Montana Road Trip: Great Plains Adventures

In the 1860s, the promise of “free” land drew the first homesteaders to northern Montana’s shortgrass prairie and sagebrush plains. But it was the free-roaming bison that led Fort Benton, the first stop on this roughly 400-mile road trip, to become a thriving buffalo-robe trading post in the 1850s. From that trading post grew an inland port, a railroad—and a state. Discover the complex, and often brutal, history of those frontier days on the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Learn about the explorers, prospectors, and outlaws who shaped Montana at historic stops along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Ride the river in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. And make time to celebrate the buffalo where they still roam free, at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

Fort Benton > U.S. 87 > Havre > U.S. 2 > Malta > U.S. 191 > MT-3 > MT-80 > Fort Benton.

Inside Tip: Portions of these roads may be closed due to snow or ice; always check road conditions before taking this road trip.

Great Falls International Airport, Great Falls

See the wild bison and learn about the Assiniboine, or Nakoda, and the Gros Ventre, or A’aninin, people on a guided tour of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation's buffalo reserve. The reserve is home to two buffalo herds, one at Snake Butte and the other (relocated from Yellowstone National Park) at Peoples Creek. On the tour, guides explain the cultural significance of the buffalo to the nomadic Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people. Historically, the buffalo was a source of food, clothing, and shelter (tepees). Today, the tribes use the teachings of the buffalo as a guide for raising their families. To schedule a guided tour call + 1 406 353 4350 or +1 406 945 0014 (reservations required).

Called the birthplace of Montana, Fort Benton once was the world’s largest inland port. Today, the town’s riverfront is the best place to discover Montana’s frontier history. Devote a full day to a walking tour of the Historic Landmark District and Steamboat Levee. Start at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument's interpretive center. Buy an Area Pass ($10) for two-day admission to the center, plus three must-see frontier history museums: Old Fort Benton (Inside Tip: Go inside the adobe blockhouse to stand in Montana's oldest building, built in 1848); the Museum of the Upper Missouri; and the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, home to the world-famous Hornaday/Smithsonian Buffalo display of six 1886 wild bison mounts. Best Bet: Support local businesses and create a lasting keepsake from your visit by purchasing Fort Benton-themed charms on the Charm Trail.

In Fort Benton, follow the Corps of Discovery’s path along the Missouri River with Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures. The local outfitter offers three-, four-, and six-day guided canoe trips in the spectacular White Cliffs section of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Paddle by day and camp at night at Slaughter River (now known as Arrow Creek) or other actual Lewis and Clark sites. Best Bet: Book a specialty trip to focus on a specific theme, such as archaeology or natural history.

Go antiquing in a ghost town at the Virgelle Mercantile. The town’s original mercantile and bank are stocked floor-to-ceiling with old and new treasures for sale. Browsing here is like visiting grandma’s attic (if your grandma lived in a ghost town). Inside Tip: Beware of using GPS, which takes visitors down a road that's not maintained and may get vehicles stuck. To get to the mercantile, take Gardiner Road or Virgelle Ferry Road, both gravel and maintained.

Saddle up at Sky View Guest Ranch to horseback ride where wild buffalo used to roam. Ride to the top of the Missouri River breaks to see the eight-foot-high “buffalo rock” used as a scratching post by the bison, plus sandstone “castle rocks” carved by erosion. Inside Tip: Arrive prepared to ride. Wear jeans and riding boots or other sturdy, closed-toe footwear. Be sure to make a reservation.

Step down under the sidewalks and back to the early 1900s on a Havre Beneath the Streets guided tour. After a 1904 fire destroyed downtown Havre, merchants moved their operations—legal and illegal—underground. A section of this subterranean mall of sorts has been re-created as a tourist attraction. See 18 authentic re-creations of actual period businesses, including a saloon, a bordello, and an opium den.

Back above ground, continue your Havre history tour at the Frank DeRosa Railroad Museum and, June 1 to Labor Day, at the Wahkpa Chu’gn Archaeological Site. Wahkpa Chu'gn is the only buffalo jump in Montana where you can see the excavated wall of actual archaeological deposits—up to 20 feet deep—that includes compacted buffalo bones and skulls and Native American arrowheads. Best Bet: Learn how to throw an atlatl (spear thrower), the primary weapon of the first peoples who used the site approximately 2,000 years ago.

In Chinook, stop at the Blaine County Museum to see the paleontology exhibit, where you can hold ancient fossils in the Look, Touch, and Wonder room and watch "40 Miles From Freedom,” an audio/visual overview of the battle and siege at Bear Paw, the final battle of the Nez Perce War of 1877. From here, drive about 15 miles south to the Bear Paw Battlefield. Best Bet: Walk the self-guided, one-and-a-quarter-mile trail through the battlefield. Pick up a free map or information pamphlet at the museum.

Malta is home to two stops on the Montana Dinosaur Trail, the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and, right next door, the Phillips County Museum. Most of the fossils on display—including the neck and skull of a new species of sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) nicknamed “Ralph"—were discovered in or near Phillips County. Inside Tip: Although the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum is the permanent home of well-preseved Leonardo the Dinosaur Mummy, the actual specimen could be touring museums around the country when you visit. If Leonardo isn’t home, you can still view a high-quality 3-D printed replica of the fossil, plus informative exhibits on the science of Leonardo.

If you’re driving through Lewistown in the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day), the tiny Central Montana Museum is worth a look to learn about the area’s homesteading history. Pioneer artifacts on display range from fossils and firearms to wedding dresses and musical instruments.

The Grand Union Hotel was built in 1882, during Fort Benton’s high-rolling steamboat era, and restored to its original grandeur in 1999. The 26-room and -suite "Grande Olde Lady" offers beautiful Upper Missouri River views.

Another historic Fort Benton option is the Lark and Laurel Bed and Breakfast. The four-room inn is a restored 19th-century Victorian built around an 1870s hand-hewn log cabin. One of the Lark and Laurel’s common rooms is part of the original cabin.

Virgelle is one of the few places in Montana where you can spend the night in a ghost town. Options include four “sleeping” rooms above the Virgelle Mercantile, five restored homesteader cabins, a log cabin, and a sheepherder’s wagon outfitted with a full bed. All include breakfast. Cabin guests share a modern bathhouse located inside an old icehouse.

In Havre, either of the two Best Western Plus hotels is a great choice for a clean, comfortable room, plus indoor pool and free breakfast. The Best Western Plus Great Northern Inn is conveniently located downtown, and the Best Western Plus Havre Inn and Suites west of town is new (opened March 2015).

Call ahead to reserve a room at the Great Northern Hotel (2 South First Street, East Malta, 59538; +1 406 654 2100) in Malta. Lodging options are few and far between on this stretch of U.S. 2, making the old-school Great Northern a popular stop for road-weary travelers.

About halfway between Malta and Lewistown on U.S. 191, camp on the banks of the Missouri River in the James Kipp Recreation Area. All 34 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and fill up quickly during paddlefish season (May 1 to June 15), the elk rut (September and October), or hunting season (various months). Inside Tip: Just across the road from the campground you can access the Missouri Breaks National Back Country Byway.

Lewistown’s Historic Calvert Hotel started out as a school dormitory. Built in 1912, the two-story brick building housed homesteaders’ children sent to town for high school. Completely renovated from 2007 to 2009 in period Craftsman style, the historic hotel has 24 rooms and four suites.

Stay in an authentic bunkhouse at the Montana Bunkhouse in Moore. The primitive structure (no running water or inside bathroom) is located on the Olsen family’s ranch and is used to house the cowboys who work there. A second historic rental cabin on the ranch was built in 1905 as a community hall and served as a schoolhouse.

The Wake Cup Coffee House Cafe and Bakery in Fort Benton has a friendly vibe, creative furnishings (tables made from old doors, tree branch curtain rods), and arguably the best breakfasts in town (try a “wrapture,” an omelet rolled in a wheat wrap). Homemade baked goods are the specialty (the scones get rave reviews), but you can’t go wrong with any of their toasted sandwiches, hearty salads, or other breakfast or lunch items.

A foodie favorite for its innovative and sustainably minded cuisine, the Union Grille inside Fort Benton’s Grand Union Hotel is an elegant yet approachable restaurant. The impressive dining room—14-foot windows, pressed tin ceilings—and outdoor patio (summer only) overlook the Upper Missouri River. Open for dinner June through August (closed Mondays). Dinner schedule varies the rest of the year. Reservations highly recommended.

In downtown Havre, have a soup-and-sandwich (on house-baked bread) lunch at the Lunch Box or the Grateful Bread. The latter has a bakery too. Buy homemade chocolate-chip cookies or a loaf of the daily specialty bread (such as Ethiopian or Swedish rye) to take on the road.

The homemade pies, meatballs, and soups at Nalivka’s Original Pizza Kitchen have been Havre staples for more than 50 years. Try one of their more creative pizza concoctions, such as the German (country sausage and sauerkraut covered with mozzarella) or the Mess Up (pepperoni, beef, cheddar, and mozzarella with a layer of pepperoni and jalapeño peppers on top—the result of a misread order). Closed Mondays.

Beef and potatoes are the main ingredients at the Great Northern Hotel and Steakhouse in Malta. The fresh-cut steaks are cut-with-a-spoon tender, and there’s always a daily special (like slow-roasted prime rib or bone-in bourbon rib steak). Locals know not to ask about vegetables—there are none, except for what’s in the side salad or soup.

Pull up to the window at the Dash Inn (207 East Main Street; + 406 535 3892) and drive away with some serious road food. A Lewistown tradition since 1952, the retro-hip drive-in is the home of the Wagon Wheel: a burger on white bread that's dressed (onion, pickle, ketchup, and mustard), toasted, and pressed to create a sealed, circular sandwich. Add a Hot-n-Tot Pepsi (cola with cinnamon-flavored syrup) and a side of tater tots.

RJ’s Toggery (1506 Front Street, Fort Benton; + 406 622 5130) is an all-in-one women’s clothing store, gift shop, and liquor store in Fort Benton. This may seem like an unlikely place to find authentic Montana souvenirs, but it’s one of the few places you can buy Brother Charles’s traditional Shaker Boxes, handmade in Fort Benton.

Native Montanan Don Greytak peddles his art out of a gallery in Havre. Working with graphite pencils in black and white, Greytak sells originals and lithographs of subjects as varied as tractors, trains, the rodeo, and wildlife.

The Fort Benton Summer Celebration is holding its 39th edition in June 2016. The quintessential small-town festival features such activities as an ice-cream social, pie auction, street dance, Old West reenactments, and fireworks.

The last weekend in January, in the heart of winter, Lewistown comes alive with the Montana Winter Fair. Visit Old McDonald’s Barn, which is full of kids and their 4-H turkeys, miniature pigs, ponies, lambs, horses, and llamas. The Re-Creations Show and Sale features recycled treasures (such as tables made from wooden pallets and lamps with a musical instrument base). And it wouldn’t be a fair without food. Highlights include the cinnamon roll bake-off and the chili cook-off.

The Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous in August in Lewistown is 30 years old in 2015. The event offers original cowboy poetry and real-deal Westerners performing songs that set the stage for lively dances, exhibits, and more. Artist vendors sell their work and you can catch a reenactment of the shooting of Rattlesnake Jake or try the dinner train experience. Best Bet: To celebrate the 30th anniversary, the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering has published a collection of original cowboy poetry and song lyrics from more than 80 cowboy poets and songsters who have performed at the gathering over the past 30 years. A Rhyme Runs Through It is available online.

For a great meal and wonderful scenery, climb aboard the Charlie Russell Chew Choo Montana dinner train, northwest of Lewistown. The train runs on selected Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays through the summer and early fall. The 56-mile round-trip takes passengers through prairies, ranchlands, and mountains while a full-course prime rib dinner is served. Best Bet: From late November through December, the train offers a North Pole Adventure trip.

Take the self-guided Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge auto tour along gravel roads, and see the badlands of the Great Plains mostly unchanged from the way Lewis and Clark saw them on their Corps of Discovery expedition.

Take in the view of Lewistown, seven mountain ranges, and endless prairie by driving to the top of 6,427-foot Judith Peak.

Detour from this road trip by taking Old U.S. 2 from Malta for approximately 15 miles to Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (named a Top 50 Great Plains Ecotourism Site by the University of Nebraska Center for Great Plains Studies). Alternatively, head out on U.S. 2 from Malta for about 20 miles to Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs Resort to soak in man-made pools with purportedly healing mineral water pumping out of the ground at a rate of 750 gallons per minute and a temperature of 108 degrees. Return to the road trip by taking U.S. 191 about 74 miles to DY Junction at the intersection with MT-66.

Do some hardcore badlands exploration by driving the dirt and gavel and narrow Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway, a challenging 45-mile road off U.S. 191 from the Knox Ridge Road intersection near James Kipp Recreation Area to Winifred. Best Bet: The Winifred Museum is home to one of the world’s largest Tonka toy collections. Caution: There are no services along the Back Country Byway, so bring provisions like water, food, and extra fuel. Also, use a four-wheel-drive or high-clearance vehicle and make sure the weather is absolutely dry when you take the drive—any moisture can turn the road to “gumbo,” a thick, sticky mud that can halt even four-by-fours in their tracks. To get back to the road trip, take MT-236 south about 25 miles from Winifred to Hilger and an intersection with U.S. 191. Bear Gulch Pictographs, about 25 miles southeast of Lewistown via MT-238 and Forest Grove Road, shows off more than 3,000 drawings by ancient peoples in a quiet, scenic valley surrounded by a 313-million-year-old limestone inland sea formation.

Fall brings the elk rut (breeding season). In September and October hundreds of female elk respond to powerful bugling by the males in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge on the far eastern end of this road trip. Best Bet: The easiest place to spot the herds is at the Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area along the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge auto tour; about 500 elk have been spotted annually at Slippery Ann in recent years.

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Fort Benton is home to Montana’s most famous dog, Shep, memorialized in a bronze statue located in Shepherd’s Court across from the Grand Union Hotel. Shep was the loyal companion of a sheepherder who was transported to a Fort Benton hospital in 1936. The dog followed his owner to town and waited at the hospital door. When the sheepherder died and his casket was loaded onto a train, Shep began a nearly six-year vigil on the platform, awaiting his master’s return.

Day One: Great Falls to Fort Benton

Day Two: Fort Benton to Havre

Day Three: Havre to Malta

Day Four: Malta (and detours east of Malta)

Day Five: Malta to Lewiston

Day Six: Lewiston to Fort Benton

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