now becomes the Ashland-Birney Road. About 6 miles north of Birney you will come to a major fork in the road. If you wish to bail out, now’s the time to do it. Go left on the fork and cross the river. Here you can choose to follow the paved road back to Lame Deer, or follow the western bank of the Tongue River to Ashland. This road is also paved.
For the adventurous, the rest of this scenic drive takes the gravel road following the east bank of the Tongue River. You will also skirt the edge of the Custer National Forest. You are no longer on reservation here, so you can feel free to explore. Look for golden eagles, wild turkeys, and antelope. In the evening look for bats. After you pass O’Dell Creek, look for the white frostlike patches along the road. These are saline seeps. Water, lying just beneath the surface absorbs the salts and minerals in the ground. Once rising to the surface, it evaporates, leaving behind the crusty residue.
As you’re driving this stretch, don’t forget to stop and look behind you at the badland vistas. Continue on through the Otter Creek lowlands to US 212 in downtown Ashland.
While you’re here, be sure and visit the Saint Labre Mission. This Indian school has a small museum. Here you can also get a tour of the mission.
From here head west to Lame Deer where you can retrace your steps through Colstrip and back to I-94, or continue west to Crow Agency and the Little Bighorn Battlefield.