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Montana Road Trip: Charlie Russell Country

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.

6. Great Falls When Meriwether Lewis first viewed the Great Falls of the Missouri in 1805, he pronounced them the grandest sight he’d ever seen. They were grand, those lovely cascades—until the Missouri was fattened up here by hydroelectric dams, stopping up many of the original falls. Today Great Falls is the second-largest city in Montana, and its civic pride is based more on commerce and kilowatts than on natural beauty.

The city and its environs are, however, the heart of Charlie Russell country. The renowned artist lived in Great Falls for much of his life, drawing a wealth of inspiration from its cow-punching past. The C. M. Russell Museum on 13th Street North showcases his work—you’ll find oil paintings, watercolors, sketches, sculptures in wood and bronze—along with many illustrated letters and Russell memorabilia. Included in its collection are the works of other Western artists. The museum complex also features Russell’s house and the log cabin studio in which he produced the bulk of his remarkable work documenting his times. 7. Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge Located about 12 miles north of Great Falls, this refuge provides a 12,000-acre way station for ducks, geese, swans, and other migrating birds. Its ponds are prairie potholes, created by the melting of buried blocks of glacial ice. One way to see the refuge is via the Prairie Marsh Wildlife Drive.

The farmlands surrounding the refuge came under the plow after the Civil War, when paddle wheelers brought sodbusters 2,000 miles up the Missouri to nearby Ft. Benton, an old cavalry outpost said to be the world’s most inland port. The fort’s ruins—on a quiet riverbank below chalk-white bluffs—do seem a long way from St. Louis, to say nothing of New Orleans.

8. Giant Springs State Park East of Great Falls on the Missouri’s south bank, between the Black Eagle Dam and Rainbow Dam, 190 million gallons of chilly mineral-rich water still gush daily from rock fissures at Giant Springs State Park. One of the largest freshwater fonts in America, it is thought to be fed by rain and melting snow from the Little Belt Mountains southeast of town. Viewed from Great Falls, the range’s glacier-worn contours bring to mind a huddle of sheep. 9. Kings Hill National Scenic Byway Much of the country south of Great Falls has been plowed, logged, or mined, but its grandeur and serenity remain undiminished. There’s God Light here: sunbeams and cloud shadows caress the rolling prairie and fields of grain.

Tracing some 70 miles, much of it along Belt Creek, the Kings Hill National Scenic Byway heads due south from the junction of Rtes. 87 and 89, near Belt, to White Sulphur Springs. Early on, the dusky brow of Tiger Butte looms to the west as the road climbs Monarch Canyon, whose corridor of pale limestone passes a chute of navigable Belt Creek white water known as the Sluice Boxes. Lodgepole and ponderosa pines mark the fringe of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, which cloaks the slopes of the Little Belt Range. When breezes stir, aspens seem to applaud your arrival in Monarch, an 1880s silver-mining town in the morning shadow of Sun Mountain. Like nearby Neihart, Monarch prospered briefly, but the boomtowners’ hopes were dashed when silver prices plummeted in 1893. The sleepy hamlets now rely mainly on silver from skiers, but the towns’ Victorian-style homes serve as monuments to a hopeful past.

Southbound from Neihart, the road climbs to 7,393-foot Kings Hill Pass and the Showdown Ski Area. From Porphyry Lookout atop the ski area (open to motorists in July and August), an exquisite panorama takes in the Little Belt peaks and—on a clear day—the Absaroka Range to the south. If you can see the steeples of the Absarokas, your gaze extends some 100 miles to the south, nearly to Yellowstone National Park. From Porphyry Lookout the road makes a rapid descent through evergreen forest to the arid fringe of the Smith River valley, a rumpled gray-green blanket of sagebrush patchworked with hay meadows and pastures.

10. White Sulphur Springs The steaming mineral baths of this mountain-ringed hamlet are just hot enough to soothe aching muscles (they also supply the heat for the local bank). To the south the Shields River plain opens out onto farmland and ranchland so lovely it lured circus impresario John Ringling to the area—hence the name of the town 20 miles south of White Sulphur Springs.

11. Livingston Established by the Northern Pacific Railroad near the confluence of the Shields and Yellowstone rivers, Livingston was once a brawling trainman’s town, home to Martha Jane Cannary—better known as Calamity Jane—the celebrated hell-raiser. Its townsfolk and neighbors now include a cadre of writers, artists, and film stars. Gentrification has made inroads: feed and hardware stores rub shoulders with galleries and boutiques, and cowboy bars compete with chic cafés. Still, few of Montana’s vintage red-brick communities work harder at preserving their past: more than 400 of Livingston’s buildings, including a remarkably handsome turn-of-the-century railroad depot turned museum, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A trout-fishing mecca, Livingston’s holiest shrine is Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop—revered among fly casters—with a mail-order business spanning the globe.

12. Paradise Valley Framed by the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges, this sparsely settled alluvial plain, which opens out south of Livingston, is traversed by the pristine Yellowstone River. At least one fly-fishing sage considers this stretch of river to be America’s premier cold-water trout stream. Both Rte. 89 and East River Road (Rte. 540) parallel the river, on opposite banks, southbound through old ranchland. Rising to the east, the lush North Absaroka Mountains crown the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Some lingering volcanic activity is present here—a geologic heartburn that keeps the baths at nearby Chico Hot Springs Lodge on perpetual simmer.

13. Emigran As you roll south through the little town of Emigrant, 10,921-foot Emigrant Peak looms ahead, a reminder that the Absarokas (reaching 12,799 feet) are Montana’s highest mountains. Mineralized hardwoods in the Gallatin Petrified Forest, 12 miles west of Rte. 89, are identified as tropical, suggesting that in the age of dinosaurs, this region was vastly different. If you fancy taking a specimen with you, pick up a permit in Livingston or Gardiner before you take the gravel road west from Tom Miner bridge to the petrified forest. 14. Northern Yellowstone Winter Range Farther south on Rte. 89, the granite walls of Yankee Jim Canyon close in, forming a gorge. The Yellowstone tumbles through it, slamming furiously against boulders and debris. During spring runoff these daunting rapids are a fearsome challenge reserved for white-water experts only.

Just beyond Corwin Springs a reddish slash known as Devils Slide appears on the flank of 7,176-foot Cinnabar Mountain to the southwest. Early prospectors mistook this eroded vein of iron-stained sandstone and shale for the ocher ore of mercury, giving Cinnabar Mountain its name.

Watch for wildlife from late fall to spring: this region is the winter range of the biggest, most diverse population of hoofed mammals in the lower 48 states—bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, bison, and other species that summer in Yellowstone.

15. Gardiner This rustic little community, with a population of about 600, is the only year-round auto gateway to Yellowstone National Park. The brownstone Roosevelt Arch here was Yellowstone’s original northern portal, opened in 1903 by the Rough Rider himself. Teddy’s dedication, chiseled across its top, seems fitting not just for what lies beyond but also for the route that brought you here: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”