Montana Outdoors Best 100 list

From the Montana Outdoors July-August 2013 issue

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Have you seen and done the best of Montana’s outdoors? Use this checklist to keep track of outside activities you’ve experienced and sights you’ve seen. Keep it handy this summer as you explore Montana, and check off each new accomplishments. If you or others you know ever achieve all 100, let us know at

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Montana's Best 21-40

(In no particular order or rank)



Topo mapLearn to read a topo map

One of these days while hiking the backcountry, the GPS on your smartphone will be out of satellite range. Then you’ll be stuck not knowing where on earth you are and how to get back. Now is the time to learn how to read a topo map so you can carry one and use it on future hikes.

Where: Anywhere you could become lost

When: Anytime

HOW:The Internet has easy online instruction, such as at

Bonus:Once you learn to use a topo map and compass, try heading outdoors without your GPS. Scary, yes, but people have done it for eons and lived to tell about it.


PishkunVisit a pishkun (buffalo jump)

Armed only with spears and bows, American Indians were faced with the challenge of killing bison, an essential source of food that weighed up to a ton or more. The solution for thousands of years was to herd the animals off hilltops to their deaths. These killing cliffs are known as pishkuns, or buffalo jumps.

Buffalo jumps were sacred sites where vast amounts of protein, hides, bones, and other materials could be harvested. They were also extremely dangerous. The bison didn’t jump, by any means. They were herded by Indians running along “drive lanes” lined by hundreds of rock cairns and funneled to the cliff edge by others waving blankets or lighting fires. Once the bison tumbled over, most didn’t immediately die and had to be killed at close quarters with spears and rocks. Pishkun is a Blackfeet Indian word loosely translated as “deep blood kettle,” referring to the gory basins below the cliffs.

Where: First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, southwest of Great Falls, is the site of what may be the world’s longest pishkun, extending nearly 1 mile. Another pishkun is at Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, just south of I-90 between Three Forks and Belgrade at the Logan exit.

When: Both parks are open year-round.

Bonus: A buffalo jump diorama that includes a bison seemingly suspended in midair is displayed at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena.


Hike while carrying bear pepper spray

There’s something about hiking, camping, or hunting in an area where grizzly bears live. Though these large carnivores almost never attack people, it does happen. That’s why, in grizzly country, you look around more carefully and continually scan the trail for tracks or scat. And why the sight of a large brown stump can make your heart skip a beat. Roaming where grizzlies roam is exciting and occasionally unsettling. A canister of bear pepper spray on your hip is a reminder that in some places we are not on top of the food chain.

Where: Grizzly bears are found throughout western Montana.

When: Spring, summer, and fall

NOTE:Carry bear pepper spray and keep it handy. The aggressive aerosol repels bears more effectively than a firearm without killing or wounding the animal.

Bonus: Learn how to effectively use bear pepper spray at the FWP website or from seminars sponsored by the department and the Missoula-based Center for Wildlife Information.

Chinese Wall24

See the Chinese Wall

It takes a lot of work to view this vast 1,000-foot-high limestone escarpment that extends 15 miles along the Continental Divide in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. But what a reward! Part of the Lewis Overthrust, the wall was created millions of years ago when the earth’s crust split. The west side tipped up from the center and the east side slid under and pushed the other side up, forming this long cliff named after the Great Wall of China.

Seeing the Chinese Wall requires a multiday backpacking trip (though some ultradistance runners have made it from the trailhead to the wall and back in one long day). Most people start at Benchmark Trailhead, reached from Augusta. The first day’s hike takes you to Indian Point, and the next day you reach the wall. The hike runs along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

Where: The wall is about 40 miles west of Augusta deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

When: July through September

NOTE: This is the heart of grizzly country. Carry easily accessible bear pepper spray at all times.

Bonus:A spur off the trail along the West Fork of the South Fork Sun River climbs the wall to a lookout on the summit of Prairie Reef (8,868 feet). The views in all directions are wonderful.

Flathead Lake Monster25

Drive around Flathead Lake

To fully appreciate this massive, shimmering expanse of water, consider taking an afternoon to drive completely around it. At 192 square miles of surface area, Flathead is the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River. It was created when glaciers of the last ice age retreated and carved out a trench that filled with water, in some places as deep as 371 feet.

Several islands dot the lake, adding to its beauty. Camping and picnic tables are available at five Montana state parks around the lake. They become crowded in summer, however, and campsites especially fill up quickly. The clear water is great for kayaking and swimming, though it can be chilly until about mid-August.

Where: Northwestern Montana between Polson and Kalispell

When: Anytime, but the cooling breezes off the lake are most welcome in July and August.

Bonus: Since the late 1800s dozens of people have reported seeing a large creature in the lake. The “Flathead Monster” is usually described as being between 20 and 40 feet long with humps on its back, black eyes, and an eel- or snake-like body. Fisheries biologists have scoured the lake for decades and never found any sign of such a large aquatic animal. Still, the lake is deep enough that a large creature could easily avoid detection...


Visit a hunter check station in November

Check Station FWPIn several parts of rural Montana, the social center each fall is not a sports bar or VFW hall but the FWP hunter check station. People stand around and drink coffee until a pickup pulls in with antlers or hooves sticking up from the bed. Onlookers head over to see the elk or deer, much discussion ensues, and then the truck drives off and the wait begins again.

Hunters are required to stop at check stations and inform FWP staff and volunteers of their success or lack thereof. Crews measure elk and buck antler beams, count tines, and estimate age by looking at the wear on molars. Check stations monitor the ratio of successful to unsuccessful hunters, give FWP a real-time look at harvest success, and provide wildlife biologists with information used to help set the following year’s hunting regulations. To monitor large carnivore populations, crews also ask hunters if they’ve seen any mountain lions, grizzly bears, or wolves.

FWP sets up check stations in Augusta, Bonner, Darby, Anaconda, Big Timber, Cameron, Dillon, Lavina, Broadview, Billings, Big Timber, and several other sites. Some are simply pickup trucks on the roadside; others are portable trailers or even cabins where FWP staff enter data into computers and stay warm. The public is welcome to hang out.

Where: Statewide. See list above.

When: During the five weeks of big game season from late October to the Sunday after Thanksgiving

Bonus:Check stations are always looking for volunteers. Call your regional FWP office in August, when biologists are scheduling the stations, to learn how to help.


Get stuck in gumbo

No one can say they’ve truly experienced eastern Montana without getting their vehicle—or at least a foot—stuck in this highly adherent muck.

Gumbo is a heavy clay soil found throughout the state’s eastern half between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Types include Houston black gumbo, mudstone, and Bearpaw shale. When wet, gumbo becomes both slick and sticky. Because the soil particles are flat, they slip and slide against each other when lubricated by water, like wet sheets of waxed paper. The water also increases the soil’s adhesive properties, the same as when moistened flour turns sticky. To make matters worse, the bonding force of gumbo increases as it dries, so it adheres to boots and tire wells like concrete.

Where: The Missouri River Breaks around Fort Peck Lake is notorious for gumbo.

When: The stickiest season is after snowmelt in March and any time after a rain.

Bonus: As you sit waiting for the sun to shine and dry up the gumbo, imagine what it must have been like 120 years ago to push a covered wagon or a plow through that sticky soil.

burrowing owl28

See a burrowing owl

These adorable raptors are the only owls in Montana that live underground, nesting and roosting in abandoned prairie dog and ground squirrel burrows. Once abundant throughout the Great Plains, burrowing owl numbers have been reduced in Montana to fewer than 900 nesting pairs.

Where: Open grasslands throughout eastern and central Montana. Greatest concentrations are in Phillips, Valley, and Big Horn Counties. Find prairie dog towns then search the edges for owls.

When: Midsummer. The birds migrate south in fall.

HOW: Drive around BLM prairie lands in the morning and look for the birds perched on prairie dog mounds or wooden fence posts.

TIP: Ask local wildlife biologists, BLM office staff, or Audubon chapter members where to see burrowing owls.

Bonus:When threatened, young burrowing owls, called owlets, emit a loud noise that sounds like the rattle of a rattlesnake.

bighorn Canyon


Visit Bighorn Canyon

The 55-mile-long Bighorn Canyon is a scenic gorge that frames Bighorn Lake, an impoundment created in 1956 after completion of Yellowtail Dam. Below the dam, the Bighorn River’s blue-ribbon stretch begins; upstream, extending south well into Wyoming, is the massive reservoir that weaves back and forth between thousand-foot cliffs. Your best view of the breathtaking geologic formations is at the Devils Canyon Overlook, accessible from Lovell, Wyoming.

The canyon and reservoir are part of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, operated by the National Park Service. After stopping at the informative visitor center in Lovell, follow Wyoming Highway 37 north up onto the desert plateau and continue past the turn for Horseshoe Bend to Devils Canyon. On the way you’ll enter the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, where you might see Spanish mustangs and bighorn sheep. Once at the overlook, brace yourself. Views of the deep, dramatic canyon are often compared to those of the Grand Canyon.

For an entirely different perspective—from the water looking up—enter the canyon by boat from Yellowtail Dam in Montana.

Where: The canyon is in south-central Montana south of Billings along the Wyoming border.

When: The recreation area and visitor center in Lovell, Wyoming, are open seven days a week except on holidays. The area is brutally hot in July and August, which makes for uncomfortable hikes but refreshing swims in the reservoir’s clear, cold waters.

Bonus:As Wyoming Highway 37 nears its end point at Barry’s Landing, you’ll see signs for Hillsboro. This ghost town, originally built by G.W. Barry, an early white settler, contains many original buildings.



Backpack the famous Beartooth Traverse

If you take just one multiday backpack trip in your lifetime, make it the Beartooth Traverse, also known as the Beaten Path. This three- to five-day trip has it all: waterfalls, trout-filled alpine lakes, rocky summits, deep canyons, wilderness, wildflowers, sparkling streams, and grizzly bears. The hike is by no means secret and you definitely won’t be alone—unless it’s late September, when snowfall is a real possibility. But go anyway. With all the jaw-dropping scenery this trip offers, you’ll hardly notice other backpackers.

Where: The heart of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

When: Late June through late September, depending on snow conditions

HOW: Most backpackers begin at East Rosebud Trailhead, which you can reach from Columbus via Montana Highway 78 then a series of gravel roads. Clarks Fork Trailhead at the other end is off U.S. Highway 212 about 5 miles east of Cooke City. Whichever trailhead you start at, you’ll need to arrange a shuttle unless you hike there and back.

Bonus: Explore the alpine beauty around Fossil Lake, considered one of the most beautiful landscapes in Montana.



Catch a walleye

Montana is well known for its trout, but the walleye, a relative newcomer, has definitely made a name for itself. Walleye are members of the perch family and, like perch and the Montana native sauger, are prized for their white, bone-free fillets. Catching them usually requires a boat—to cover lots of water and reach the depths where walleye hang out in midsummer. The exception is in May and October, when the fish cruise shallows at dawn and dusk searching for bait fish and can be caught from shore by casting crankbaits. Though a dozen or so Montana reservoirs hold these glassy-eyed fish, some stocked by FWP and some maintaining naturally reproducing populations, the state’s most famous walleye waters are Canyon Ferry and Fort Peck.

Where: Fort Peck Lake is just south of Glasgow, while Canyon Ferry is southeast of Helena.

When: The fishing is hottest in both reservoirs in July. Shorefishing is best in May and October.

HOW:Anglers generally pick up walleyes in midsummer using a ’crawler harness. For details, ask at local bait shops. Expert walleye guides are available at local bait shops and marinas. A full day of fishing for two people costs $400 to $500 plus tip.

Bonus: If you catch a walleye, take a close look at the eye. The coating reflects light and allows the fish to see in dark water. The name “wall” eye likely derives from the Icelandic word vagl (pronounced “woggle”), which means “cloudy.”


See the world’s largest western larch

The biggest western larch in the nation stands over 153 feet tall in a grove near the town of Seeley Lake. Tree experts estimate it to be roughly 1,000 years old. Though other western larches are taller, the Seeley Lake giant, known locally as “Gus,” has the combination of height, circumference (22 feet), and crown spread (34 feet wide) to make it the top-scoring western larch (commonly called tamarack) in the United States.

Where:Gus grows in the scenic Jim Girard Memorial Grove of the Lolo National Forest along the shore of Seeley Lake on Boy Scout Road.

When: April through December

Bonus: Visit in late October to see the golden needles of Gus and his fellow western larch.

Mountain goats33

Fish all of Montana’s blue-ribbon rivers

All anglers should fish, at least once, every single one of the 12 great waters that FWP categorizes as “blue-ribbon” rivers. These streams are designated for their productivity, number of different game fish, use by anglers, accessibility, and aesthetics. In alphabetical order: the Beaverhead, Big Hole, Bighorn, Blackfoot, Flathead (main stem), Flathead (North Fork), Gallatin, Kootenai (below Libby Dam), Madison, Missouri (from Holter Dam to Cascade), Rock Creek, and Yellowstone Rivers.

Where: Statewide, though most are in the state’s central and western regions.

When: The best fishing is July through October.

HOW: Check with local fly shops for specific hatches and flies, and with bait shops for hot lures and bait.

Bonus: Achieve what we at Montana Outdoors call the “Blue- Ribbon Grand Slam” by catching at least one fish from all 12 rivers within a calendar year.

fishing guide34

See a swift fox

Considered locally extinct in Montana in 1969, this small prairie fox was rediscovered in 1996 near the Canadian border north of Havre. The animals were products of a Canadian reintroduction a decade earlier of 900 swift foxes into southern provinces. Many of the cat-sized canids journeyed south of the international border and began reestablishing themselves on Montana prairies. “The most beautiful fox that I ever beheld,” is how Meriwether Lewis described the species in 1806. Often exhibiting a light orange hue, it was called “yellow fox” by pioneers, who marveled at the small carnivore’s inquisitive nature. Named for its lightning speed, which can reach nearly 40 miles an hour in a sprint, the swift fox is the smallest member of the dog family in North America, standing roughly 12 inches tall and weighing just 5 pounds (about half that of a red fox).

Where:Most sightings are between the Hi-Line and the Canada border, from Havre to Glasgow. Swift foxes have also been reintroduced to the Blackfeet and Fort Peck Indian Reservations by tribal biologists. Look in open prairies and arid plains, including areas intermixed with winter wheat.

When: The species is mostly nocturnal, so sightings rarely occur in daytime.

HOW:The best way to spot these animals is to drive across BLM lands in summer at night and scan the landscape with a searchlight.

Bonus: Because Canada and the United States no longer carry out large-scale predator and rodent poisoning programs, swift foxes are thriving in a region from which they had all but disappeared.

raft paddle35

Float the Smith

One of the state’s most sought-after river adventures is not in the remote Scapegoat Wilderness or scenic Glacier National Park but in central Montana between Helena and Great Falls. Here flows the Smith River, a prolific trout stream running past limestone bluffs and lush green meadows in a remote region without roads, bridges, or towns. The float is leisurely, with only minor whitewater skills required and plenty of time available each day for fishing or naps (or both).

A Montana state park, the Smith River has become so popular that a lottery is conducted each winter for the coveted multiday float permits. On average, visitors take four days to complete the 59-mile stretch from the Camp Baker put-in (10 miles northwest of White Sulphur Springs) to the take-out at Eden Bridge (6 miles east of Cascade). Fans of the float say they would take 40 days to complete the trip if they could.

Where: Central Montana’s Little Belt Mountains

When:The float season runs from April through October. Most floats take place in May and June. Starting in July, the river gets too low for drift boats and rafts. How: Applications for the Smith River permit lottery are accepted between early January and mid-February. For more information, visit

Bonus: With the help of friends providing vehicle shuttles, two now-retired FWP employees paddled the entire 59-mile Smith River float stretch twice in one day in a tandem canoe.

Northern lights36

See beargrass in bloom

Though it looks like a grass, Xerophyllum tenax is actually a member of the lily family that grows over 4 feet tall. When in bloom, beargrass has been described as resembling a white club, foaming stalk, or glowing candle. Though bears don’t care for beargrass, mountain goats consume its leaves and elk, deer, and bighorn sheep eat the blossoms.

Where: Subalpine meadows throughout western Montana. Glacier National Park visitors regularly see beargrass in July.

When: July and August, depending on elevation

Bonus: This plant was long used by Native Americans, who dried the fibrous leaves and wove them into tight, waterproof baskets.


Look for shed antlers

Searching for antlers can be like an Easter egg hunt, a way for adults and kids alike to participate in a traditional spring outing. Many people go out just to enjoy a day afield. More dedicated “horn hunters” aim to enhance their collections with big antlers or the highly prized matched pair. (They are not in fact seeking horns, which don’t drop off animals.) Some search for antler sheds to learn more about bulls and bucks they saw the previous fall. Others do it for the money, selling their finds to antler brokers, who in turn sell the bone to Asian markets and local craftsmen.

So popular has shed hunting become that some kennels have begun to train and sell dogs that locate and retrieve fallen antlers in the wild.

Find sheds by roaming areas where deer and elk winter. Get out in early spring before new vegetation obscures fallen antlers. Hike to high vantage points and scour the ground with binoculars, looking for hints of white or ivory that could indicate a shed.

Beavers, ground squirrels, and other rodents chew on antlers to gain calcium and wear down their teeth, so the discarded headgear often doesn’t last longer than a year in the wild.

The only problem with shed hunting—other than the difficulty of finding the darned things—is that people sometimes enter restricted areas and inadvertently harass elk in early spring when the animals are in weak physical condition. Biologists say the added stress can cause abortions in pregnant elk and low calf birth weights.

Where: Grasslands and sage lands throughout Montana. Densest concentrations are in the state’s eastern half.

When: Throughout Montana where deer and elk winter. The most popular areas are FWP wildlife management areas, which open to shed hunting each year on May 15 or early June, depending on the area. 

Bonus: Occasionally shed hunters find a matched pair of antlers. An even more precious find is a moose antler. Locating a matched pair of moose antlers is so unlikely it would almost invite a criminal inquiry.


Go ice fishing

Some people—actually, it’s most people—would rather watch a blank TV screen than spend an afternoon standing on ice staring at a bobber. But let’s face it: Montana is a cold state and, other than skiing, there’s not much to do outdoors between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day other than ice fish.

ice fishingEveryone who lives here should at least once walk onto a frozen lake (ensuring safe thickness beforehand), drill a hole through the ice, lower a bait-tipped hook into the water, and then spend an hour or two waiting for a bite while stomping to keep their toes from freezing.

Call it a rite of passage into the culture of us northern people.

Where: Montana’s top ice-fishing waters include these lakes and reservoirs: Georgetown, Mary Ronan, Upper Thompson, Salmon, Holland, Placid, Canyon Ferry, Holter, Hauser, Fresno, Tiber, Nelson, and Fort Peck.

HOW: Ice-fishing basics are available on many websites. Get tips and gear from sporting goods stores.

When: Early ice and late ice are best because the fish are closer to shore. But that’s also when ice is thinnest, so be careful.

CAUTION: General guidelines for ice safety: at least 4 inches thick for walking and 8 inches thick for vehicles

Bonus:Ice anglers are friendly (and often bored), so feel free to walk around and visit. Try to find someone with an underwater camera and ask if you can look through it to see what’s going on below the frozen surface.

Clarks signature


Admire William Clark’s signature at Pompeys Pillar

Lewis and Clark were the first explorers of European descent to document many species of fish, wildlife, and native plants in this part of North America, including the westslope cutthroat trout, sage-grouse, Clark’s nutcracker, black-tailed prairie dog , and buffaloberry.

No visual evidence of the Corps of Discovery’s journey remains except at a single site: the base of Pompeys Pillar, a 150-foot limestone outcropping rising from the Yellowstone River Valley. Here Captain William Clark carved his signature into the stone, and seeing it can give you shivers (yes, he truly was here). Clark’s partner, Captain Meriwether Lewis, at the time was 275 miles to the northwest exploring the upper Marias River. The two crews met up a few months later in today’s North Dakota.

Captain Clark named the pillar “Pompys Tower” in honor of Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, whom he had nicknamed “Pompy.” Nicholas Biddle, first editor of the Lewis and Clark journals, changed the name to “Pompeys Pillar.”

In 1882 the Northern Pacific Railroad placed an iron grate over the signature to protect it from thieves and vandals. In 2001 the site was designated as a national monument and placed under management of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

Where: 25 miles east of Billings off I-90

When: Year-round

Bonus: Look around the base of the pillar for petroglyphs thought to be made by Shoshone Indians who lived in the area before the Crow and Cheyenne Tribes arrived.


Ask permission to hunt private land

JamMontana contains 32 million acres of public land and another 8 million acres of private property enrolled in Block Management. So you don’t really need to motor up the driveway, endure barking dogs, and work up the nerve to knock on that door. But all hunters should do it anyway, at least once.

The process reminds us of how important landowners are to Montana’s wildlife. East of the Continental Divide, most wildlife lives on private property. If landowners didn’t tolerate geese eating their winter wheat, deer grazing their alfalfa fields, and elk knocking down their fences, Montana would have far fewer game animals.

Asking permission also puts you face to face with a landowner. Even if your request is turned down, you have met that Montanan, and he or she you. “Landowner” and “hunter” become, at least for a moment, actual human beings and not members of interest groups. And if you receive permission—well, that giddy feeling can be akin to asking someone on a date and getting a positive reply.

To some hunters, trying to obtain permission is as thrilling a challenge as the hunt itself.

Where: Statewide

When: It’s most polite—and effective—to ask permission weeks or even months before hunting seasons begin. Once seasons open, landowners are swamped with requests.

Bonus: Find landowner names on Montana’s official public and private land ownership map website ( The online maps show all private lands and include a list of landowners (though not their addresses or phone numbers, which you’ll need to find elsewhere.)

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