An Introduction to Montana

Montana has many names. It’s “The Land of the Shining Mountains”, “High, Wide, and Handsome”, “The Treasure State”, “An Uncommon Land” and other things. It is, in sum, a land of beauty and extreme contrast.

Chaos in the earth ‘s crust millions of years ago was indeed good for this part of the earth. Internal forces, and glaciation on the surface, were set loose to create some of nature ‘s finest handiwork. The earth moved and shifted masses of rock skyward, while igneous activity from deep within the planet forced lava to the surface. The northern Rocky Mountains were being formed. Before this, and perhaps afterward, inland seas covered various regions of the state at one time or another. They helped lay down sedimentary deposits that have resulted in badlands and other prairie formations.

In recent geologic history, changes in the earth ‘s climate sent southward massive ice sheets, called continental glaciers. Montana, east of the mountains, as far south as Great Falls and Glendive, was covered at least four times by these masses of ice, In the mountains, alpine glaciers moved down from the peaks to the lower elevations, carving out deep U-shaped canyons, sculpturing peaks and ridges, and creating beautiful lakes and cirques. [n some areas, such as the Flathead Valley, huge moraines, left at the farthest point of glacial advance, formed large lakes. Where continental glaciers overran the terrain, major river systems were blocked and whole drainage patterns changed. When the ice left, rugged river canyons were cut in the surface.

This geologic activity has resulted in the vast, rolling, and dissected prairie we have today in the eastern two-thirds of Montana, and in the rugged mountains of the western part of the state. Elevations range from the state ‘s lowest point — 1,800 feet above sea level, where the Kootenai River enters Idaho — to 12,799-foot Granite Peak in the Beartooth Mountains of south-central Montana.

Montana ‘s climate is as extreme as the land. Overall, it may be described as cold and semiarid, but the Continental Divide, running through western Montana, exerts a major influence on the weather, West of the divide, the mountains catch moisture from the Pacific before weather systems cross the ranges, increasing precipitation totals, especially in the higher elevations. The western portions, with the exception of the high valleys, experience somewhat warmer temperatures. East of the divide, the climate is drier and colder, and moisture totals drop off as one gets farther from the mountains. Temperature extremes have ranged from a high of 117  above zero recorded at Glendive and Medicine Lake, to a low of 70 below zero registered on the Roger Pass north of Helena. This low is the coldest temperature on record for the 48 contiguous states. Summer temperature extremes are commonly 80 to 90 degrees, while 40 degrees below zero in winter is not unusual. Snowfall can range from 300-400 inches to a low of 20 inches annually.

Montana ‘s cold climate, its distance from major markets, and the lack of job opportunities are probably the major factors keeping the population low. The state’s rugged topography, scarce water and the great percentage of land in public domain also dictate a smaller population.

But the rugged landscape, climate extremes, and relatively few human beings are Montana’s blessings. For here, in this corner of the United States, is a land that so far has escaped mass development and destruction of its beauty. Natural and economic controls on population growth, coupled with strong environmental laws and the creation of protected wilderness areas are helping to keep things that way.

Montana should be looked at as two distinct areas, Montana east of the mountains, and western Montana. Montana east of the mountains commands more comment than western Montana. Promotional fliers and travel brochures continually reserve their adoration for western Montana. The rest of the state is bigger and yet is given less notice. From border to border, Montana is splendid, no one part is better than any other.