Walking Where Ancient Peoples Walked

Janaury 21, 2023

Admiring the Geology and Archaeology of Weatherman Draw

In south-central Montana, just a few miles from the Wyoming border, lies a natural area where people have visited for thousands of years. As the Beartooths taper and turn to the south, and before the Pryors and Bighorns rise up from the prairie, there’s a valley through which the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River meanders its way northward before joining the Yellowstone River near Laurel.

Here in this valley, people groups have visited for thousands of years. A transitionary place, with a river between two mountains, has made it a stopping point for many Native American groups throughout the ages.

Today, The Valley of the Chiefs – or Weatherman Draw as it’s commonly referred to – holds some spectacular geologic formations, delightful hiking trails, and if you’re lucky enough to spot them, some petroglyphs and pictographs from people who enjoyed the area long before we came along.

The Pre-History of the Valley of the Chiefs

If you could go back in time, you would be able to choose just about any year within the last several thousand years, and there would be at least one people group occupying the areas between the Beartooths and the Pryors. This ecologically rich location provided everything humans needed to survive.

Because it was such an ideal location to live, people stuck around. It wasn’t just a pass-through from south of the mountains to the Yellowstone River; instead it was a comfortable place to set up camp for the long-term.

This meant there was a whole lot more going on than merely putting up a shelter, sleeping, and then packing up next day.

Instead, the craggy cliffs around the Valley of the Chiefs were used for fasting beds (sometimes incorrectly called vision quest sites). The area was used for spiritual rituals, rights of passage, and ultimately burial grounds for those who had passed.

Rock art is prolific, albeit hard to find. From pictographs to petroglyphs, markings of those who came before us grace the sides of the sandstone boulders and cliffs. What makes the valley unique is the diversity; this rock art didn’t come from just one people group, but many different groups over hundreds of years.

Walking Among Geologic Wonders Today

The Valley of the Chiefs has basically been renamed to Weatherman Draw after the Weatherman family homesteaded in the area. Now designated as a natural area, it consists of hundreds of acres of protected land.

This means there is no shooting, no fires, no fireworks, and a handful of other rules to ensure it’s preserved for many generations.

But that’s not why you would go to this relatively remote area. There are plenty of sections of state land suitable to site in your gun or have a small picnic. Instead, the draw of Weatherman Draw is to experience the area.

With trails throughout, you can walk or run where people have walked and ran for thousands of years. With geologic sandstone features, unlike any you find closer to Billings, there is plenty to climb on and view the valley from.

A half day in the valley didn’t bring us close to finding any rock art; from what I have read it’s abundant, but obscure to help protect it from vandalism and those intent on only pursing their own gain.

At just over an hour from Billings, it’s a fun area to explore and imagine what it would be like living here thousands of years ago.

Cautionary Warnings if You Decide to Go

When the weather is nice, you should be able to get to the trailhead with a two-wheel drive car. During the winter, there can be spots of snow and mud that might make arrival a little bit more difficult.

Once there, it’s a main trail that cuts through the middle of the valley. Cautionary signs tell you to admire any rock art, but please don’t erase the past.

Geologic formations are fun to look at, but the sandstone isn’t high quality. That means when you’re climbing on it, it’s likely to break, chip, and crumble. That’s not to say don’t tread on it, but know that if you take a little spill, there’s not good cell service out there and it could be a long wait until someone comes to rescue you.

In the summer, you’ll probably encounter rattlesnakes; it’s the perfect habitat for them. Wear good boots if you’re going to meander the pathways.

Overall, have fun, take pictures, and respect the cultures that have turned this place from a sandstone gorge into the Valley of the Chiefs.

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