Yellowstone River Rockhounding, Mammoths, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

I promised I would take Kim and Mary Ann to Montana. Kim is a rockhounder and she wanted to find Montana agates. The best ones are lying in gravel bars of the famous river after it exits Yellowstone National Park, and heads northeast to eventually join the Missouri River. This story is about, not just agates, but Montana badlands, General George Custer, and great woolly mammoths whose bones are being dug up in 2023.

But first, what is an agate?

Mexican Crazy Lace Agate. By Doxymo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

When looking for agates, look for an irregularly-shaped rock, sometimes like a rough potato, that has small shiny (waxy feel) parts of the surface. These surfaces or “windows” that are shiny and translucent (let light through), and often have close-spaced colored bands. These bands can be smooth or wiggly. If light can shine all the way though the agate, it can reveal patterns within. These patterns can be collections of fine dots that look like moss, or dendritic in shape like the branches of a tree.

Collection of polished agates.

An agate is formed by intense heat and pressure, usually associated with volcanic activity.

Well, Kim had watched videos on You-Tube of beautiful agates collected from the Yellowstone River, and that’s where she wanted to go.

We drove north from Albuquerque, past Denver and Cheyenne, and into Glendive, Montana where we stayed in a cute little AirBNB. It was raining next day but nothing would stop Kim from walking along the river that our house fronted up to. Rocks in the rain look much more colorful.

Our host, Evelyn, told us about a site called Intake, 20 miles away, where there were large sandbars. We spent the next day there collecting.

The next day Kim paid for a boat tour to explore gravel bars that were only accessible by boat, and Kim scored big. Here are some of the beautiful agates that she found.








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While Kim was boating, Mary Ann and I drove to Makoshika State Park, located just 2 miles from the town of Glendive. The park encloses badlands that reminded me of New Mexico. Mary Ann loved the enchanting shapes of the hoodoos.

The most famous badlands are in South Dakota in Badlands National Park. We planned to go there on our way back but were beaten by the rain.

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After Glendive we drove 3 hours to Billings, Montana, also on the Yellowstone River. The city is dominated by the Rimrock from where you get marvelous views of the city.

Pompeys Pillar

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Pompeys Pillar is where Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition signed his name. The signature has been removed and laid under a glass panel for protection.

We looked but didn’t find any significant agates in Billings because high water had deposited a film of mud on all the rocks, and the rocks all looked the same.

On our last day we drove to Rapid City, to see the sights around there — like Mount Rushmore where enormous busts of four past presidents are carved into the cliff face.

On the way we dropped in to see the Little Big Horn exhibit. This was where in 1876 General Custer fought the Lakota and other tribes over a period of two days. Custer’s Last Stand was fought on the hillside, close to the exhibit, which is marked by gravestones.

Even more sobering to me was the museum with life-sized figures of Native Americans, and the US soldiers who fought against each other. Other battles were highlighted as well. Some of these brought tears to my eyes. The massacre at Wounded Knee, 14 years after Custer’s Last Stand, was wrenching. I couldn’t shake the futility of war and death, which surrounds us now in Gaza and Ukraine.
https://www.britannica.com/event/Wounded-Knee-Massacre

The exhibit video, lasting about 20 minutes, was exceptional as a history of events before and after the Last Stand. Mary Ann deeply appreciated the museum and the video.

The next day, in Rapid City, was a down day as we weren’t feeling very well. Kim managed to find a rockhounding site, where she uncovered some interesting agates. I swear Kim is attracted to these agates like a magnet is attracted iron.

That evening Kim and I ate at a saloon in Deadwood, an infamous western town where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back. I believe he was holding a poker hand with two pairs forever called “Aces and Eights.”

The next day it rained cats and dogs as they say in Australia. All we could find to do was visit the covered Mammoth Museum, in a town called Hot Springs, SD, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for me.

About 150,000 years ago, and before the last ice-age (112,000 – 12,000 years ago), mammoths were wandering across the prairie in this part of the US (human civilization has only been in existence for 10,000 years).

When water dissolved underground rock and the roof fell in, so to speak, you are left with a hole in the ground called a sinkhole. The sinkhole filled with water, and offered a long drink to a tired mammoth walking by. Unfortunately, the edge of the sinkhole was slippery and occasionally a mammoth would fall in and drown. His body would sink to the bottom and slowly get covered with mud but his bones would be preserved.

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How many mammoths have been dug up in this sinkhole? 60 in all since their discovery in the 1970s. But these animals were buried over a period of 30,000 years. So, on average, about every 500 years one mammoth would drown in the sinkhole. Presumably all the other mammoths who drank there were smarter.

Looking at all the bones in the museum, lying where they died, was another sobering experience for me, and led me to reflect on the shortness of life, and the coming afterlife which many people do take comfort in.



The tiny arrow in this photo is a geological layer marker that says these bones are 140,000 years old

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The storm raged on so we had to make a dash for Independence, Kansas which was 12 hours away according to the GPS. But conditions weren’t good. When we left at 6 am it was pouring rain with strong winds and gusts to 50 mph. In the black of nite, I clung to the white line at the edge of the road and tried to keep my wheels away from the tracks of the big-rigs that were filled with water where hydroplaning threatened my car. It did happen a few times, and jerked my Subaru SUV, but it was not serious.

Montana blue agate gift from Evelyn and Greg.

The final leg was 2 hours in the dark on a 2-lane isolated country backroad. The slow driving for 4 hours in dreadful early-day weather plus stops for gas and food ballooned the trip time from 12 to 16 hours – we arrived at Independence at 10 pm. We had prayed about it, and now we thanked God for a safe trip back.

We knew it would be an ambitious adventure. And except for a couple of hiccups, we achieved our goals and filled the trip with successes.

Our hosts in Glendive, Evelyn and Greg, surprised us with a gift – a lovely Montana Blue agate which we treasure.

Post-script: if you’d like to know how daily work goes on inside a large oil company, send for a free copy of the book FracMan (a novel with everything to know about fracking). The advert is on this page at the top.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. [Psalms 18]

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Don Compton
Don Compton
6 months ago

Thank you, Ian, for sharing the beautiful agates you and Kim found.

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