Posted in Montana
Nature January 20, 2023
From spirited volcanoes and craggy mountain peaks to glassy crater lakes and imposing rock formations forged from every natural element known to man, the world’s geological wonders never cease to amaze. Luckily for us, Montana is undeniably packed with natural wonders of all kinds! But while Montana’s lush western half gets plenty of fame (and crowds), we’re big fans of the road less traveled and the unique geology that can be found beyond the most notorious social media hotspots. These seven underrated geologic formations in central and eastern Montana might be hidden gems to many, but they’re 100% worth a visit any time of the year.
1. Terry Wasteland – Terry
The barren, rolling prairies of the badlands of eastern Montana reveal a colorful, tranquil slice of Big Sky Country that’s often overlooked. Unspoilt, undeveloped and as far as the eye can see, the banded sandstone bridges, tabletops and spiers of the Terry Badlands create a rugged, otherworldly landscape that is idyllic to explore along the winding paths. A sunset here is particularly magical, but the lively character of this 44,000-acre wilderness study area is made even quieter thanks to the lack of crowds.
Aeons of wind and water erosion have sculpted every stunning formation here – both those that rise above ground and the channeled canyons that lie between. And in spring? A sea of ancient wildflowers like you won’t find anywhere near. Visit the BLM office in Miles City to pick up a trail map.
Terry Badlands, Montana 59349, USA
2. Medicine Rocks State Park – Ekalaka
Medicine Rock Road, Medicine Rock Road, Montana, USA
Southeast Montana hides a museum-like forest of chiseled, windswept rock formations interspersed with lush grassland hills. Each pier, column and arch is unique, and what is even more fascinating is that many of these geological formations bear historical pictographs and petroglyphs.
The natural rock carvings at Medicine Rocks are believed to be over 60 million years old and were sculpted by ancient tides (that was when Montana had a coast!). Since then, the area has been used by a number of Native American tribes for sacred and ceremonial purposes, but visitors will also find more modern inscriptions from early 19th-century pioneers and settlers. Visit the park’s visitor center to learn more about Herbert Dalton, who carved many of the most intricate rock art examples seen at Medicine Rocks today.
3. Pryor Mountains – Pryor
It might seem odd that a mountain range would make its way onto a list of overlooked Montana geological formations, but the Pryor Mountains are a truly special part of the Treasure State — unexpected, even.
In contrast to the rugged, glacially carved Beartooth Mountains further west, this 5,000-foot mountain range rises like an island out of the prairie meadow, uniquely sculpted by uplifted rocks penetrating deep beneath the earth’s surface. As such, the Pryor Mountains are a stunning region, filled with rugged gorges, ice caves and winding streams, while also being home to an incredibly diverse array of animals and ecosystems. There are two sub-alpine plateaus to explore here: Big Pryor Mountain and East Pryor Mountain. Both offer hiking trails, beautiful viewpoints and many hidden surprises.
Pryor Mountains, Montana, USA
4. Pompey’s Column – Nibbe
Pompey’s Column, MT 59064, USA
Rising from the earth in south-central Montana, Pompey’s Pillar has been a landmark for centuries. In fact, it is the only sandstone outcrop of its kind south of the Yellowstone River – although you may notice that it is decidedly non-columnar and rather…loaf-like.
One of Montana’s most unique rock formations and an excellent vantage point, this magnificent 130-foot natural landmark is steeped in history. Pompey’s Pillar is not only likely named after Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (aka Baby “Pomp”) of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but is also the only place on the Lewis and Clark History Trail where there is tangible evidence of the Corps’ travels are. Clark’s signature is etched into the rock and is now protected from further aging.
5. White Cliffs – Fort Benton
Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center, 701 7th St, Fort Benton, MT 59442, USA
If you’ve ever visited the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument and looked out over the water from a float or stopped at an overlook, chances are you’ve seen Montana’s prized White Cliffs. But do you know her story?
Meriwether Lewis himself described the sight of these soft white columnar formations in 1805 as “romantic” and “remarkable”, and even today the vast scenery is nothing if not picturesque. Covered in dark, rich clay, each perfectly formed pillar stands approximately 300 feet tall and towers over the meandering Missouri River. Ancient waters carved and eroded these stunning monuments and pressed layers of sandstone deposits into the magnificent natural spiers we see today. While the Missouri Breaks are a popular and well-visited stretch of Montana, next time you’re here, pause for a moment to look around at the multitude of hilly formations in the area and admire the scenic wonder of Montana White Cliffs.
6. Rock City – Valier
Tucked away in the small town of Montana lies a sea of skyscrapers—only these high-rise landmarks are made of stone and handcrafted by nature herself. This natural rock “city” offers an incredible opportunity to stroll through ancient formations sculpted by the ebb and flow of the mighty Two Medicine River.
Flat, mushroom-shaped hoodoos galore fill the landscape, some nearly three stories tall, along with eerie natural features that spark curiosity and capture the imagination. On some, unique layers of rock are more clearly visible here than in other badlands areas in Montana, demonstrating the intense geologic history that led to their formation. Rock City in Valier, while not currently designated as an official federal landscape or wilderness area, is believed to be more densely formed than Jerusalem Rocks to the north. This is a place definitely worth visiting!
7. Makoshika State Park – Glendive
Makoshika State Park Road, Makoshika State Park Road, Glendive, MT 59330, USA
As Montana’s largest state park, Makoshika may not be hidden per se, but it’s definitely underrated for many. As well as epic rock formations, nature trails and stunning badlands to explore (many dating back to the Cretaceous period), you can also find yourself unknowingly over the remains of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures here.
As part of the Montana Dinosaur Trail, you can even see the KT boundary line: the geologic boundary between the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Tertiary (Paleogene) period. As Montana’s badlands carve their way into the Dakotas, the rocks here are much older than those nearby and therefore still full of surprises: hidden ponds, fossil remains (please don’t touch!), and even living foliage, as erosion has not yet taken its toll. Be sure to visit the visitor center to see some ancient fossils and interpretive exhibits and learn more about the area!
How many of these incredible places in eastern and central Montana can you tick off your bucket list? Are there any we should add?
Looking for another epic challenge? Experience one of the most unique natural wonders in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness up close.
Address: Terry Badlands, Montana 59349, USA
Address: Medicine Rock Road, Medicine Rock Road, Montana, USA
Address: Pryor Mountains, Montana, USA
Address: Pompey’s Column, MT 59064, USA
Address: Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center, 701 7th St, Fort Benton, MT 59442, USA
Address: Makoshika State Park Road, Makoshika State Park Road, Glendive, MT 59330, USA
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