Montana by Dirt: Road Tripping to Find New Adventures From Yellowstone to Glacier

Toyota 4Runner Trail with options shown.

Through my camera’s viewfinder, the thin dirt road seemed to drive straight out of the white peaks of the Beartooth Mountains, blurred like some spectral mirage by the heat rising off the earth. I couldn’t imagine a better shot to illustrate how very much in the middle of nowhere we were. Like many of the roads we would drive over the next ten days and 400-some miles across western Montana, this dirt ribbon was seemingly empty except for us.

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Driving Montana’s dirt roads; Photograph by Max Lowe

Montana is crisscrossed by a network of dirt roads that access millions of acres of farm and ranch land across the state, as well as some seldom visited and still very much empty wild areas. Searching for a different side of a state I had called home all my life and explored extensively seemed like a hard-pressed challenge, but one that could be met by taking the roads less traveled—dirt roads. Starting in Cooke City with my friends and fellow adventurists Brody Leven and Graeme MacPherson, our road trip would take us along the Rocky Mountain front and north to Glacier National Park, just shy of the Canadian border.

Traveling by back roads and taking detours from those throughways allowed us to not simply cruise through the state, but engage with each of the places we encountered, driving with the intention of seeing and experiencing. Our plan was to travel across the whole state of Montana by as much dirt road as possible, trying something new each day. We wanted to see the things you miss while cruising at 80 miles an hour on asphalt. This led us to meet some of the most amazing people, partake in adventures new to all of us, and see some of the empty places that make Montana famous as the last best place.

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Summer skiing the Beartooth Mountains, Montana; Photograph by Max Lowe

On our first foray off the beaten path took us to the Beartooth Wilderness. Our trio, joined by friend and local Beau Fredlund, indulged in July skiing in the backcountry wilderness, swimming in high mountain lakes, and sleeping under the stars. We then met up with local professional long boarders to ride off one of the steepest passes in the state on the Scenic Beartooth Highway. It had been by far some of the most abnormal summer experiences I had encountered in 25 years in Montana, hands down. And they couldn’t have been more inspiring experiences with which to spark so many more first-time activities for our team.

As we drove on along into the glinting sunny day with the Beartooths behind us and the great Yellowstone River Basin opening up ahead, we planned the next several days—mountain biking, rock climbing, fly-fishing, and even inland river surfing were mapped out with amazing people who knew these sports better than most. 

Ours would be a Montana road trip seldom seen—and not only because we would often find ourselves driving alone on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere. It would be a story worth telling because of the amazing spread of talented and passionate friends who were more than happy to share the places and things that they loved with those willing to look and try.


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Max Lowe

Photography and storytelling are at the root of many of Max Lowe‘s adventures. A National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee and Bozeman native who grew up in a family rooted in the outdoor industry, Max dabbles in most outdoor adventure sports. Recent excursions have taken him from skiing Denali to surfing Sumatra. In 2014, two of his short films were screened at Mountainfilm in Telluride. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic Adventure.

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Brody Leven

While stubbornly suggesting that skiing is a year-round activity, Brody Leven seems to seek more bad snow than good. Even weirder, he seems to actually prefer it. Ski mountaineering is his favorite way to scare himself, but biking, climbing, and running also play into his world travels. He has never eaten meat and prefers to move from one place to another via his own two legs. Brody likes waking up sore and sleeping on long flights. His most recent purchase ended his five-year stint without a bed.

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Graeme MacPherson

Recently graduated from a short-lived career in the offshore oil industry in West Africa, Graeme MacPherson is now pursuing new ventures in the form of mechanical and computer engineering, photography, and operating heavy gasoline-powered equipment. Graeme finished a degree in mechanical engineering in 2013, but is currently embarking into a graduate program in robotics, or something. He currently prefers shooting film on a Pentax 67 and using a Canon 5diii when digital is required.

The Adventurists are driving a 2014 Toyota 4Runner Trail.

Video “Summer Skiing” music credits: “The Old Miami” by DJ BVS; “Sun Rises” by Leon Sommer