Samples from the Best 100 list
Excerpted from the Montana Outdoors July-August 2013 issue
Smell a ponderosa pine
Even from afar, it’s easy to admire these grand conifers, designated as Montana’s state tree in 1949. The elegant evergreens are beautifully proportioned, with broad branches and orangish puzzle-piece bark. But to really know a ponderosa pine you need to get intimate with one. On a sunny day, put your nose up close and breathe in the vanilla smell created as sunshine heats the bark. Then pinch a few fresh needles between your fingers and take in the fresh scent of citrus and turpentine released from the oils. It may have been this delicious forest fragrance that inspired the first tree hugger.
Where: Throughout western, northwestern, and southeastern Montana in mountains and foothills
When: Smell the vanilla of a ponderosa pine any time of year when the sun is shining.
Bonus: On a sunny summer day, bring a blanket and a picnic basket. After eating, lie down in a shady bed of needles and let yourself be lulled to sleep by the whisper of wind in the boughs above.
Visit 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.
See a long-billed curlew
This unmistakable prairie bird is the only species possessing such an improbably long, downward-curving bill. Though technically a shorebird, the long-billed curlew nests in Montana’s northern prairie, using its slate-gray, 5- to 8-inch-long bill to pull earthworms from moist ground. On its wintering grounds along the Baja California and Gulf Coasts, the curlew probes deep into wet sand for shrimp and small crabs.
The bird has a buff-colored body with mottled coloration. It is sometimes mistaken for a marbled godwit, which is similarly shaped and also equipped with a long bill. But the curlew, the world’s largest shorebird, is much taller (23 inches compared to 18 inches), and its bill curves down, while the godwit’s is straight or slightly upward tilting.
Where: Wet areas of central Montana grasslands, especially between the Rocky Mountain Front and the CMR National Wildlife Refuge
When: The best viewing is in May during mating season.
How: First, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website (birds.cornell.edu) and listen to the various curlew calls. Then drive through short- or mixed-grass prairie in spring or summer and listen for the calls before scanning the source area with binoculars.
Bonus: The long-billed curlew is also known as the candlestick bird. Candlestick Point in San Francisco is named after the bird. Candlestick Park Stadium inherited the name.
Hike a prairie in June
This is one of the easiest yet most stimulating outdoor activities Montana has to offer. Simply drive to a prairie grassland, park your vehicle, and start walking. Look down at wildflowers and grasses, and look up to see raptors, pronghorn, and the endless horizon. Listen for birds. Bring a picnic, eat, and then take a nap, just as folks did there on Sunday afternoons 100 or even 1,000 years ago.
Where: Shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie is found throughout southwestern, central, and eastern Montana. Most public prairie lands are owned by the Bureau of Land Management and are
indicated on BLM maps, available at sporting goods stores.
When: The best time to hear songbirds is May, to look at wildflowers is June, and to see grasses in their autumn hues is October.
How: Drive, park, and then start walking.
Bonus 1: Stick around until dusk. Nothing compares to a prairie sunset, where you can see the earth’s arc along the vast horizon.
Bonus 2: Take your prairie outing a step further by bringing along a sleeping bag and pad and spending the night under the stars. You’ll feel like a cowboy from a Zane Grey novel.
Collect a moss (Yellowstone) agate
Montana has two state gemstones: the sapphire and the moss, or Yellowstone, agate. The sapphire is mined in the state’s western and central mountains; the moss agate, considered by rock hounds to be among the world’s finest, is found along gravel bars of the Yellowstone River from the mouth of the Bighorn River downstream to Sidney.
Agates are formed by bubbles made from gasses within cooling igneous (volcanic) rock. The bubbles form plume-like cavities that fill with silica tinted by iron and other minerals. As the silica hardens, it forms colorful organic shapes in the translucent stone. Also known as picture agates, moss agates can be cut and polished to exhibit shapes and colors that resemble trees, sunsets, and rivers.
On the outside, the agates look much like any other rock. Before searching, examine photographs online so you’ll know what to look for.
Where: Sandbars along the Yellowstone River from the Bighorn River confluence to Sidney. The river and banks are public lands. Gain access from bridge crossings, from fishing access sites, or by asking private landowners.
When: Midsummer just after runoff has scoured gravel beds and exposed new agates.
Bonus: Have your agates tumbled and polished at local rock shops found in many towns along the river. Many shops also sell polished moss agates and agate jewelry.
See bitterroot in bloom
Spotting Montana’s state flower should be easy. It’s bright pink, with large concentrations on open hillsides sometimes visible from a quarter mile away. Yet the bitterroot, a member of the lily family confined to a limited range in west-central Montana, is often elusive even when flowering.
A small, low-growing plant, the bitterroot exists on dry rocky, gravelly, or sandy soil in sparsely vegetated hillsides often dotted with ponderosa pine. It first appears in spring as green rosettes of fleshy 1- to 2-inch leaves spread out from a central stem. When the plant blooms, from mid-May to early June, the pink petals obscure the succulent leaves, which quickly shrivel and seem to disappear.
Because the plant blooms only under direct sunlight, petals remain folded in morning and evening. The best time to see the blooms is midday, when seemingly from nowhere dozens or even hundreds of pink flowers show themselves.
Meriwether Lewis, who first officially described the plant in 1805, gave it its scientific name, Lewisia rediviva. Rediviva is Latin for “revived,” referring to the plant’s ability to survive even when dug up and transported long distances.
The plant’s common name refers to the bitter taste of the root, which for centuries was boiled and eaten by American Indians, along with Cous biscuitroot and blue camas.
Where: Around Helena, Missoula, and Dillon, and in the Bitterroot Valley
When: Bitterroot blooms from May to early June.
Bonus: The Montana Legislature designated the bitterroot as the state flower in 1895. Second and third place? The evening primrose and wild rose, respectively.
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