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A view of the Big Hole River valley.

Start exploring Montana's great outdoors The Montana Outdoors Best 100

Why a “Best” 100?

July-August 2013

Why a “Best” 100?
One problem with Montana—though you can hardly call it that, even if it is true—is that the state is so darned big and diverse. There’s actually too much of it to take in. In a lifetime, a person couldn’t hike all the hikes, hunt every game species, catch all the different coldwater and warmwater fish, spot the state’s 468 bird species, and see all the geologic marvels and scenic wonders that adorn calendars and tourism brochures. Two lifetimes. Twenty lifetimes.

So a person—resident and visitor alike—can be left wondering exactly which of these many things he or she should see and do. What are the essential experiences that allow a person to say, Yes, I’ve seen and fully taken part in the best of what Montana’s outdoors has to offer? Where would you even begin?

That’s where we come in. Over the past year Montana Outdoors asked naturalists, tourism experts, backcountry guides, outdoor writers, and other FWP staff members to select what they would consider Montana’s essential out-of-doors sights and activities. We received hundreds of suggestions, then narrowed those down to what we’re calling the “Best 100.”

If you want, call it a bucket list. We prefer to think of it as a catalog of outdoor opportunities—things people can see and do to fully appreciate Montana’s mountains, forests, prairies, rivers, lakes, and the fish and wildlife that live there.

We made sure to select as many sights and activities as possible that are open to people of all ages and abilities—across the state and throughout the seasons. Some, such as seeing the Chinese Wall or driving Going-to-the-Sun Road, are unique to Montana. Others, like tying a fly, picking huckleberries, or listening to sage-grouse “boom,” are things you can experience elsewhere but are nevertheless intrinsic to our state’s outdoors culture.

In keeping with FWP’s mission, most of what’s on the list has something to do with fisheries, wildlife, native plants, or natural landscapes.

For lack of space, we had to pass up many must-see sights or must-do activities. No doubt we failed to mention one of your favorites. If so, let us know. We hope to compile another “best” list down the road.

In the meantime, we hope this special issue of Montana Outdoors introduces you to places you never knew existed. Or reminds you of activities or places you once heard about but forgot. Or inspires you to try a completely new activity, maybe even something a bit out of your comfort zone.

As for whether this list truly represents Montana’s “best” 100, well, who can say? All we know is that if someone wants to experience the highlights of our state’s outdoors, this is not a bad place to start.

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.

1. Visit the Sun River WMA

A view overlooking the Sun River.

Montana’s wildlife management area (WMA) system protects and makes publicly accessible some of the state’s most important—and scenic—habitat communities. The jewel of this crown may be Sun River WMA, which every wildlife fan needs to visit at least once.

Sun River WMA sits along the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front about 60 miles west of Great Falls. In 1947, with the help of local hunters, FWP bought the land from a willing landowner to manage as winter range to benefit the elk population. The purchase has also helped alleviate headaches for local ranchers, on whose property elk often graze when snow pushes them down from the nearby mountains. Today the 20,000-acre wildlife area is home to roughly 2,000 wintering elk, as well as grizzly bears, wolves, pronghorn, mule deer, sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse, and dozens of other bird and mammal species.

WHERE: From Augusta, follow the Gibson Reservoir/Sun Canyon Road 3.5 miles to a fork. Take the left fork (Augusta Willow Creek Road) 5 miles to the WMA entrance. Park there or carry on another 2.5 miles to the parking lot just past Swayze Lake.

WHEN: Birding is best in spring. Though the WMA is closed December 1 to May 14, you can still see large concentrations of elk throughout the winter from the Augusta Willow Creek Road.

BONUS: If coming from the south, continue north on U.S. Highway 287/89 for spectacular views of the Rocky Mountain Front.

2. See sandhill cranes perform their mating dance

An illustration of two sandhill cranes.These tall, elegant birds conduct a complex mating dance consisting of spread-wing hops, graceful pirouettes, and exaggerated bows. This is how they choose a mate, though exactly what either sex is looking for in the movements remains a mystery.

WHERE: Statewide in open grasslands, stubble fields, and marshes

WHEN: Early April to mid-May

BONUS: Listen for the birds’ loud croaking and rattling calls, part of the mating ritual and audible from up to a mile away.

3. Hear an elk bugle

A bugle.If you spend any time in the mountains during September, the bull elk’s mating call is hard to miss—especially at dawn and dusk. The bull’s high-pitched, resonant bugle is meant to attract females into his harem and warn off other males. The otherworldly sound often begins as a low bellow and rises to a high, screeching whistle, followed by a series of grunts. A common myth is that a bull bugles, or whistles, by blowing air across its eye teeth, or ivories. In fact, the sound emanates from the animal’s throat.

WHERE: Primarily mountainous areas of western, central, and southwestern Montana. One sure-fire spot is the Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area in the CMR National Wildlife Refuge. The area is just off U.S. Highway 191 between Lewistown and Malta. During the rut, several hundred elk congregate in the viewing area (off-limits to hunting) and are visible from the road.

WHEN:Late August through late October, though prime time is mid-September. Most bugling occurs at dawn and dusk, though some days bull elk bugle at all hours.

BONUS:Get a bull to bugle using a commercial bugle or cow elk call. Just hearing an elk respond to your call is a rush, but sometimes you can lure him close enough to see the whites of his eyes. Whether you are hunting or not, you’ll never forget the sight of an 800-pound bull elk approaching your position with the intention to do battle—or mate. 

4. Smell a ponderosa pine

A woman smells 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.

5. See a moose

Standing 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing 700 to 800 pounds, moose are big. But just try to see one. The oversized ungulates often hide in brushy, wooded areas, where their dark coats blend into the shadows. During summer, look closely for moose in mountain meadows, swampy areas, forest clear-cuts, and burns. In winter, find moose in willow flats and dense conifer forests.

WHERE:Montana’s moose hotspots include the Big Hole Valley, Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Flathead, Deerlodge, and Gallatin National Forests, and Glacier National Park. Probably the easiest way to see one of these charismatic creatures is to hike any of the trails surrounding lakes in the Swiftcurrent area of Glacier National Park.

WHEN: Year-round

BONUS:Moose usually are not aggressive unless approached too closely. The exception is cows with calves. A momma moose might travel 100 yards to chase off a would-be threat. Often an attacking moose will make a short rush, which usually gets the point across, but occasionally it all-out attacks, striking with its powerful hooves.

6. Hike to an alpine lake

A Montana alpine lake.

This classic Montana midsummer outing requires no special skills or equipment. And the payoff is tremendous—a riot of wildflowers, wildlife in all directions, and the feeling you’ve discovered a secret mountain paradise. High-altitude alpine lakes sit above the tree line, where woody vegetation rarely grows due to the cold, dry environment. The lakes are clear because low temperatures suppress algae growth. FWP stocks many of these waters, so don’t be surprised to see trout cruising the shallows, especially at dawn and dusk.

Some of the easier hikes to alpine lakes are off the Beartooth All-American Road (Beartooth Highway) between Red Lodge and Cooke City. Glacier National Park is home to several scenic alpine lakes that don’t require a strenuous hike. Also, look for accessible alpine lakes in any Montana mountain hiking guide.

WHERE: Throughout western Montana

WHEN: The best time for hiking without snow on the ground is August.

WHAT: Even in the heat of summer, pack a raincoat for unforeseen storms, and carry bear pepper spray when in grizzly country.

BONUS: Buy a license, bring a fishing rod, and catch some trout. Build a fire or use a camp stove to cook some of your catch.

7. Pick a quart of morel mushrooms

Find yourself a burn site, and get picking.

WHERE:Generally west of the Continental Divide in areas where forest fires burned the previous year. If conditions are dry, look for seeps and other wet spots.

WHEN: May, June, and July

HOW: A few inedible mushrooms resemble morels, so it’s best to go with an experienced picker your first time to learn exactly what the safe ones look like.

BONUS:Consider joining the Western Montana Mycological Association, based in Missoula, or similar organizations. Accompanying these mushroom hunters on their annual outings is the best way to learn about morels and other edible fungi in Montana.

Morel mushrooms.

8. View Egg Mountain

Illustration of maiasaura.

Montana is packed with significant dinosaur digs, such as those at Glendive, Malta, Jordan, and the shoreline of Fort Peck Reservoir. But Egg Mountain, along the Rocky Mountain Front just west of Choteau, is particularly noteworthy. In 1977 fossils of small dinosaur bones, eggs, and embryos were found here by local rock-shop owner Marion Brandvold. The following year, paleontologist Jack Horner and a research partner determined that the new species, which they named Maiasaura (“good mother lizard”), raised its young in colonies, as many birds do. This was the first indisputable evidence that dinosaurs were capable of complex behavior, and it rocked the world of paleontology. Horner later became curator of paleontology at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies and is today considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on dinosaur social structure and DNA. The Montana Legislature designated the Maiasaura peeblesorum as Montana’s state fossil in 1985.

The site where Maiasaura fossils were found was named Egg Mountain and has since yielded the largest cache of dinosaur eggs, embryos, and baby skeletons ever found in the Western Hemisphere. The site, entirely on private land, is also home to one of the world’s largest known concentrations of adult dinosaur skeletons. Paleontologists have interpreted this accumulation as a gigantic herd of Maiasaura that died in one cataclysmic event such as a volcanic eruption or hurricane. The site is off-limits to the public, but you can drive past and imagine herds of massive “mother lizards” roaming the area millions of years ago.

WHERE:The dig itself is about 25 miles west of Choteau off Teton Canyon Road. Take a left at South Fork Road where it crosses the Teton River and you’ll see an interpretive sign after a few miles. The land is private, so you can’t actually visit the site. Egg Mountain's geological road sign is at milepost 57.6 on U.S. Highway 287 near Choteau.

WHEN: Year round

BONUS: Visit the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in nearby Bynum, north of Choteau, to see some of the baby dinosaur bones found at Egg Mountain, as well as other remarkable fossils.

9. See a prairie dog town

Prairie dogs.These lively communities on shortgrass prairie across much of eastern Montana can be endlessly entertaining. Black-tailed prairie dogs are highly sociable rodents that live in small groups, called coteries, comprising a dozen or more adults, yearlings, and young-of-the-year. Several coteries are loosely grouped into wards, and many wards form a town, or colony, ranging in size from a few to several hundred acres. Prairie dogs spend most of their time foraging and watching for predators such as raptors, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. All those barks, squeaks, and squeals you hear are warning messages. New research suggests that prairie dogs may have different “words” for different predators.

WHERE: Throughout central and eastern Montana rangelands. A can’t-miss viewing site is Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park, 9 miles east of Big Timber on I-90 at the Greycliff exit, and at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, about 14 miles southwest of Great Falls off I-15.

WHEN: All year. Activity is lowest during cold spells and most intense in spring.

BONUS: Visit Carbon County’s Bighorn Basin to see Montana’s other prairie dog species, the white-tailed, a state species of concern.

10. Fly-fish the Blackfoot

The cover of the book A River Runs Through It.We know of three good reasons to fish this bouldery river running west from the Continental Divide toward its confluence with the Clark Fork River just east of Missoula. It’s the setting for Norman MacLean’s moving autobiographical novel A River Runs Through It. It’s also the setting for the 1992 same-named movie, directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt, which helped ignite Montana’s fly-fishing boom (though actual filming took place on other Montana rivers). And perhaps most important, it’s a great and gorgeous river to fish for westslope cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout. (Bull trout, which also swim in the Blackfoot, cannot be intentionally fished for and must be immediately released if caught.) While not the most productive river in Montana, fish numbers per mile are decent. Trout up to 20 inches are caught each summer, though most average 12 to 15 inches. Anglers come here for the scenery and history more than anything else.

WHERE:Most anglers concentrate on the 60 miles from where the North Fork of the Blackfoot enters the Blackfoot, near the town of Ovando, downstream to Bonner, near the Clark Fork confluence. Public access is available either by boat or by wading from several fishing access sites and bridges.

WHEN: July, August, and September

HOW: For fishing advice, ask at fly shops in Ovando or Missoula.

BONUS:As you fish the river, look north to see the Bob Marshall Wilderness, home to grizzly bears. This is the southern range of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem population. The ecosystem begins along the Canada border in Glacier National Park, 150 miles to the north. Grizzlies occasionally roam down to the valley.

11. See western grebes conducting their rushing ceremony

Western Grebes.

At first you won’t believe your eyes. During spring mating season on lakes throughout Montana, male and female western grebes line up side by side on the water. Then, in unison, the red-eyed birds lunge forward, moving their webbed feet so quickly their bodies rise completely out of the water as they race for several hundred feet across the surface.

During this remarkable feat, called a mating “rush,” the birds arch their necks gracefully forward while holding their black wings back.

WHERE: Statewide in marshes and lakes

WHEN: Mid-April to early June

BONUS:Look for the birds to also perform the “weed ceremony.” This involves raising their bodies out of the water and dancing in circles with chests nearly touching, aquatic vegetation dangling from their bills.

12. Hunt a Block Management Area

A map showing block management areas.Most hunters in central and eastern Montana have already logged many miles on at least some of the 8 million acres of private land enrolled in Montana’s Block Management Program. If you haven’t yet hunted a Block Management Area, you owe it to yourself to spend a few days on these publicly accessible lands.

Established in 1986, Block Management is a sensible solution to two problems: One, it gets hunters onto private land, and two, it uses nonresident license dollars to help landowners manage hunting activity while providing a modest cash incentive for enrollment. To top it off, the program builds stronger relationships between hunters and landowners.

WHERE: Statewide, but mainly in the state’s eastern half

WHEN: Hunting season

BONUS: Take part in a summertime landowner appreciation day, often done on Block Management Areas. Hunters fix fences, install gate latches, and tackle other vital ranchland chores. Call your local FWP office for details.

13. Observe mountain goats

Great Northern Railway logo showing a mountain goat outline.Though depicted in artwork standing high atop mountain peaks, in real life these muscular alpine animals are frustratingly difficult to spot. The shaggy, yellowish-white ungulates usually hang out along tall, steep cliffs and are seen most frequently by mountain climbers. Fortunately a few spots exist where the rest of us can catch a glimpse. Frequent sightings occur in Glacier National Park and on the Beartooth Plateau. Mountain goats also congregate at the “mineral lick” just off U.S. Highway 2, which runs along the park’s southern border. The lick is an exposed area of the Middle Fork Flathead River bank where the animals consume calcium and other minerals in the clay. A sign indicates a picnic area, where you can pull off and park before walking along a short path to an observation stand. There you can get a good look at the 15 to 30 goats that congregate at the site.

WHERE: The mineral lick is near Essex, 2.5 miles east of the Walton Ranger Station off U.S. Highway 2.

WHEN: June and July are top months for viewing here.

BONUS 1: The Montana Department of Transportation and Glacier National Park worked together to design a wildlife highway underpass to allow safe passage for goats and other wildlife.

BONUS 2: Mountain goats are one of the few species in which adult males are subordinate to adult females and sometimes even juveniles. Biologists suspect this might be due to limited food resources where the animals live, allowing females and young to survive where they might otherwise perish if pushed away by dominant adult males.

14. Fish with a guide

Fishing with a guide in a boat on a Montana river.

Every dedicated angler should take a guided trip at least once. On new water, a guide can tell you about hatches, patterns, and honeyholes it would take years to learn otherwise. And on water you know well, a guide can reveal new secret spots and techniques you can use on your own for years afterward. Also, by spending hundreds of days each year on the water, guides learn about local history, culture, and personalities, adding another dimension to your angling experience. Best of all, they have superb boat control skills and can position the craft so that your fly lands right where a fish should be. You never cast as well as when an expert is manning the oars.

WHERE: Any major trout river

WHEN: Any time of the year. Midsummer trips on blue-ribbon waters are often booked a year ahead of time.

HOW: Ask at local fly shops or visit the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana website:

BONUS:The guide keeps only a portion of the daily fee. The rest goes to the outfitter and pays for the shuttle and lunch. So don’t forget to tip (customary is 15 to 20 percent of the total).

15. Watch mule deer “stot”

When mule deer run, they sometimes change from their usual stiff-legged gait to a pogo stick–style bounce, called “stotting.” It’s one way to identify muleys from far away when the deer are moving.

WHERE:Throughout Montana, especially in prairies, river breaks, and mountains

WHEN: Year-round

BONUS: “Stot” is an old Scottish word that means to bounce or rebound. It is also used to describe the bouncing of playful lambs and African gazelles.

A mule deer "stot".

16. See the northern lights

WHERE:The farther north in Montana the better, though at some times during the year the aurora may be visible from throughout the state.

WHEN: The best viewing is around midnight in late fall, winter, and early spring, when nights are longest.

BONUS: One of the rarest colors of the northern lights is bright red, which at midnight looks like the horizon is on fire.

17. See a running pronghorn herd

A herd of running pronghorns.

The pronghorn is the world’s fastest mammal—except for the cheetah, which, eons ago, lived on this continent and is one reason pronghorn evolved to move so quickly. People usually see these prairie speedsters, commonly called antelope, when the animals are either grazing or resting. Once in a while, usually during hunting season, it’s possible to catch them in full throttle, racing across the prairie. Pronghorn can sprint at speeds of up to 50 mph for short distances and maintain cruising speeds of up to 25 miles per hour for several miles, easily outpacing predators. Coyotes and golden eagles occasionally nab a fawn, but the only thing these days that can catch an adult (other than an arrow or a bullet) lives 10,000 or more miles away in Africa and Iran.

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

WHEN: The best way to see pronghorn sprint is to hunt a herd or watch hunters trying to get close. 

BONUS: See a pronghorn jump a fence. Though they prefer to go under fences (having evolved on a landscape devoid of barriers), pronghorn will occasionally go over one.

18. Walk along the Old North Trail

The first nomads who visited this region of North America likely came from today’s Alberta along the Old North Trail. For 12,000 years, since the last ice age, people have traversed this north-south route along the base of the Rocky Mountain Front, known to the Blackfeet Tribe as Miisum Apatosiosoko, or Ancient Trail North. At one time the trail, now mostly obliterated by towns, roads, and lack of use, stretched as far south as Mexico City and extended into northern Alberta. Archaeologists have found physical evidence of the trail using aerial and infrared photography that shows faint depressions indicating travois tracks, as well as by documenting a linear procession of tipi rings and rock cairns. In the late 1990s, local historian Al Wiseman of Choteau and others identified 30 miles of the trail in Teton County and put out 23 etched boulders to mark the route.

A rock on the old north trail.According to Wiseman, a Métis and a member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa, the route was used to transport trade goods such as obsidian, furs, and flint. He says the trail sits next to the foothills of the Rockies “because every few miles a stream comes out of the mountains, so there was always a drink of water. If the trail was farther east into the prairie, the rivers get deeper and harder to cross. Also, along the mountains were high ridges where travelers could observe enemies, and the trail was close enough to prairie for hunting buffalo, elk, and antelope.”

WHERE: In Montana, the trail historically started in today’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation along the Alberta border and moved along the Rocky Mountain Front through Helena and then south. Marked boulders indicating the route have been established by local history buffs in two dozen sites in Teton County.

HOW: Visit the Old Trail Museum in Choteau for a map showing boulder locations on public land.

WHEN:The museum is open seven days a week, Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
Note: Don’t trespass. Please stay off private land.

BONUS: The “Bear’s Tooth” near Helena was for thousands of years a landmark on the Old North Trail. It is better known today as the “nose” of the Sleeping Giant, a geographic feature visible from the state capital.

19. Visit the Varney Bridge section of the Madison River

Trout caught along the Varney Bridge area of the Madison River.This hallowed water is where wild river trout management in the United States began. Half a century ago, FWP biologists suspected that stocking trout in rivers was harming Montana’s wild fish populations. The scientists put their hunch to a test. In 1970, led by biologist Dick Vincent and supported by fisheries chief Art Whitney, the then-named Department of Fish and Game tried a controversial experiment. It discontinued stocking the Madison River’s Varney Bridge section, from the bridge 4 miles downstream to Ennis. Meanwhile they stocked, for the first time, a 1.4-mile stretch of nearby O’Dell Creek, which held a healthy trout fishery. The results were startling: By 1974 the number of trout over 10 inches in the Madison study section increased from 1,500 to 4,700 per mile, while numbers of trout in the O’Dell Creek stretch dropped from 515 to 280.

Later research in Montana and other states showed that the addition of hatchery trout disrupts the important social structure of wild fish, pushing existing trout out of holding lies and causing them to race around and challenge both stocked fish and other wild fish. The displaced wild trout move upstream and downstream, while the unwary hatchery fish are quickly caught by anglers.

Though counterintuitive, the result of adding more fish is an overall population decline. FWP stopped stocking hatchery fish in rivers in 1974, and the rest is history. Wild trout numbers in rivers across western Montana have long since increased, as the study showed they would.

WHERE:The Varney Bridge Fishing Access Site is 7 miles upstream from Ennis, off either Montana Highway 287 or County Road 249.

WHEN: Anytime

BONUS: Also stop and look at O’Dell Creek. Montana Highway 287 crosses the stream about a mile east of Ennis.

20. Learn to cast a fly rod

A person casting a fly rod on a river bank.

Yes, it’s a joy to gracefully send 60 feet of fly line arcing through the air to carry an eyelash-sized fly to a distant target. But no, Montanans do not naturally possess that talent, despite the myth that babies here are born making double hauls and aerial mends. Fly casting is a skill that has to be learned. Fortunately, anyone can learn how. Fly shops offer lessons, as does FWP’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman Program. Or ask a skilled neighbor to show you how at a nearby park or ballfield.

WHERE: Anywhere you can find an instructor or helpful friend

WHEN: Anytime

HOW:Written instructions are of little help. Online videos are only slightly better. The only way to learn is to have someone watch your casting and provide pointers. One place to pick up fly casting basics is from FWP’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman Program.

BONUS: Learn to cast a Spey or two-handed rod, created in Scotland for fishing Atlantic salmon waters; in recent years it has caught on in the United States for fishing big rivers.


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