It’s not hard to see why Native American tribes considered the ancient sandstone pillars of the Medicine Rocks in southeastern Montana sacred. The remote landscape is both peaceful and beautiful, covered with strange geological rock formations. In the 1800s, Sioux and Northern Cheyenne camped near these unique perforated rocks, which are filled with holes and tunnels crafted by rainfall and wind over 61 million years.
The Medicine Rocks site is populated with chained and isolated arches, and caves and spires reaching 80 feet high and 200 feet across. Tribes came here searching for medicinal plants to use in their vision quests, as well as lookout points for hunting bison and resting spots while traveling from the Yellowstone River Valley to the Black Hills. Later, in 1883, future President Theodore Roosevelt visited the land and wrote, “As fantastically beautiful a place as I have ever seen.”
The 320 acres of Medicine Rocks still offers physical reminders of the past. You can find thousands of tribal petroglyphs that predate European settlement, signatures of cowpunchers, a sheepherder’s famous profile of a woman with a flower beside a bird, and recent inscriptions of elk, cattle brands, and military mentions.
Carving into the rocks is prohibited and park officials ask you be careful not to vandalize the site or disturb earlier markings. Instead, they recommend climbing the “swiss cheese” rocks and taking in the sights of the golden eagles flying in the skies above, and the mule deer and sharp-tailed grouse moving on the prairie below.
Medicine Rocks is set about 11 miles north of Ekalaka and 30 miles west of both the North Dakota and South Dakota borders. The site was privately owned until Carter County, Montana seized the property in the 1930s. The state of Montana took over ownership in 1957 and in 1993 it had the site declared a “primitive park.” Today, the park is managed by the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.