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Beau Lamb wades into his backyard in East Rosebud Lake, Montana; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

Montana by Dirt: On Traveling by Dirt

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Joe Johnson trail running high above the going to the sun road in Glacier National Park. Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

A trip on a dirt road is typically the product of seeking adventure—getting to a trailhead to go mountain biking, finding a put-in for a favorite fishing spot, or heading to a cabin for vacation. But out of the four million miles of road in the U.S., more than a third are still unpaved gravel or dirt. And for some people, dirt roads are more of a tool for everyday life than a means to recreation. Our Montana by Dirt road trip, which would cover some 400 miles of dirt roads, we sought to meet the people whose daily lives revolve around dirt roads as well as explore the use of dirt road as a viable means to access the adventure.

Montana still has a strong network of unpaved road all across the state. I have planned quite a few trips in the past across various stretches of the state. It’s surprisingly easy to link old farming grid roads clear across the expanse of valleys with tighter logging roads to cross over the mountain passes. But this trip offered new challenges: The road itself was not our destination, and we had to reach specific locations to do the adventures we had planned.

The terrain we were able to cover was often striking. Many of the unpaved roads in Montana travel along virgin rivers and over lonely passes which are often overlooked. One of the most surprising things is how quickly you can get from a more urban downtown lifestyle to a rural road that feels like it is a thousand miles from anywhere.

Probably the most glaring theme that can be learned when traveling on rural roads is the sense of community that the road attracts. This idea manifests in road etiquette—everything from dust control near populated areas, pulling over to let an oncoming vehicle by on a one-lane road, or simply learning the two finger country wave. The road brings so many people together. We often drove past working ranchers fixing fence lines across the street from luxury vacation estates.

The real highlight of the trip from a driving perspective was the leg traveling from Missoula up into the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park. After a morning of river surfing just west of Missoula, we traveled along some old creek roads to bring us into the southern end of the Mission Range, where we thought we could pass over the mountains on logging trails. Old, winding logging roads brought us up into the foothills and into the heart of the mountains. Driving through flowered and lush alpine meadows with views of snowfield covered peaks in the distance, we came down into Flathead Lake Valley in perfect time for cherry season. We passed through orchards of cherry trees as we crossed through the valley and into the west entrance of Glacier National Park.

We decided to take a dirt loop into the park that went north out of Whitefish, Montana, and skirted the Canadian border along Red Meadow Pass. The road ran along a creek for the duration and met a couple of alpine lakes that were clear as gin. We stopped off for a swim full of solitude and lacking nothing but warmth. The pass arrived at the North Fork of the Flathead River at an old outpost called Polebridge, where we were greeted by a general store stocked with fresh baked goods, coffee, and cold beer. We followed the North Fork south towards the park, scoping potential ski lines and fishing spots all along the way.

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Brody Leven looks out on the Salamander Glacier on the ascent of Mt. Gould in Glacier National Park: Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

The endless onslaught of mountains in the northwestern corner of Montana is staggering. There is so much that is unexplored in that region. Driving along this old dirt highway, we were able to think a lot about the potential of the area and what development—bringing in things like pavement and even basic infrastructure—might do for access to the area. We realized that we are really at a golden age for experiencing this part of the country. We have great access into deep regions of wilderness and all of the technology needed to get us there safely and quickly. But more than that, chances are that if you do get to explore the area, you will really get a sense of wilderness and solitude that is hard to find almost anywhere these days, unless you spend some time driving down a dirt road.

For Montana by Dirt, Max Lowe, Brody Leven, and Graeme MacPherson take on 400 miles of dirt roads to find extraordinary adventures from Yellowstone to Glacier. See all the Montana by Dirt posts.

The Adventurists blog series is sponsored by Toyota, which provided a Toyota 4Runner Trail vehicle.