More Than Custer’s Last Stand: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument provides a sobering look at one of the defining moments in U.S. history.

In 1876, the 7th Regiment of the U.S. Cavalry, led by Lt. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, was resoundingly defeated by Native American warriors. This battle became known as Custer’s last stand. It was one of the final salvos in the war between the native peoples and the expanding United States.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is proof that perception of the past morphs when seen through a changing societal lens. This was a memorial to people who fought and died in a battle that took place in 1876, so you might think something that happened so long ago would be static. Yet, before 1991 it was known as Custer Battlefield National Monument and focused solely on Army casualties.

Grave marker at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Grave marker at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

The battle that took place was part of the Great Sioux War and could be traced back to the broken Treaty of Fort Laramie. It was nineteen years after Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had met with other leaders at Bear Butte to discuss the threat the settlers presented, and eight years after gold-rushing settlers trod on the infamous treaty and stole the Black Hills.

By the time Lt. Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry arrived at the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, thousands of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho were camped along its banks. The battle was disastrous for the U.S., who suffered 268 casualties, including Custer. The tribes lost anywhere from 40 to 100 warriors.

Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument

This was the site of Custer’s Last Stand, but it was more than that. It was one of the final battles in a war between two cultures that were inherently unable to coexist. One, a nomadic people who followed the land and went where the living was best. The other, a people who settled a land and made it what they wanted.

Little Bighorn Battlefield Photos: Native American grave markers
Native American grave markers

Prior to 1991, only the U.S. story was told at the battlefield. After a 1988 protest by members of the American Indian Movement and combined pressure from that group and the National Congress for American Indians, Congress passed legislation requiring both sides of the story be told.

On December 10, 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed it into law and the site became Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. In addition to the name change, there is also an Indian Memorial with engraved granite walls and a bronze sculpture of Native American Spirit Warriors.

Native American Spirit Warriors Sculpture at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Indian Memorial
Native American Spirit Warriors Sculpture
Prayer Cloths at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Prayer cloths

Visiting is somber. There are gravestones marking spots where soldiers and Native Americans fell. Bushes are strewn with prayer cloths, a practice we’d previously seen at Devils Tower. There’s a horse cemetery. Most somber of all is the memorial etched with names above a mass grave of about 220 soldiers, scouts, and civilians. There are several headstones inside the fence near the memorial, and there is even one for Custer, although his remains were moved to West Point. (His horse, Comanche, survived the battle and ended up at Fort Meade.)

Monument at Little Bighorn Battlefield
Grave markers for the horses at Little Bighorn
Little Bighorn Graveyard

We began to walk the path next to the graveyard when I heard, for the second time in my life, a rattlesnake in the wild.

This wasn’t like my rattlesnake encounter in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. There were no juicy tourists to entice the snake away from me. Here, it was just the two of us, separated by a wrought iron fence. I told him to stay on his side and I’d stay on mine, but we both knew that line was an illusion. I slowly backed away, and Jim and I decided it was time to go.

Deep Ravine Trail sign warning of steep grades, uneven surfaces, and rattlesnakes
Deep Ravine Trail sign warning of steep grades, uneven surfaces, and rattlesnakes
Rattlesnake at Little Bighorn
Rattlesnake hiding in the grass
Rattlesnake at Little Bighorn
NOT something I want to see up close!

The above was an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2.

Visiting Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Experience this memorial by making your first stop the visitor center. Inside, you can watch a 25-minute orientation video that details the history of the battle itself as well as the context that surrounded the conflict. The center also houses a museum, and the exhibits expand on the the video and provide more information and education.

Sitting Bull display at Little Bighorn Visitor Center
Sitting Bull display at Little Bighorn Visitor Center

After you’ve explored the center, you can walk the Deep Ravine trail, a short 1/2 mile self-guided walking tour.

Graveyard at Little Bighorn
Graveyard at Little Bighorn

For the full experience, drive the 4.5 mile tour road to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield. Numbered markers indicate the stops available on the accompanying cell phone audio tour. You can also purchase a CD of the tour in the gift shop. To access the Little Bighorn Battlefield Cell Phone Audio Tour, call (406)214-3148.

Just beware that there might be a traffic jam, Montana-style.

And yes, this is one of my favorite Little Bighorn photos!

Traffic jam, Montana-style
Traffic jam, Montana-style

Custer National Cemetery is located at the entrance next to the Visitor Center. Take a moment to pay your respects to soldiers and military personnel who died in service to their country.

Custer National Cemetery at Little Bighorn Battlefield
Custer National Cemetery

Little Bighorn Battlefield Fees:

  • Private, non-commercial vehicle $25.00
  • Motorcycle $20.00
  • Per person, walk-in or bicycle $15.00
  • Commercial Van/mini-bus 7-15 people $45.00
  • Commercial Bus $100.00 (26 or more seats, regardless of occupancy)

As a member of the National Park System, entrance is included in the Interagency Annual Pass.

Where is Little Bighorn Battlefield?

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located in Crow Agency, Montana, in the south-central part of the state.

Where to stay near Little Bighorn Battlefield?

Billings, Montana, is about an hour from Little Bighorn and has several options for accommodations. You can browse deals below:

To find out more information, visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument website.

Visit Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana | U.S. History | National Monuments | U.S. National Parks | Things to do in Montana | National Memorials