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 montanaoutdoors@mt.gov.

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Montana's Best 41-60

(In no particular order or rank)

41

Turkey huntingCall in a tom turkey

Whether armed with a shotgun with intent to shoot or just doing it to see one up close, enticing a gobbler into close range will send your heartbeat into overdrive. Calling is done during spring mating season, from April through May, when the male birds, called toms or gobblers, are gathering harems of hens for mating. Often a loud yelp-yelp-yelp-yelp-yelp made on a box, mouth, or other call will elicit the classic gobble-gobble-gobble from a tom. If all goes as planned and you don’t overcall, the curious turkey will slowly walk your way, his head weaving back and forth trying to see if you are the hen you pretend to be. And the closer he gets, the harder your heart beats. Often gobblers “hang up” about 100 yards away, too suspicious to venture closer. That’s fine for watching the birds, which puff up and strut in circles, but it’s frustrating for anyone holding a shotgun, which has a killing range of less than half that distance.

Where: Wild turkeys are found throughout much of Montana but especially in the southeastern and south-central regions (home to the Merriam’s subspecies) and the Flathead area (home to the Eastern subspecies). Look for turkeys in forested areas with water and open fields. They often hang around ranches and farmsteads in winter.

When: Gobbling can start as early as mid-March and carry on through mid-May. How to call, hunt, or both: Hunting wild turkeys requires a special license and, in some areas, a permit. See FWP for details. The Internet and hunting magazines are filled with how-to advice on calling and hunting.

Bonus: Wild turkeys are not native to today’s Montana. Historically they could not survive this far north and ranged only up into central Colorado (Merriam’s subspecies) and southern South Dakota (Eastern subspecies). Increased agriculture has provided wild turkeys with enough calories so they can survive in more northern latitudes, where they have been stocked by wildlife agencies and volunteers.


Pishkun

42

Hike to Grinnell Glacier

Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park is melting fast. Over the past 30 years the ice slab has shrunk by 90 percent and continues to diminish. Yet even when the glaciar eventually disappears—which park officials estimate could be as soon as 2030—the hike will remain popular because it’s so scenic. The route passes clear subalpine lakes, cascading waterfalls, and towering mountains. Mountain goats (distant) and bighorn sheep (close) are common.

The 5.5-mile trail gains 1,600 feet in elevation, most of it in the last half. The hike starts out flat, following the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine before climbing through meadows and scree slopes. A flat area near the top gives you a chance to catch your breath before making the final push up a moraine for the view of Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier. The ice formation—which all visitors need to actually touch just to say they’ve done it—is named for George Bird Grinnell, an early American conservationist, explorer, and outspoken advocate for creating Glacier National Park.

Where: The hike starts at the picnic area east of Many Glacier Campground.

When: July, August, and September

SPECIAL NOTE: As on any hike in GNP, always carry quickly accessible bear pepper spray. Grizzly encounters here are not uncommon.

Bonus: The people you see standing high on the headwall above the glacier got there by another route off the Garden Wall Trail that goes to Granite Park Chalet—yet another spectacular hike.


GOLDEN EAGLE43

See the fall golden eagle migration at Rogers Pass or Bridger Mountain Ridge

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: Each fall golden eagles and other raptors ride thermals along mountainsides on their journey from as far north as the Arctic Circle to wintering grounds in Mexico and Central and South America. Two sites in Montana that see the greatest golden eagle concentrations during this time are at Rogers Pass along the Rocky Mountain Front and Bridger Mountain Ridge just north of Bozeman. Both spots are geologic bottlenecks that concentrate raptors and allow for a remarkable number of sightings.

Volunteers at both sites monitor golden eagle numbers as part of projects coordinated by HawkWatch International, Raptor View Research Institute, and Montana Audubon.

When: Eagle numbers peak during the first two weeks of October.

HOW: Wear camo or muted colors. Birds discern colors and will stay farther away if they see bright reds, oranges, yellows, and greens. Spotting scopes are helpful, and binoculars are essential.

Bonus:Volunteer to count golden eagles at Bridger for the Montana Audubon Society. E-mail shoffman@mtaudubon.org.


trail ride44

Go on an outfitted backcountry trip

Using horses, outfitters can take you farther into the backcountry in far less time than it would take to walk. They can also carry more gear and better food, and allow for more comfort once you get there. What’s more, because your eyes are a few feet higher than when you walk, riding a horse provides you with a great way to see the landscape.

Horses are the “real” West, a world of stiff ropes and specialized knots, of canvas and leather. And these horse-propelled outings aren’t just for hunters. Outfitters increasingly run “pack trips”—multiday adventures that take anglers into backcountry lakes and streams, wildflower fans to alpine meadows, and other nature lovers to remote places where they can see grizzlies, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, wolves, and other watchable wildlife.

Riding experience is not required. Outfitters usually have a wide range of horses—including calm, gentle ones—to fit the needs of all guests.

Where: Throughout Montana

When: Summer for fishing and wildflowers, fall for wildlife watching and hunting

HOW:The Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (montanaoutfitters.org) provides information on finding an outfitter to suit your needs.

Bonus: Bone up on packer terminology beforehand, including “lash cinch,” “breast collar,” “hoof boots,” “conway buckle,” and “pack string.”


White-tailed ptarmigan

45

Spot a white-tailed ptarmigan

If you manage to see one of these uncommon alpine birds, you know you’re at a high elevation. White-tailed ptarmigan are the smallest member of the grouse family in North America, averaging about a foot long and weighing less than a pound. In summer they are a mottled gray-brown with a white tail, underside, and wings. During fall both sexes become a reddish brown, and then turn white by early winter.

This is the only ptarmigan species found south of Canada. In Montana, the bird lives above tree line in a few mountain ranges across the state’s northwestern region.

Where: The white-tailed ptarmigan is found almost exclusively above timberline, summer and winter. Most sightings take place in Glacier National Park in alpine areas containing dwarf willow, heath, and mosses.

When: In May and June the birds breed in areas that have water and willow shrubs nearby. After her chicks hatch, a hen and her brood spend summer in moist meadows containing boulders and lush vegetation.

HOW: There’s no telling where ptarmigan will show up. The best way to find them is to hike extensively throughout northwestern Montana’s alpine areas in and around GNP.

Bonus: The bird’s feathered legs and feet act as snowshoes so it can walk atop snow.


Three wolf moon46

Hear a wolf howl

Not many people have seen a wolf. The canids stick to deep timber and generally shun humans and roads. The exception is in Yellowstone National Park, where wolves have become accustomed to people and can be regularly seen, especially during winter.

Since regulated hunting seasons began in 2009, the large carnivores have learned to become elusive in Montana. That’s why hearing a wolf howl is far more likely than seeing one. Camp or hike into backcountry areas where wolf packs live. Listen at dawn or dusk. You can even try eliciting a response by giving a few howls of your own (though that’s not recommended during hunting season in fall and winter).

Where: Most packs live in northwestern Montana, but wolves can be found throughout the state west of the Continental Divide. Visit the FWP website and search for “Wolf Distribution” for a rough idea of where packs live.

When: Wolves howl year-round but are most vocal in winter, especially during the breeding season in January and February.

Bonus: One of the main reasons wolves howl is to identify each other over long distances. It’s a way for wolves in a pack to reunite with each other after separation. Wolves also howl to claim territory and announce their presence to other packs.


Kootenai Falls

47

See Kootenai Falls

The Pacific Northwest is home to many large waterfalls that, over the past century, have been dammed to produce hydropower. One exception is Kootenai Falls, a scenic series of cascades along the Kootenai River east of Libby and one of the largest waterfalls in Montana. The river here drops 300 feet in elevation over a few hundred yards; several rafting scenes from the Meryl Streep thriller The River Wild were shot from the site. The adventurous can walk out on a swinging footbridge downstream from the falls. Look for expert kayakers playing in the tumultuous rapids below and keep an eye out for bighorn sheep grazing on cliffs on the river’s east side.

Where: Look for the turnoff 5 miles west of Libby on U.S. Highway 2. Follow the short trail to the falls.

When: Anytime. The flows are most spectacular in June when the Kootenai is swollen with spring runoff.

Bonus: Visit Libby Dam, just a few miles upstream from the falls. The controversial structure, completed in 1973, was built to control floods, provide irrigation water, and generate hydropower. By cutting off springtime flows that trigger spawning runs and blocking fish from reaching upstream spawning water, the dam may cause the federally endangered inland white sturgeon to disappear from Montana.


Grayling

48

Catch an arctic grayling in the Big Hole River

Montana’s Big Hole is the only river in the lower 48 states containing a (somewhat) healthy population of fluvial (stream-dwelling) arctic grayling. To truly appreciate this marvelous salmonid, you need to hold one in your hand and see its purple and emerald scales and sail-like dorsal fin. FWP is working with federal agencies and local landowners to keep this last bastion of river grayling from disappearing. Working against the fish, regularly proposed for federal endangered species listing, is increasingly warmer weather over the past decade. The hot temperatures result in low snowpack and increased competition with ranchers for water. In its favor are efforts by many of those same ranchers, working with biologists and hydrologists, to find ways to share the water so that both cows and grayling can thrive.

Where: The Big Hole River from Wisdom to Jackson

When: The best fishing is July through October.

HOW: Grayling have tiny mouths. Use the same nymphs, dry flies, and spinners as for trout, only smaller.

Bonus: Having evolved in the Arctic, where food is scarce, the grayling attacks prey with abandon and is an easy catch for anglers. Wrote Izaak Walton, “He will rise twenty times at a fly, if you miss him, and yet rise again.”


Giant Springs

49

See the Giant Springs

Giant Springs State Park in Great Falls features one of the world’s largest springs, gushing nearly 8 million gallons of icy water per hour. The water originates in the Little Belt Mountains 50 or more miles to the southeast. Snowmelt and rain taken in by exposed Madison Formation limestone in the Little Belts drain through underground fissures all the way to Great Falls. There the water gushes up from the spring and empties into the Missouri River. Adding to the site’s oasis-like feel in this otherwise dry and dusty landscape is shade from towering cottonwoods, the park’s lush, green lawns, and the sound of bubbling water. The massive spring was noted by Meriwether Lewis as the Corps of Discovery passed by in 1805.

Where: From I-15, take exit 280 into Great Falls. Stay on U.S. Highway 87/89 and follow signs to the park, which is on the city’s northeastern side along the east bank of the Missouri River.

When: Open year-round, but to get the full oasis effect, visit in August.

Bonus: Giant Springs has enough flow to qualify as a river and is also known as the North Fork Roe River. Guinness World Records recognizes both the North Fork Roe and Oregon’s D River as the world’s shortest rivers.


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Tipi ring50

Visit an ancient tipi ring

Some dating back 2,000 years or more, tipi rings are the sites where Plains Indians set up their portable, conical tents, made of buffalo hide and held up by thick lodgepoles. Rather than using wooden stakes, Indians anchored tipi edges to the ground with watermelon-sized rocks. When a camp moved, tents were dismantled and the rocks left behind. The result was tens of thousands of stone circles scattered across the Great Plains. Modern roads, towns, and farming have covered or removed some tipi rings, but many remain. The circular sites are found near water, in fertile valleys where game was abundant, or on rims of coulees and river valleys that provide expansive views of the landscape below.

Where: Two sites where rings are accessible to public viewing are First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, southwest of Great Falls, and Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, about 10 miles southeast of Logan off I-90.

When: Anytime, but seeing the rings is easiest in spring when vegetation is sparse.

NOTE: Do not remove or move the rocks.

Bonus: When you find a ring, try to figure out why Indians positioned their tipis at that particular site.


 

Walleye

51

Hike up Square Butte

Isolated hills with vertical sides and a flat top, buttes are classic features of the western landscape. Many are volcanic pillars (laccoliths), formed millions of years ago when magma swelled underneath the earth’s surface and caused the overlying rock to bulge upward. A classic example is Square Butte, one of the most famous landmarks in central Montana. About 50 miles east of Great Falls near the town of Square Butte, the formation rises 2,500 feet from its base, towering over the valley and visible from 100 miles away. A National Natural Landmark managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Square Butte has steep sides near its summit that prevent livestock from reaching the top and overgrazing native vegetation. Hikers who reach the plateau will see grasses that in wet years grow waist high.

From atop Square Butte you can see the Highwood Mountains to the west, the Bears Paw Mountains to the north, and the Snowy and Little Belt Mountains to the southeast and southwest, respectively. Looking out over the surrounding landscape, you can also begin to comprehend the immensity of central Montana’s vast open spaces.

Where: 30 miles southeast of Fort Benton off Montana Highway 80. Turn at the community of Square Butte and follow the signs. The site is accessible only through private land, requiring that you check in with the landowners before starting your hike.

When: Prairie wildflowers are most abundant in May and June, but blooms appear anytime from April through the end of September. The area is closed during fall big game hunting season from mid-October through late November.

NOTE: The hike to the top is about 1 mile, with steep going at the end.

Bonus: A band of mountain goats lives on top of Square Butte.


Mountain lion paw52

Spot a mountain lion track

Seeing a wild mountain lion in Montana is the sighting of a lifetime. One photographer we know, who spends an average of 175 days a year afield, tells us he has seen a cougar only once, and that was just the tail disappearing over a boulder. A lion track, on the other hand, is something almost anyone can find—if you know where and when to look. The best time of year is winter, right after a light snow. In early morning, drive up and down roads in national forests known to hold lions. Look for lion tracks—which are at least 3 inches tall by 3 inches wide—crossing the road. Learn to tell a lion track from a large dog or wolf track by doing a Google images search and comparing images.­­

Where: Lions live throughout western and central Montana in forested mountains or foothills, though they also occur in the east along the Missouri River Breaks.

When: Winter is the best time of year to “cut” (come across) a track.

Bonus: The best way to find a track and spot a lion is to either hire or befriend a lion houndsman who will take you out to see a treed one.


Nelson Reservoir53

Fish Nelson Reservoir

They ought to call it Lunker Lake, because more state record fish have been caught in this 4,000-acre prairie reservoir northeast of Malta than in any other. Bear in mind, the species caught in Nelson don’t exactly trip off the tongues of most Montana anglers. State records over the years caught in Nelson include those for bigmouth buffalo, carp, goldeye, smallmouth buffalo, and white sucker—not exactly travel-brochure species. But for anglers who want to catch a diversity of big fish, and especially those after a state record, this fish factory merits attention.

Why so many lunkers? Located at the terminus of the entire Dodson South Canal system, Nelson is a nutrient sink. All that irrigation return water, high in organics and nutrients, ends up in the reservoir. And there the nutrients remain, growing mammoth fish year after year.

Nelson also produces substantial numbers of very large game species, including walleye, yellow perch, and northern pike.

Where: 26 miles northeast of Malta

When: Just after ice-out for northern pike, with June and July best for walleye and most other species. Winter fishing turns on during early and late ice, when fish are closer to shore and easier to locate.

HOW: Get the latest fishing report from Westside Sports in Malta at (406) 654-1611.

CAMPING: Stay a few days. Next to the reservoir is a 288-acre Bureau of Land Management campground with tent and trailer sites, drinking water, and restrooms.

Bonus: Nelson is especially popular with ice anglers who jig for walleye and with spearers looking to impale northern pike.


Snow geese

54

See the snow geese at Freezeout Lake

It’s one of the world’s great annual bird spectacles, comparable to the sandhill crane rendezvous in central Nebraska’s Platte River and the pink flamingo concentration on Kenya’s Lake Nakuru.

Each spring, snow geese migrate north from wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. Along the way many stop at Freezeout Lake, a shallow basin along the Rocky Mountain Front 15 miles southeast of Choteau. Anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000 snow geese use the lake, leaving the safety of water twice a day to feed in surrounding fields of irrigated grain (the nearby town of Fairfield touts itself as “the malting barley capital of the world”). The birds usually leave the lake to feed at around 8 a.m. and again in late afternoon, returning to the water between 10 and 11 a.m. and then at sundown.

Don’t be alarmed if at first you fail to see massive swarms of geese in flight as depicted in the photo above. Look for giant white “islands” in the lake, which are actually dense concentrations of geese. The birds also may be feeding in surrounding fields, several miles away. If no geese are flying, wait for them to get restless. When huge flocks rise from the water in alarm or to feed, they look, as one photographer said, “like a white mountain separating itself from the earth.” The din is deafening.

Where: At Freezeout Wildlife Management Area, just off U.S. Highway 89, about 40 miles northwest of Great Falls. Interior roads are open to vehicles March 15 through late September.

When: Mid-March through early April. The lake also attracts large numbers of snow geese in November, but not nearly as many as in spring. Call the FWP regional office in Great Falls (406-454-5840) in March and April for an up-to-date snow goose report.

Bonus: You’ll also see hundreds if not thousands of pintails and other ducks, as well as hundreds of tundra swans.


Fort Peck Reservoir55

Visit Fort Peck Dam

Many significant dams have been built in Montana over the past century, but none changed the landscape and created recreational opportunities to the extent that Fort Peck has. Built from 1933 to 1940, the dam was the showpiece of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. Construction, which cost $2.5 billion in today’s dollars, created thousands of jobs during the Great Depression. The 3.5-mile-wide dam was the biggest on earth when completed and even today is the world’s second-largest earth-fill dam. Built primarily to reduce downstream flooding, provide water storage for irrigation, and produce hydropower, the dam created a reservoir of 245,000 surface acres with more miles of shoreline than the entire California coast. Fort Peck Lake (technically a reservoir) contains more fishing water than could be explored in many lifetimes. Among the species that anglers target are smallmouth bass, northern pike, landlocked Chinook (king) salmon, crappie, channel catfish, and, notably, walleye.

Where: The dam is 10 miles southeast of Glasgow on Montana Highway 24. From there drive to the town of Fort Peck, which has a dam museum.

When: You can see the dam any time of year. Tours run during tourist season. The best time to fish the reservoir is May through September.

Bonus: Ivan Doig’s novel Bucking the Sun is a fictionalized account of the Duff family, homesteaders driven from their Missouri River bottomland farm to work on Fort Peck Dam.


Huckleberries56

Pick a quart of huckleberries

Few outdoor activities are easier and more satisfying than spending a summer afternoon picking ripe hucks. The fruit is delicious fresh, made into jam, or cooked in desserts, and can be harvested by anyone of any age. Huckleberries are most abundant in northwestern Montana forests between 3,500 and 7,000 feet. Look for conifer stands with roughly 50 percent tree cover. The berries ripen in open or semiopen areas of old burns, old clear-cuts, and avalanche chutes.

As you pick, put the berries in a 1-quart plastic container with a U-shaped flap cut in the lid. If you slip or stumble on the hillsides where many huckleberry bushes grow, you don’t want your hard-earned bounty spilling all over the ground.

Keep in mind that humans aren’t the only ones looking for huckleberries. Watch out for grizzlies, make noise, and carry bear pepper spray.

Where: Some of the best areas are in the Flathead and Kootenai National Forests.

When: Mid-July (at lower elevations) through September (at up to 7,000 feet)

HOW: View online pictures of huckleberry bushes, leaves, and berries so you know what to look for. Find huckleberries by driving along forest roads and stopping occasionally to seek out the low-growing bushes.

Bonus: If you can keep from eating your harvest before returning home, bake a pie or tart and serve with vanilla ice cream.


Rowing57

Learn to row a drift boat

The classic Montana trout river scene is two people in a drift boat, with one standing in the bow, casting, while the other sits with oars in hand, maneuvering past boulders to reach rising trout. The sun is shining, mayflies flutter in the air, and snowcapped peaks frame the background.

Put yourself in that picture by learning to row. This skill enables you to fish from a boat and cover much more water than by wading. It also allows you to position your partner’s casts so they land just next to the bank, where trout often hang out

. Though basic rowing is not especially difficult, it’s not intuitive either. When rowing with the current, the rower sits in the middle, facing the bow, which points downstream. The boat floats with the current until it must be slowed or steered around boulders or other obstacles. This is done with backstroking. By pulling the oar handles back toward your chest, you push the oar blades forward in the water, slowing the craft. By backstroking just one oar or the other, you can pivot the craft left or right; occasional backstroking with both oars counteracts the push of the current and lessens forward movement.

Instructions like these are of little help until you actually get on the water with an experienced oarsman or oarswoman and learn for yourself.

Where: If you don’t have a friend with a boat, hire a fishing guide. In half a day he or she will have you rowing like a pro.

When: Begin on slow, open rivers like the Missouri or Bighorn. After building confidence and skill, move to more challenging waters like the upper Yellowstone or Big Hole.

Bonus: Once you become proficient, consider buying your own boat. You will suddenly become very popular with fellow anglers.


58

PaddlefishSnag a paddlefish

This prehistoric fish has lived in North America since the time of the dinosaurs. Then, as now, its most outstanding feature is its long, paddle-shaped rostrum, or snout. This flat appendage—as well as the head and gill flaps—contains special sensors the fish uses to locate electrical currents emitted by schools of zooplankton. A paddlefish swims into a mass of these microorganisms with its beach ball–sized mouth wide open, straining the tiny creatures through comblike rakers in the gills.

Because paddlefish don’t eat worms and other bait, people can catch them only by casting out large treble hooks, snagging the massive fish, and then horsing them to shore with rods as thick as pool cues. Fly-fishing is not an option.

Most of the fish’s meat is white, dense, and delicious, similar to sturgeon or Atlantic Ocean monkfish. It’s especially flavorful when smoked.

A female paddlefish produces prodigious amounts of eggs, which experts can make into caviar. Much snagging takes place at Intake Dam downstream from Glendive. In exchange for having their paddlefish cleaned, butchered, and packaged, snaggers donate roe to a commercial caviar operation. A portion of the proceeds goes to the city of Glendive to fund historical, cultural, and recreational projects.

FWP biologists monitor paddlefish populations and harvest, adjusting regulations when necessary to ensure a sustainable wild fishery.

Where:Paddlefish swim in the Yellowstone River upstream to around the Tongue River confluence and in the Missouri River upstream to about Fort Benton.

HOW:Paddlefish snagging requires a conservation license, fishing license, and paddlefish tag. The limit is one paddlefish per person each season. See the Montana Fishing Regulations for other laws related to paddlefish snagging and harvest.

When: Spring, summer, and fall

Bonus: Purchase a jar of Yellowstone caviar, the preserved roe of paddlefish, from online sources. The delicacy costs—gulp—$30 to $50 an ounce, plus shipping.


 

Hammer59

“Play” the Ringing Rocks

Parts of this granite boulder outcrop between Butte and White­hall actually chime when struck lightly with a hammer. Geologists believe the ringing is a combination of the rocks’ individual composition and the way they have joined together over time.

A boulder removed from the pile does not ring when struck. Also, the sound differs depending on where on the pile a rock is struck. Those on top sound like bells, while those at the bottom sound like someone tapping a pipe. You may need to tap several rocks before finding one that is particularly musical.

Where: Drive east from Butte 18 miles to the Pipestone exit (241). Cross the freeway then follow the gravel road along the freeway east for three-quarters of a mile. Follow the road north over the railroad tracks for 3 miles and look for Bureau of Land Management signs indicating the Ringing Rocks. It’s a good idea to drive with a high-clearance vehicle, as the road is rocky.

When: Late spring, summer, and early fall.

HOW: Bring a hammer for each person in your group.

Bonus: Pennsylvania’s Ringing Rocks Park is the only similar site in the United States. Two other areas of rocks with similar sonorous properties are the Musical Stones of Skiddaw in England and the Bell Rock Range of western Australia.


Hiawatha Trail

60

Bike the Hiawatha Trail

Though Montana offers only a few rails-to-trails bike routes, this one, shared with Idaho near where I-90 crosses the state line, is among the nation’s best. Not only is the scenery splendid, but riders also pass through nine railroad tunnels, including one 1.6 miles long, and cross seven high trestles. The 15-mile route (one way) also snakes through the epicenter of the historic 1910 fire, which shaped the landscape and wildlife of western Montana during the past century. Forty-six interpretive signs along the abandoned railroad bed tell the story of the Big Burn and how local residents escaped the conflagration in rail cars.

The Big Burn, along with another 1,700 fires sparked across the country in 1910, so unnerved the American public that Congress demanded total fire suppression from the fledgling U.S. Forest Service. Ironically, the result over the past century has been to make forests more flammable, as dead and downed trees, which periodic wildfires historically cleaned out, built up to fuel catastrophic blazes. You’ll gain a sense of the fire potential while biking the trail.

Where: Taft exit 5, just east of where I-90 crosses the Montana-Idaho border.

When: The trail opens in late May.

HOW: The logistics of the trail are a bit confusing. You need to buy a ticket at Lookout Pass Ski & Recreation Area, which is 5 miles from the trailhead. Visit ridethehiawatha.com for clear instructions on where to go and what to do. Be sure to bring a jacket, hat, and, especially, headlamp (for the pitch-dark tunnels).

Bonus: From the East Portal Trailhead, the 15-mile-long trail is a gentle 2 percent downhill grade. Pay for a shuttle back to the parking lot, or cycle back to burn a few more calories and see the sights from a new perspective.


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