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Where the buffalo roam ... and Custer legends proliferate.

Where the buffalo roam . . . and Custer legends proliferate A sea of grass once flooded the flat midsection of the United States from the Rockies east to the Appalachians. The rich, black soil bore lush grasses, and grazing herds of buffalo became so vast they stretched from horizon to horizon. The Great Plains grasslands spread across a million square miles, and over 10 states. Belatedly, we're recognizing the special qualities of this unique ecosystem and preserving segments of native prairie; there's now a bill before Congress to create a Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Osage Hills, Oklahoma. But while we may know something of the Midwest's "tallgrass" regions, we may not be as aware of the West's own shortgrass and mixed grass prairies. At elevations from 2,500 to 6,000 feet, the dry, high plains prairie blankets the east side of Montana and Wyoming and continues on into the Dakotas. Much is still open, empty rangeland. Outside the desert, it's our country's least populated area: 4 people per square mile. This part of the plains saw more than its share of colorful, tragic, and historic events--from the wagon-train migrations to the violence of the Indian Wars. Yet visitors here may feel the past is not so distant: you can wade through waving grasses, camera-stalk big herds of bison and antelope, and touch direct evidence of the past in old forts, battlegrounds, powwows, and rodeos. You can follow the Oregon Trail as it snakes through southest Wyoming. In places, you can almost hear the creak of lumbering wagons and jangle of harness chains, the curses of tired drivers. One of the fiercest and most famous Indian battles took place in Montana's high plains: Custer's Little Bighorn tragedy. Today, legend fairly echoes across this savanna, and mystery still rustles like wind in its grasses.

A primer for plainsgoing If you live near mountains, what strikes you first is the bigness of the plains landscape--the unbroken vistas, the wide blue roof of sky. Distances are long, highways straight and open. It can be lonesome between attractions. A tape deck, games for children, and cruise control all help. Cultural activity and night life are rare, but big crowds and high prices are also unlikely. Meals tend toward basic, hearty fare: biscuits and gravy, slabs of homemade pie, sometimes a buffalo steak. You can visit well into September. We outline two tours that highlight the best of the shortgrass prairie and its storied past. One heads out from South Dakota's buffalo country toward eastern Wyoming. The second loops from Billings to the Custer Battlefield to Cody and back. Either tour alone could constitute a trip of a week or more. Or add a grasslands tour to a vacation in Yellowstone, Devil's Tower, or Mount Rushmore. Little advance planning is required, but you will want to make hotel reservations for two big events we note. Weather can be changeable: prepare for warm days, wind, afternoon showers.

High plains tour: Badlands to Cheyenne . . . forts, rodeos, buffalo From South Dakota's Badlands to Wyoming's wagon-train country, this tour takes you to the finest surviving native prairie in the country, some of the biggest bison herds, a national grassland, a historic Oregon Trail fort, and a Western frontier-style town. Consider starting at the north end, hitting the lower, hotter South Dakota parks first, then working your way south to wind up in Cheyenne for a big finish with Frontier Days. You can fly into Rapid City, rent a car, drop it off at Cheyenne (drop charge runs up to $200), and fly home from there. If you drive out, consider stopovers at nearby Devil's Tower and Mount Rushmore. Motels are plentiful and moderately priced ($25 to $75 per night). But rooms for Cheyenne's Frontier Days (July 21 through 31) are tight: reserve quickly at (800) 426-5009. We also found reservations needed at Wall (call 605/279-2665), near Badlands National Park. Visitors to Wind Cave and Custer State Park can find accomodations in Custer, with 15 motels and 20 restaurants; for a list, call (800) 992-9818. If you want to see Fort Laramie, plan to stay in Guernsey (three motels) or larger Douglas (two dozen motels and restaurants) and also visit nearby Fort Fetterman, Ayres Bridge, or Glendo State Park. Badland's National Park, 57 miles east of Rapid City, has been called the finest surviving natural prairie in the country. The Badlands' serrated spires rise dramatically from table-flat lands. Much of this wild, 230,000-acre park is undeveloped. A 2-hour drive through can give you an overview. A guided nature walk (1 1/2 hours, offered at 8 A.M. and at 6 P.M.) is a helpful introduction to a closer look: you scramble over sod tables and search for fossils in the mudstone. The daily 1 1/2-hour fossil walk (11:30, 2, and 4) offers a detailed account of how prairie winds sculpted the ridges. Check the visitor center for walk locations. You can see a herd of bison 500-strong in the park's Sage Creek area. On the way, the Roberts prairie dog town is also fun. The park is at 2,500 feet, and summer days can blaze into the 100s. Schedule any strenuous activity early or late in the day. Sunsets can be spectacular. The visitor center is open 7 A.M. to 8 P.M. Park entry fee is $3. Camping (110 sites) is $7 per night. Within the park are cabins at the modest Cedar Pass Lodge ($28); call (605) 433-5460. Nearby, Wall has five motels and several restaurants. Just outside the park's Wall entry gate is a furnished sod house built about 1908. It's open from 9 to 5 daily, and well worth visiting; admission is $2.50. Custer State Park is off U.S. 16A, 28 miles southwest of Rapid City. Wildlife-watching is outstanding in this sprawling 73,000-acre park. Drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and you may see bison (a herd of 1,400), pronghorn antelope, elk, or prairie dogs; dawn and dusk are best viewing hours. Four resorts in the park have modest but comfortable lodging and reasonably priced restaurants (we found steak dinners for $15, buffalo burgers for $4.50). If you see buffalo (ranch-raised) on a menu, don't pass it up: it's lean and tasty. The classic 67-year-old State Game Lodge sits in the heart of the park. Rooms run $40 to $70; call (605) 255-4541. Blue Bell Lodge's massive pine-log walls give it the look of a great old hunting lodge, and this is the place to try a hayride/chuckwagon dinner ($15); call (605) 255-4531. Both lodges offer 2-hour jeep tours to see the bison herd ($7.50, $5 for kids under 12; call ahead) and trail rides ($10 per hour). Sylvan Lake Lodge and Legion Lake Lodge both offer boat rentals ($5 per hour). At the park's handsome 1930s stone visitor center, you can join guided hikes, see slide shows, hear lectures, get updates on bison herd locations. It's open 8 to 8 daily. A five-day park entry pass costs $6 per vehicle. Camping (343 sites) is $8 per night on a first-come basis. Wind Cave National Park, off State 87 or U.S. 385, 60 miles south of Rapid City, is known for its limestone cave (tours leave the visitor center hourly from 8:30 to 6). Less well known are the park's beautiful prairie lands and a herd of 360 bison. The grasslands of this 28,292-acre park are fairly undisturbed, so university teams come to study its ecosystem. You can join a free guided walk each week to learn about these studies and prairie ecology; check the schedule at the visitor center. You might see prairie dogs, coyote, mule deer, pronghorn. Though the park is at 4,400 feet, summer temperatures still reach the 90s in July and August. The visitor center has good displays, a cafeteria, and a bookstore; it's open 8 to 7 daily. There's no lodging in the park, but you can camp; sites (100) cost $7 per night. Thunder Basin National Grassland lies between Douglas and Newcastle, Wyomming, off State 59 and State 450. At 572,000 acres, it's the second largest national grassland tract. Today, it's still used for grazing, but is also rich in coal, oil, and gas and is mined and drilled. There's no developed recreation here, but as you drive through Thunder Basin, watch for pronghorn antelope: the world's largest herd--more than 17,000--lives here. For a $1 map, call (307) 358-4690. Fort Laramie National Historic Site is on State 160 just south of U.S. 26 near Guernsey. The Fort was an outpost of civilization on the road to westward expansion: supplier to fur traders, wagon trains on the Oregon Trail, and to the military during the Indian Wars. Docents in 1870s costume show you the restored fort and describe how soldiers and civilian workers lived here. A visitor center has displays and a good selection of books on the plains. The park is open dawn to dusk daily; entry is $1, free to those under 17. Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site is 13 miles west of Fort Laramie; in Guernsey, turn south on S. Wyoming Avenue. Countless wagons cut through this limestone ridge, etching 5-inch-deep grooves. When you straddle the tracks (about 4 feet wide), you'll realize how narrow the wagons were. Nearby Register Cliff was a "guest book" for the Oregon Trail. The poignant purpose of carving names on the rock was to reassure those following that the writers had survived to that point on the trip. (Of some 250,000 who used the trail, at least 10,000 died--most from disease.) Both sites are open during daylight hours; admission is free. Cheyenne. With its gleaming capitol, state museum, and numerous Western wear shops, this city's fun to visit any time. But Frontier Days, July 21 through 31 at Eighth Street and Carey Avenue, are special. The West's oldest rodeo (age 92), it ignites the town like a prairie fire. The enthusiasm has spawned a concurrent fine arts show, Western museum exhibit, old-time melodrama, and more. Act now for tickets (800/227-6336) and lodging (307/638-3388 or 800/426-5009). Some highlights: the rodeo runs from 1:15 to 4 daily (tickets $6 to $11), with parades July 23, 26, 28, and 30 at 9:30 A.M. from the capitol down 24th Street. Chuckwagon races and musical entertainment take place nightly at 7 ($7.50 to $17), with a midway and crafts booths. And you can watch Indian dancing (free) daily at 3:30 and 5:30. Don't miss free pancake breakfasts July 25, 27, and 29 at 17th and Carey.

High plains loop: Billings to Cody . . . Buffalo Bill, Custer, Crow Fair The Montana-Wyoming borderlands sit at the west edge of the plains, just before folding up into the Rockies' foothills. You can easily spend a few days or a couple of weeks in this beautiful region. If you're planning to drive out to visit Yellowstone National Park, continue east 53 miles to Cody to start our loop trip there. Or you can fly into Billings and rent a car. Billings makes a good jumpoff point--a modern town with roots in railroading and livestock, it offers plenty of choices in motels ($35 to $110) and restaurants. Spend a while at its pleasant Riverfront Park, historic district along Montana Avenue (between N. 22nd and N. 26th streets), and Western Heritage Center at 2822 Montana Avenue (Western art and history exhibits). For lodging information, call (406) 245-4111. You'll head past open prairie and rolling hay fields to Hardin--a small town, with only a few motels and restaurants, but a good base for visiting Custer Battlefield and, August 18 through 22, the Crow Fair (get reservations early). Sheridan has a sleepy ranch-town flavor, with its Main Street's false-fronted buildings, Western wear shops, and restaurants such as the Spotted Horse Cafe. It has some 20 motels ($50 to $75). You may want to spend a week just touring Cody, with its outstanding museum, rodeo, and dude ranches (22 in the area). For lodging information, call (307) 587-2297. Big Horn County Historical Museum and its visitor center are in Hardin, just northwest of Custer Battlefield off Interstate 90. Capturing the feel of the turn of the century on the plains, it's a fine small museum with eight restored old buildings. The 1917 white-spired German Lutheran church is still used for Sunday services. And there's a homestead-era farmhouse, schoolhouse, and railroad depot. It's all open free from 8 to 8 daily (8 to 6 Sundays). A country store sells crafts. Custer Battlefield National Monument sits 15 miles southeast of Hardin, off I-90. On a blazing afternoon, June 25, in 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and 647 cavalrymen faced 2,000 to 4,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Custer's five companies (some 210 men) were wiped out, but the command's other two battalions held out until relieved. Custer's exact actions and motivations that day continue to baffle researchers. Today's visitors have an array of slide shows, guided walks, and talks by costumed guides to help understand the events, aided by recent findings. In 1983, a fire swept through, allowing the first real archeological dig. Amazingly, some 4,000 artifacts were unearthed, and subsequent studies showed the Indians were much more heavily armed than once thought: at least half had guns, and many had repeating rifles. Still, mysteries remain: what was Custer's plan, why did he split the command, and exactly what happened to E Company? As you gaze down Last Stand Hill, the land looks much as it did in Custer's time; preservation has kept it to native grasses. The battlefield is strewn with white headstones, placed where it was believed the cavalry fell. There are two self-guided trails, each a loop of about a mile. And some 34 excellent interpretive programs are given daily from 8:30 to 7 P.M., including demonstrations, talks, and guided walks. Check the schedule at the visitor center. When you visit, remember that no food or beverages are sold here, and there are no camping or picnic facilities. Come early or late to avoid midday crowds. Visitor center hours are 8 to 7:45 (to 5 after Labor Day); grounds are open until dusk. Admission is $3 per car. The Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee is raising funds to purchase 9,000 acres critical to preservation of the battlefield; for details, write to this group at Box 7, Hardin, Mont. 59034. Crow Fair is held August 18 through 22 at Crow Agency, 12 miles south of Hardin (in Crow Agency, turn right on the frontage road and follow signs). One of the largest powwows in the West and now in its 70th year, it's an astonishing experience. Some 35,000 Indians take part: the sight of their encampment of 700 tepees set against the plains is awe-inspiring. Public events begin Friday, August 19, and end Sunday, August 21; schedules are casual, but there's generally an hour-long parade through the camp each day at about 10 or 11--it's quietly spectacular, with some 400 riders in native dress adorned with intricate and colorful beadwork. At parade's end, there's a brief round dance. Daily rodeo events run from about noon to 4. Evening dance competitions can continue from 8 P.M. to past midnight--and the rhythmic drums, graceful movement, and flashing colors made this a highlight of our trip. Entry for parade and dance contests is $2; rodeo entry is $3. Cody has preserved its old-West feel with many old stonework and false-fronted buildings, including the thriving 1902 Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill Cody. In town, there are several art galleries, 34 motels ($20 to $75 per night), 25 restaurants, and a rodeo at 8:30 nightly ($5.75, $3.50 for ages 7 to 12). You can join guided hour-long trail rides at Cabin Creek Outfitters ($9.50; 587-5118). Or take a wagon ride ($3.50, $2.50 for ages 7 to 12) from the Holiday Inn. The visitor center, at 836 Sheridan Avenue, has information on lodging. It's open 8 to 8 Mondays through Saturdays, 10 to 4 Sundays; (307) 587-2297. Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 720 Sheridan Avenue in Cody, is open 7 A.M. to 10 P.M. daily from June through August, from 8 to 8 in September, other hours in winter. Admission is $5, $4.25 for seniors, $3.25 for students 13 and up. There are four big galleries. The Buffalo Bill Museum traces the legendary showman's career and times. The Whitney Gallery of Western Art offers a look at the early West--from the lush 19th-century idealism of Catlin, Bierstadt, and Paxson to the harder-edged styles of Russell and Remington in the early 1900s. The Plains Indian Gallery is impressive, with its hall of tepees, colorful beadwork displays, and haunting art--including an 1890 buffalo robe painted by the Sioux and depicting the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Winchester Arms Museum depicts the history of firearms. Displays include 1,500 weapons, dating from the 1500s. Events this year include the Frontier Festival, June 11 and 12, recreating 19th-century arts and crafts; a new show of 60 Remington paintings, drawings, and sculptures on view June 17 through September 5; and an intertribal Powwow June 25 and 26, with traditional dancing. Trail Town, 2 miles west of Cody on highways 14, 16, and 20, is open 8 to 8 daily now through September 16; admission is $2. It's a remarkable collection of 26 historic buildings saved from all over the state--the Meeteetse blacksmith shop, a Dry Creek trapper's cabin, and others dating from 1879 to 1901. Outside are old buckboards and freight wagons.

PHOTO : Where else do you see signs of welcome like these across the landscape? From waving

PHOTO : prospector to antlered Wyoming jackalope, they reflect the plains region's folksy

PHOTO : hospitality

PHOTO : Still kings of the plains, bison stand chest-deep in sweet clover at South Dakota's Custer

PHOTO : State Park. Jeep tourers get close look at grazing bulls and cow

PHOTO : Late shower shrouds Custer Battlefield. Headstones mark where soldiers fell; a black

PHOTO : shield commemorates Lt. Col. George A. Custer

PHOTO : Bisecting Thunder Basin, State 59 is typical of today's plains highways. But typical of

PHOTO : yesterday's roads are the wagon-cut grooves of the Oregon Trail near Guernsey

PHOTO : Golden field of foot-high western wheatgrass lured these breakfast picnickers

PHOTO : Woolen-uniformed soldier shows off U.S. model 1841 mountain howitzer at Fort Laramie,

PHOTO : fired daily at 12:30 as part of living history demonstrations at this crucial Oregon Trail

PHOTO : fort

PHOTO : Flags and parades signal Cheyenne's Frontier Days rodeo. Below, cowboys saddle wild bronc

PHOTO : to race in the July event

PHOTO : Where the Rockies meet the plains, dude ranch guests ride through sage and bunchgrass

PHOTO : northwest of Cody

PHOTO : Not even calves are spared in The Buffalo Drive, a 10 1/2-foot-long oil painting by

PHOTO : W.R. Leigh in noted Western art collection at Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. At

PHOTO : right is an 1883 lithograph of the showman himself

PHOTO : Rough-hewn boardwalk at Trail Town passes weathered saloons and wagons

PHOTO : At the 7D Ranch, dudes relax in 1925 log cabin adorned with Indian pots, a Navajo rug

PHOTO : At Crow Fair, held annually near Hardin, round dance celebrates end of daily parade.

PHOTO : Porcupine quills decorate the headdresses
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Title Annotation:Wyoming's state parks and Great Plains; George A. Custer
Publication:Sunset
Article Type:Directory
Date:Jun 1, 1988
Words:3241
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