Most Iowans heading for a Montana vacation set their sights on trout fishing icy rivers or absorbing the magnificent scenery of Beartooth Pass or Glacier National Park. Some enjoy restaurants and craft beers in the college towns of Missoula and Bozeman or the touristy areas near Glacier.
In their haste to reach the mountains too many people speed past the lunker fish, dinosaurs, wildlife, and the wide open sky of Eastern Montana. Fortunately this vast, relatively unknown and lightly populated region is sandwiched between North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Glacier National Park, making it a convenient stop for people trekking from park-to-park.
An Enormous Reservoir
The tiny town of Fort Peck is the epicenter of recreation in northeast Montana. It includes the historic and supposedly haunted Fort Peck Hotel. Down the road is a surprisingly large theater with performances between early June and early September. The hotel’s ghost must have had the evening off when we overnighted there. But the hotel served as our base as we explored the area.
“Go ahead and touch it,” urged our Army Corps of Engineers tour guide as she led us to a massive silver shaft spinning deep within Fort Peck dam. As we gingerly touched the shaft we felt gravity’s power as Missouri River water surged through a turbine to spin a generator and create electricity.
Built in the 1930s Fort Peck is the world’s largest hydraulic earth dam. Over 10,000 workers labored for three years creating a dirt slurry that was pumped and dumped to construct a four mile long dam. It enables irrigation, reduces floods, and generates electricity. Today’s visitors enjoy the Army Corps of Engineers interpretive center below the dam and a free guided tour of the powerhouse, featuring the spinning shaft. It’s a pretty cool tour especially on a hot Montana day.
Although recreation wasn’t on the dam planners’ minds it thrives today. The Fort Peck Reservoir is a vast inland sea that has twice as many shoreline miles as the California coast. Anglers seek giant walleyes, while boaters cruise a lake that seems to stretch on forever. A further reminder of its size is Chinook salmon that lurk in the lake’s depths. This North Pacific trophy fish needs big water to survive and grows to hefty size in this landlocked Montana reservoir. Swimming takes the edge off hot days and the Corps of Engineers welcomes RV’s and tents in its well-kept campground below the dam.
We marveled at enormous teeth filling the mouth of an enormous Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the Fort Peck Interpretive Center. What amazed us must have terrified any lesser dinosaur that this apex predator (king of the hill) gobbled up about 67 million years ago.
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“Eastern and Central Montana is home to the famous Hell Creek Formation where most T rex and Triceratops specimens have been found,” said Cedar Rapids amateur paleontologist Bill Desmarais. Today’s travelers can immerse themselves in dinosaur lure in the museums along Highway 2 that form part of the Montana Dinosaur Trail. “One museum invites visitors to roll up their sleeves and help paleontologists excavate dinosaur bones,” said Carla Hunsley of Montana’s Missouri River Country.
The American Prairie Reserve
When dinosaurs roamed what became Montana the climate was similar to today’s South Carolina. Odd primitive trees flourished in the hot humid air. The plants and enormous reptiles that ate them are long gone. Dramatic climate change transformed the ancient muggy forest into today’s semiarid prairie. Low humidity, combined with high latitude and altitude causes hot summers with endless sunny days followed by long cold winter nights. The climate nourishes one of the world’s largest intact prairies that sustains a diversity of fascinating wildlife. Located just north of Fort Peck Reservoir the American Prairie Reserve is in the process of protecting the vast sea of grass.
“Temperate grasslands are the least protected biomes on earth and the American Prairie Reserve is in the process of protecting and managing over 3 million acres of native prairie land,” said Betty Holder, Reserve land manager, as we bounced along a narrow gravel road in a mud-laden four wheel drive truck. Off to the west an impressive, but small, mountain range called the Little Rockies poked out of the vast flat to gently rolling prairie. Imagine Lewis and Clark’s bitter disappointment when they realized that the Pacific Ocean was not just over the ridge of this remote range. Occasionally pronghorn antelope trotted across the road as bison grazed in the distance. Characteristic prairie birds, ranging from a golden eagle to ever present meadowlarks were easy to spot as we navigated the rutted roads.
Iowa’s once abundant prairie was nearly plowed to extinction during early settlement days. Only a few tiny scraps of original prairie and restorations remain. All are isolated and too small to sustain a full complement of wildlife and plants that lived there before settlement. In contrast vast areas of Montana’s original prairie thrive but have remained unprotected. The vision of the non-profit American Prairie Reserve is to stitch together 3 million acres of existing public lands with private property purchased from willing sellers. To date the Reserve owns 86,586 acres and leases another 266,518 on its goal of protecting a core of about 3.5 million acres. That totals about 5000 square miles and is big enough to support a fully functioning prairie ecosystem. Eventually the Reserve will be 50 percent bigger than Yellowstone or about the size of seven Iowa counties. It will remain protected forever.
Bison are the iconic prairie animal but were absent for about 120 years until the Reserve began restoring a population. Around 800 animals now roam the land.
“Our goal is to build the herd up to about 10,000. That’s as many as the land can support,” said Holder.
We’ve enjoyed viewing these giant shaggy animals at Yellowstone and Custer State Park but the Prairie Reserve was a different experience. Bison were scattered about the enormous prairie. With no power poles or fences in sight and no other people nearby we felt we had been transported back to when Lewis and Clark followed the nearby Missouri River upstream. The bison and the land sustaining them felt truly wild.
Prairie dog towns are common in the Reserve and in one we were delighted to watch a pair of young burrowing owls bob up and down studying us until they got nervous and dove underground. A golden eagle winged overhead, shorebirds lingered in pockets of wetland, and horned larks flew across the road in front of our truck. Although most people consider elk and deer as forest or mountain animals they thrive on the prairie and are commonly spotted. Hunting is allowed subject to Montana and Reserve regulations.
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Wildlife isn’t the only attraction at the American Prairie Reserve. Few places on our planet allow a visitor to enjoy air devoid of human created sound. Other than a ruffling light breeze, calling birds, and the “whee” calls of prairie dogs we enjoyed delicious quiet. Because it is so remote from the haze and light pollution of cities night sky viewing is superb. The Reserve’s wide open horizon and 360 degree view of the sky lets visitors enjoy spectacular sunrises and sunsets and an ever changing array of clouds drifting by. This land is truly wild and free.
The Reserve is open to the public and is about a two and a half-hour drive up a paved highway from Billings, Montana’s largest city. Much smaller Malta is an hour further north. Roads in the Reserve range from impassible gumbo when wet to lightly graveled dirt. Four-wheel drive vehicles are in order, and primitive roads demand slow speeds.
The Reserve has only a few developed sites in its interior. Buffalo Camp welcomes RV and tent campers and is about an hour’s drive down gravel roads. The Enrico Education and Science Center is a modern research facility a few miles south of the campground. Researchers and interns from around the world live there while studying the ecosystem. Some visitors enjoy staying in luxurious yurts at Kestrel Camp that rent for a whopping $1200 a night per person. Fortunately, they come with a personal chef, guided tours, and a dedicated staff member to answer questions.
“In the next year or two we plan to build a hut-to-hut trail system across the Reserve with yurt style huts stretched out across a 200 mile trail that people can walk, bike, and sometimes drive to. The cost will be between $50 and $100 a night,” said Hilary Parker, communications manager.
Because we were traveling in a rental sedan we chose to camp at James Kipp Recreation area just off paved Highway 191. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management it is near the Prairie Reserve. Betty Holder met us at our tent site and took us touring though the prairie in her sturdy four-wheel drive truck.
The American Prairie Reserve is a private non-profit organization funded by contributions, memberships, fees, and unusual sale items. Their brand of Wild Sky grass fed beef is featured in gourmet restaurants and is produced by ranchers willing to give living with wildlife a try. Sales of the product help both local ranchers and the Reserve.
Traveling in Montana
People living in settled areas sometimes are uncomfortable in such a vast and open land. It’s easy to feel naked and insignificant in an area lacking buildings and trees, but the beauty of this land often overcomes discomfort. Montana is truly huge. The state is about three times larger than Iowa with one third the human population. About twice as wide as the Hawkeye State, 600 miles of Montana separate Idaho from North Dakota. Except in cities and tourist areas traffic is nonexistent, state and federal highways are in good condition and the speed limit is normally 70, so it’s not necessary to drive interstate highways to make time. Cellphone coverage is spotty.
Fort Peck and the American Prairie Reserve are well situated for a large circle tour from Eastern Iowa. From the Twin Cities take Interstate 94 north and west to Medora, North Dakota and enjoy the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Then follow excellent secondary highways to Fort Peck, Montana, and Highway 2 and 191 to the American Prairie Reserve. From there it’s easy to drop south to Yellowstone and circle back to Iowa or head northwest to Glacier National Park.
Montana’s Missouri River Country
P.O. Box 118
Fort Peck, MT 59223
(406) 653-1319 or (800) 653-1319
American Prairie Reserve
7 East Beall St, Ste 100
Bozeman, MT 59771