When cowboys returned from the Civil War, they faced problems: left untended for many months, even years, and their cattle herds became wild.
Then, came the next challenges. They battled each other, weather and the U.S. Government to restore their cattle production. That’s when a rock south of Marmarth helped them solve their problem. Capitol Rock became both a destination and dividing point.
It took months and years of solid riding to round up and corral the wild longhorns in Texas, New Mexico and even Mexico — but then what?
They faced a second obstacle. They couldn’t get their wild herds to market.
After the Civil War, the Union set up a physical and economic blockade to stop southerners from marketing their cattle to the hungry northern cities. Only cattle from northern states were allowed to feed people in northern cities.
So what would the southern cowboys do with all this cattle?
Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat (SWOT Analysis)
The blockade threatened their way of life.
Their only strength was themselves, their “can do” attitude, the same attitude that made the west a land of opportunity. Their strength, their dedication to hard work and self-reliance was part of the answer
These were men who had no ability to negotiate with banks and stockholders of the big cities. As producers, they had the product that people in northern cities needed. Yet, many of them had never been north of the Mason Dixon line, or north of El Paso, or San Antonio. They had never been to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York or other large metropolitan areas.
All they knew to do, was tend cattle. Their plan to graze their cattle on a slowly greening open range had never been tried before.
So, without Google, maps, or road signs, they pointed their herds north to follow the greening open range. In order to find their way north, they used landmarks including the Black Hills, Devils Tower, the Little Missouri River, the Killdeer Mountains and Capitol Rock.
The opportunity came as a natural resource: green grass. As spring slowly melted winter and greened up the rangeland, cattle herds started trailing north to railroad shipping points that could reach the populated markets. Kansas, Nebraska, the Montana Territory and the Dakota Territory provided opportunities.
With every opportunity comes threat. In this case, the threat was manifold. It started with doing something that had never done before: moving tens-of-thousands of cattle across the country. It meant months of sleeping on the ground, battling storms and navigating through the continent’s midsection. That’s why landmarks such as Capitol Rock were so important.
Capitol Rock is new to us. Have you been there?
It’s almost dead center in one of the units of the Custer Gallatin National Forest in southeastern Montana — just barely.
It’s a very unusual rock formation…and the view shown here inspires imaginations of what it must have been like to trail thousands of cattle through the valleys like this one.
This summer we are exploring routes through the rugged territory connecting the North Dakota Badlands, the Black Hills and the rest of the world. Many of the usual North Dakota Badlands events have been cancelled such as rodeos, powwows, cook-off contests, parades, celebrations and county fairs. That makes it a good time to get out and explore history and beauty and social distance at the same time.
Exploring and Social Distancing
We’re social-distancing and you can too by following the back roads and historic routes like this one to Capitol Rock.
North Dakotans are familiar with one of those routes, the famous Long X trail. It was one of many — some are famous, some are not. Routes between the Badlands in the north and the Black Hills in the southern Dakota Territory were not precise narrow paths. They meandered according to vegetation, weather, timing, water and landscape. Sometimes they were a mile wide — and they had to be in order to move 4,000 – 10,000 grazing cattle.
South of Marmarth, west of Camp Crook, is Capitol Rock and near here was a fork in the road. Here in what is now Montana, they found a massive outcropping of limestone that you can visit today.
It told cattle drivers to make a choice. In this part of what is now Montana and South Dakota, cattle trails split.
Some point northwest, some northeast.
Some to Miles City, some to Marmarth, Medora, Dickinson or farther north to Fort Berthold and Fort Buford.
Our hunt for trails
The passages we’ve found this summer accommodated cattle drives, covered wagons, gold miners, stage lines and ox trains. Like a spiderweb, they connected the civilized world of the 1870s and 1880s with the frontier, its ranches, cow towns, miners and mining towns.
Capitol Rock looks Like the U.S. Capitol
Someone familiar with the nation’s capitol decided this outcropping looked like the seat of U.S. Government and so it became Capitol Rock.
Today, it’s a natural landmark with campsites, hiking and biking opportunities that few people know about.
There are numerous opportunities for dispersed recreation activities such as hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, snowmobile riding and cross country skiing throughout the District. There are no designated hiking trails but most of the ridges are open and provide spectacular panoramic views.
How to get to Capitol Rock
It’s a beautiful drive, visually stimulating — but dusty. That’s probably why it doesn’t get much use because many people avoid dust and gravel roads.
If you’re ready, head west from Buffalo, SD, about 22 miles, on paved highway 20.
If you want a very authentic view of traveling the country as it may have looked in 1880, drive south from Marmarth, ND, to the town of Camp Crook, SD.
There isn’t much at Camp Crook but you can find a couple of places to eat. So, you’ll want to make sure you have what you need.
Head west out of town about 7 miles and you will see Capitol Rock before you get there.
Once you are there, find a place to park and wander around the formation. From Capitol Rock, a spider web of two-track trails spread through this unit of the National Forest and lead to several camp sites in the region. It is an ideal place for easy mountain-biking
Discover Capitol Rock by driving this road, west of Camp Crook, SD, as shown in this YouTube video:
It took months for cattle herds to reach this region. By the time cowboys got here, they were fully accustomed to the vast terrain.
For us, it’s a view that’s imprinted in our minds. The view from Capitol Rock shows you where cattle herds grazed as they headed north to Montana Territory, or further North in the Dakota Territory.
The area around the landmark is open grazing, so drive carefully. Don’t spook the cattle. And don’t run in to any.
While we were at the rock, we watched a thunderstorm move toward us. With minutes to go, we headed back down the road, in to town to beat the hail. It reminded us of what it must have been like for the cattle herds and the cowboys that moved through here to get their cattle shipped east.
It’s that can-do attitude that stands tall and firm in the culture of the region — just like Capitol Rock.
From here, we continued our back road journey to the Black Hills just to get an idea of what it was like for travelers 140 years ago who journeyed from the Badlands to the Black Hills.
The vast scenery as we gained elevation on our drive to Capitol Rock revealed views of South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, as thunderstorms passed through. Experience this on YouTube here:
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Camp Crook? Camp Crook is between Buffalo, SD and Ekalaka, MT. It’s the western end of South Dakota Highway 20. It can also be reached on the Camp Crook road south of Marmarth.
What is Capitol Rock? Capitol Rock is a National Natural Landmark inside the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana on the South Dakota border. It’s a large outcropping of sedimentary rock, especially sandstone and resembles the U.S. Capitol when viewed from a distance
Where is Capitol Rock? Capitol Rock is 7 miles west of Camp Crook, just across the state line.
This summer of 2020 has changed the way we travel and tour. Road trips are a great way to get out of the house and get into vast regions of the U.S. while still social distancing. That’s why we wrote more about this route that begins in Beach and extends to Belle Fourche.
Rock formations along the Little Missouri River are fascinating — and sometimes a little spooky. So, follow us on Facebook to get the scoop on what’s happening in the Badlands of North Dakota. Or subscribe to this blog to get ideas, information and inspiration from the North Dakota Badlands.
And of course, these images and hundreds more from the Badlands and nearby regions are available on our photo website mykuhls.com. Go there to see what scenes are waiting for you to visit. Or click the “buy” button to browse the many options you have to buy wall decor or keepsakes.