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Best of Montana in Spring: Scenic Drives and Trails

Strap in and get ready for a breathtaking driving experience across a blooming landscape in Big Sky Country.

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A hiker crosses a natural sandstone bridge on the Calypso Trail, a 5.5-mile primitive road that provides access to the Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area.

Detour to Terry

About 600 people live in the Prairie County seat of Terry, and chances are good you’ll meet quite a few of them during a visit. “Terry is a small town with a big heart,” says resident Glenda Ueland, owner of Sassy One Clothing. “One of our best attributes is our friendly people. We are a community that cares for the customer who comes through our doors.” Located in eastern Montana near the banks of the Yellowstone River, tiny Terry is a relaxing day trip detour off I-94. Tour the Prairie County Museum and Evelyn Cameron Gallery to see the work of frontier photographer Cameron, who documented life on the eastern plains in the 1890s. Visit Prairie Unique, which stocks only Montana-made items, to shop for jars of homegrown chokecherry jelly and Prairie County-made Wool Wax (lanolin) cream. After lunch at the Badlands Café and Scoop Shoppe (save room for a slice of one of Arline’s homemade pies), head just northwest of town to hike the erosion-carved pinnacles, tabletops, and arches of the rugged Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area.

Red Sleep Mountain Drive

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Mother’s Day weekend typically marks the opening of one of the state’s most spectacular scenic routes—Red Sleep Mountain Drive. The 19-mile, one-way gravel road gains 2,000 feet in elevation as it climbs through the heart of the 18,500-acre National Bison Range near Polson. Since wildflower blooming times are later at higher elevations, early spring flowers such as yellow bells are often still visible along the drive into early June. April through May brings a bison baby boom, and newborn deer and elk are visible by the end of June. Wildlife tends to be more active in the morning (front gate opens by 6:30 a.m.) or evening (start the drive by 6 p.m. in May or 7 p.m. in June), and birds are most active in the morning, says National Bison Range outdoor recreation planner Pat Jamieson. “Locals tend to come in the evening if the weather is nice,” she adds. “Fewer people come in the morning, so you can almost have the place to yourself.” Whenever you visit, allow at least two hours to complete the trip or about four hours if you plan to stop to look for wildlife and stroll the two short trails accessible from the road.

Fort Peck Dam Loop, Glasgow

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“It's like traveling through the land that time forgot,” says park ranger Michele Fromdahl of the scenic loop drive from and to Glasgow in eastern Montana. "The drive takes you through rolling hills and badlands that don't show any imprint of human life." To start the loop from Glasgow, proceed south on down Highway 24 to Fort Peck Dam, the earth-filled structure that created Fort Peck Lake. Continue south on Highway 24, paralleling the eastern edge of the lake. In spring, the unpaved side roads leading to McGuire Creek and Nelson Creek recreation areas are lined with blooming wildflowers and worth exploring, but only if the ground is dry and you’re in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. “Otherwise, you'll get stuck in the heavy clay we call gumbo,” cautions Fromdahl. Highway 24 ends at Highway 200. From here, drive east through rolling hills, short-grass prairie, and the tiny towns of Brockway and Circle. Turn north on Highway 13, then northwest on 25 to Wolf Point, finishing the loop by driving Highway 2 west along the Missouri River and back to Glasgow. The full loop, without stops, takes about four hours.

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