Don’t Overlook Eastern Montana
The horizons are wide, the views sweeping; this is Montana east of the Rocky Mountains. A big country that takes up approximately two-thirds of the state. On the north it stretches 460 miles from Browning and the east slopes of Glacier National Park, to Sidney near the North Dakota state line. In central Montana it extends 300 miles from Harlowton, through Roundup and Miles City, to Baker. To the south, from Red Lodge on the slopes of the Beartooth Mountains, it is 255 miles as the eagle flies along the Wyoming border to the South Dakota line,
Montana east of the Rockies is an undiscovered treasure of scenic beauty and unlimited recreational opportunities. High prairie, rolling hills, badlands, and river canyons make up the landscape that once witnessed Indian battles, range wars, and cattle drives, and shook under the thundering hoofs of countless thousands of buffalo herds. The Old West lived in eastern Montana.
The mountains are there in the form of outlying and isolated ranges such as the Little Rockies, the Moccasins, the Judiths, the Big Snowies, the Bearpaws, the Pryors, the Highwoods and the Sweetgrass Hills. All are steeped in history, and some cradle ghost towns, like Zortman and Landusky in the Little Rockies, and Maiden in the Judith Mountains.
Complementing the mountains, and standing in splendid isolation as well, are the prairie buttes. The legendary artist, Charlie Russell, used them in many of his paintings. Although the buttes are scattered throughout the prairie land, they a-re concentrated southwest and northeast Of Great Falls. The best known of these volcanic formations are Square Butte near Geraldine and Fort Shaw and Charlie Russell Square Butte just west of Cascade, and south of the Sun River.
A fascinating array of cliffs, strange rock formations and remnants of the past make up the Missouri River Breaks country. Through this prairie wilderness flows the wild Missouri itself. A fabled river, the Missouri was the major route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A float trip is the best way to see this land. For those without their own rafts or boats, commercial outfitters operate out of Fort Benton. A prerequisite for the trip should be a reading of the Lewis and Clark Journals, these explorers named many of the landmarks found enroute. In the side canyons, some never visited, are the remains of old cabins. Near the mouths of the Marias and Judith rivers, two streams that flow into the Missouri, are the ruins of several forts.
Along with its scenic and historical values, the Missouri offers fine fishing for species such as northern pike, sturgeon, and paddlefish. Fort Benton, the birthplace of Montana, and the end of the early steamboat navigation on the Missouri, is one of the favorite starting points for a Missouri River float trip, Fort Benton itself is a worthwhile place to visit. This picturesque town was originally founded as a fur trading post. Ruins of the old fort still remain and a museum displays artifacts of the pioneer days.
Further on down the Missouri, and to the south and southwest of Glasgow, is the fourth largest reservoir in the world, Fort Peck. With 1,600 miles of shoreline, this lake is truly one of the jewels of eastern Montana. The size of the area is awesome. The lake itself takes up more than 230,000 aces. Add to it the million-plus-acre Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, which surrounds the lake in a strip 200 miles long, and you have one of the finest water recreation areas in Montana and the nation.
Aside from the usual water sports — boating, fishing, water skiing, and swimming — Fort Peck Reservoir offers good fossil hunting in addition to a chance at more lively game such as deer, elk, turkeys, grouse, ducks, and geese. The upper end of the lake, in the vicinity of the Fred Robinson Bridge and James Kipp State Park, is the prime area to fish for the prehistoric paddlefish. These fish are unique and quite big. The record size rod-caught so far is 120 lbs. Fish from 40 to 90 lbs. are common, and they offer a challenge. No bait here — snagging is the method used. Another favorite paddlefish area is just below the dam at Fort Peck.
All of eastern Montana abounds with wildlife, but the rolling hills near Harlem, Malta, and Hinsdale, along the Montana Hi-Line, U.S. Route 2, are their haven. Three wildlife refuges have been created in the region, the largest being Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. These areas are home to such waterfowl as Canadian Geese and all species of ducks, in addition to upland game birds, antelope, and deer. The best time to visit the refuges are late spring, early summer, and fall.
South of Chinook, and just to the north of the Bearpaw Mountains, is where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce made their last stand against the cavalry after their remarkable flight from Idaho. Scobey, in northeastern Montana, features a restored pioneer prairie town. Southeast of Scobey and just south of Plentywood is yet another wildlife refuge, Medicine Lake, just outside of Glendive, erosion by wind and water has created the beautiful canyons and badlands of Makoshika State Park. Near Ekalaka, in southeast Montana, stand the Medicine Rocks, oddly shaped sandstone structures formed by wind erosion. A museum in Ekalaka displays specimens of fossils and dinosaur bones. Miles City, a town whose colorful history is identified with the days of the range riders, has a museum dedicated to the men who rode the unfenced prairie.
South of Billings, the Pryor Mountains are one of the last strongholds of wild mustangs. This isolated mountain range also contains many ice caves. In the same area, and south of Hardin, General George Custer made his last stand against the combined forces of the Sioux and Cheyenne, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, now the site of a national monument. Farther south of Hardin, beautiful Bighorn Lake and Yellowtail Reservoir winds for 67 miles through steep canyons and rolling prairie. Fishing, swimming, boating and scenery, it’s all available along 195 miles of shoreline.
Montana’s mightiest waterways wind their way through eastern Montana. They include the Missouri, the Milk, the Powder, the Tongue, the Little Big Horn, the Teton, the Sun, the Smith, and the Yellowstone rivers. The Yellowstone is nationally famous as a blue-ribbon trout stream. The Yellowstone also offers excellent river floating.
Once the home for Indian nations such as the Blackfoot, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Gros Ventre, and Assiniboine, eastern Montana is now the location for six of the state ‘s seven lndian Reservations. Throughout the summer months, there are many celebrations on the reservations. One of the most famous of these is the Crow Fair held on the Crow Reservation at Crow Agency south of Billings. Indian tribes come from all over the west to pitch their tents and partake in the dancing, celebrating, bead work exhibitions, and rodeo events.The people of eastern Montana, scattered in the towns that dot this big land, are easy-going and friendly. They don ‘t mind taking time to talk about their comer of Montana. Many of them have their roots in the land by way of cattle raising and dryland farming, and most have a keen knowledge and appreciation of their past.
Once you’ve comprehended the vastness of the prairie, it is easy on your mind. The landforms, for the most part, are gentle and seem to instill in one a feeling of relaxation and wanderlust, the terrain is easy to negotiate. Exploration is a worthwhile endeavor. The scenic beauty, the colorful past and the people all combine to make Montana east of the mountains a unique treasure.