Montana Road Trip: Charlie Russell Country

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

Route Details

Length: About 370 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Popular year-round.

Nearby attractions: Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, east of Whitehall.

Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman.

Ulm Pishkun State Park (prehistoric bison kill site), west of Great Falls.

Further information: Charlie Russell Country, Box 3166, Great Falls, MT 59403; tel. 800-527-5348, www.russell.visitmt.com.

At the northwestern fringe of our fabled shortgrass prairie, Rte. 89 traverses the country immortalized by turn-of-the-century artist Charles M. Russell. Beginning at the stony peaks of Glacier National Park, near the Canadian border, the route stretches south across a vast patchwork of green and gold to Yellowstone at the northern edge of Wyoming.

1. Browning
Travelers descending the eastern ramparts of the Rocky Mountains in Glacier National Park are often startled by the sight of a yellow sea of grass that seems to go on forever. Few natural boundaries in North America are as abrupt as this, where the grasses of the Great Plains meet the willows and aspens that grow at the base of the Rockies’ steep eastern face.

Early travelers ventured here with some trepidation, for this was the fiercely guarded domain of the buffalo-hunting Blackfeet. Today, however, the Indians’ descendants welcome visitors to their 11⁄2-million-acre reservation, headquartered in Browning and promoted as a year-round recreation mecca. Browning’s Museum of the Plains Indian offers lively displays of the culture that once flourished here.

2. Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area
At the town of Bynum, turn west off Rte. 89 onto Blackleaf Road and drive 16 miles to the Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area in the foothills of the Rockies. Here a gravel road winds through forests of limber pine, ending at Blackleaf Canyon. Stippled in spring with trillium and ladyslipper and visited by a modest herd of mountain goats, the canyon is so beautiful you may want to continue on foot. Look for golden eagles and prairie falcons soaring overhead, and listen for the odd booming sound made by sharp-tailed grouse performing their spring mating dance.

3. Pine Butte Swamp Preserve
As the route continues south, treeless hill country stretches out like an ocean of enormous swells. A few of the wheat farms on the horizon are Hutterite colonies—self-sufficient religious communities begun by European immigrants in the 19th century. Hutterite women all dress alike (in dirndls, plaid aprons, and polka-dot scarfs), and each man has assigned duties (cow boss, pig boss, and the like).

About five miles north of Choteau, the highway reaches the shimmering Teton River, whose pebbly shallows gurgle softly, mimicking the quaking aspens along its banks. Heading west off Rte. 89, a side road follows the Teton for 17 miles. A turn south then leads across the Teton to the Pine Butte Swamp Preserve, an 18,000-acre wildlife sanctuary owned by the Nature Conservancy. The refuge encompasses a tangled swampy bottomland as well as hills, grasslands, and a 500-foot-high sandstone butte. The preserve’s peace and quiet is often enlivened by the voices of more than 150 species of birds, which squawk, chitter, quack, trill, hoot, caw, and whistle in blissful abandon. The preserve is also a refuge for grizzlies, whose numbers have decreased markedly since pioneer days, when more than 100,000 roamed throughout western North America.

Charles M. Russell
Born in Missouri in 1864, Charlie Russell had a special fascination with the cowboys and Indians of the West, which he precociously depicted in his earliest drawings. His parents, concerned about his indifference to schoolwork, sent Charlie to Montana at age 15, hoping the visit would cure him of his obsession with the wild frontier. Instead, Charles Marion Russell became a rough-and-tumble cowboy himself, and over the decades he vividly chronicled—in thousands of inspired oils, watercolors, and bronzes—a way of life that has since faded from the American scene.

4. Choteau
Montanans have an expression for the kind of sunlight that breaks through the clouds, casting luminous beams on the prairie below: God Light, they call it. Inspired as much by Montana’s broad horizons as by its often celestial light, novelist A. B. Guthrie, Jr., who lived in Choteau, titled his best-known work The Big Sky.

Alternating bands of yellow and black (grain and fallow soil) mark the rhythm of planting around Choteau, known for its abundant wheat and barley harvests. The rough quarry stones of the old courthouse reflect the town’s pioneer pride, but Choteau also looks to even earlier times. The Old Trail Museum on Main Street displays the fossilized bones of the duck-billed Maisaura dinosaurs, which thrived here long ago. Nearby Egg Mountain, a Maisaura nesting area, yielded the first dinosaur egg found in the Western Hemisphere. Paleontologists from the Museum of the Rockies conduct digs at local “bone beds.” Human history is ancient here too: winding across the prairie just west of the Sawtooth Range lies a trail said to have been blazed thousands of years ago by Mongol “proto-Indians” who crossed the land bridge from Asia during the Pleistocene ice age.

5. Freezout Lake
About 10 miles south of Choteau, the marshes of Freezout Lake appear to the west. During waterfowl migrations in spring and fall, you’ll find more birds here than anywhere else in Montana. Well over a million descend upon the 12,000-acre sanctuary, including some 300,000 snow geese and legions of other birds as lovely as their names: long-billed curlews, marbled godwits, black-crowned night herons, white-faced ibises, sandhill cranes, tundra swans, cinnamon teal—even shorebirds from California and gulls from Peru.

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