One June evening a few years back found us at the site of Chief Joseph’s surrender, just beyond the northern slopes of the Bear Paw Mountains. A thunderstorm was tailing off in a cloud-laden sky. On the western horizon, a widening gap revealed a setting sun.
The elements and the heavens joined in a prelude to an unfolding performance. As pastel hues of crimson tinted the breaking clouds, the sun slowly disappeared from sight. Just when we thought the drama was complete, the pinks intensified and began to blend with shades of purple, blue, orange and red. Soon a burning sky in all directions bathed the earth in enchanting light. The tops of the Bear Paw picked up an orange flame, to the east the Little Rockies glowed in gold, and far to the south and north, lightning bolts danced like fireworks. Montana east of the mountains was suspended in an exceptionally brilliant yet dreamlike display as the day came to a close.
Magnificent sunsets and sunrises are common in this uncommon landscape, a region encompassing two-thirds of Montana. The imposing Rocky Mountain Front defines its western flank; the sweep of the open terrain flows east from here. On the north, it stretches 460 miles from Browning and the east slopes of Glacier National Park to the North Dakota line just beyond Sidney. Somewhat less defined, the central boundary begins in the valley of the upper Musselshell River, near Harlowton, and reaches for 300 miles to our state’s eastern edge. On the south, it’s 250 miles as the golden eagle glides, from Red Lodge and the east face of the Beartooth Mountains following the Wyoming border to the South Dakota line.
A distinct region unto itself, and one of America’s great pieces of geography, this corner of the Great Plains harbors unique landforms. Grand scenes — badlands, sculptured sandstone, river breaks, canyons, wilderness grasslands, wildlife refuges, lakes and island mountain ranges — intermingle with smaller bits of geologic wonderment. Space, much of it undisturbed, is its greatest commodity. This vast territory of unending sky delivers a feeling of no borders or confinement where a human can stretch and breathe.
At first, the openness, the immensity and the distances may seem overpowering. Gradually, though, you get comfortable with it all; then you notice the beauty and splendor. Not just the imposing geologic structures, but also the abundance of simple grandeur: cottonwoods along a small creek; a lone tree silhouetted on a hillside; waves of wheat dancing in the summer wind; the first rays of sun illuminating sandstone cliffs; delicate snow patterns drifted against a weathered barn; the northern lights shimmering across the night sky; antelope moving quietly through sagebrush-covered prairie and the soft fusion of earth and sky on horizons that seem endless.
Striking features command your attention: the 1,000-foot-deep canyons of the Missouri River; the enormity of Fort Peck Lake; stately prairie buttes; isolated mountain ranges including the Little Rockies and Big Snowies; the Makoshika and Terry badlands and the canyons of the Bighorn River.
Montana’s mightiest waterways have carved their routes through this territory. Born of mountain snows and springs, the prairie gives them room to grow. They are fabled waters: the Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Marias, the Judith, the Bighorn, the Powder, the Tongue, the Milk and the Musselshell. The wide Missouri and the free-flowing Yellowstone were routes of exploration for Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and other adventurers.
With the exception of some stretches of the Yellowstone, most of the rivers of the high plains are mellow: no whitewater excitement, just serenity, solitude, beauty and a sense of the past. The water moves at an easy pace past islands, sandbars and groves of cottonwoods interspersed with a carpet of grasses and other riparian vegetation providing a home to river wildlife. The landscape along the rivers has changed little with time. A modern day floater can imagine sharing the same place with nineteenth-century trappers and explorers.
These Montana lands are Big Sky Country. Out here, a formidable canopy of sky provides a constantly changing panorama, a playing field for clouds and weather. From the moment the sun bursts onto the clear eastern horizon of Montana, beginning its journey toward the closing of day, many surprises may appear depending upon the mood of the heavens.
It is the canvas for artful displays of the morning and evening sun and billowing clouds. With nightfall, an astronomer’s dream of brilliant nocturnal displays takes center stage. Diamond dust-like stars cover the Judith Basin on a cold winter night, a full moon illuminates the hills between Scobey and Plentywood and meteors streak off in all directions. It is as big a dome of sky as any on the planet and often brings an early morning and evening light so beautiful that no painter or photographer could ever duplicate it.
Subdued topography allows the sky top billing. Summer thunderstorms build to a towering collection of billowy white and gray clouds that are then swept by the wind up into Canada or out onto the plains of the Dakotas or Wyoming, leaving brilliant sunshine over the prairie, often only to be replaced by another storm with intense lightning displays. In winter, northern-born blizzards roll like turbulent waves across the uncluttered skyline depositing a quiet comforter of snow in their wake.
With the sky comes the wind. Out here the breeze has range and character. As it rakes the land, giving clarity and cleanliness to everything — there’s no haze diluting the panorama — the wind brings ferocious blizzards, snow-eating chinooks as well as the pleasant smell of sweet clover. It can sustain a tempered clip one day and hurricane forces the next.
While the wind adds personality to Montana’s prairie, the seasons give it color. Each period of the year is distinct, but spring shows off the land at its best. A morning in early May dawns raw and gray. Intermittent snowflakes make an effort to prolong a fading plains winter. But this day the promise of the equinox is about to be fulfilled. The warmth of a rising sun endures. The prairie has turned to face spring.
First, the sagebrush and grasses convert to a vibrant green, then wheat fields come to life and the juniper and scattered pines show signs of new growth. Later in the month, a rainbow of wildflowers joins the celebration. In June, this new beginning moves out of the bottomlands and up the mountainsides and buttes. Spring moisture and the thunderstorms of early summer keep the landscape fresh.
As July heads toward August and rainfall lessens, the vegetation cures and rust, gold and brown prevail. The grasses take on a warm dust color. This is the hot, dry period. In September and early October, the summer yellows become mixed with the flame-orange of cottonwoods in the river bottoms and the reds of low-lying vegetation in the coulees and on the hillsides. The sky can be cloudless for days.
Sometime in November, winds from the north signal the start of winter. By now, fall snowstorms have put a coating of white on the upper reaches of the Big Snowies and the other mountains. Lasting snows begin spreading to some areas of the prairie and the Missouri Breaks. Soon cold, strong winds will deposit snowdrifts of every size and shape imaginable. Hillsides will be swept clean and ice will form on the rivers.
Winter’s harshness also brings a softness. Tall, golden grass and dark evergreens contrast against a blanket of white, and delicate sunsets and sunrises replace summer’s blazing displays. The landscape is at rest. This is the prairie’s quiet time.
In the western reaches east of the mountains, winter brings a phenomenon known as a chinook — the snow eater. These mild winds bring temporary respite from the frigid atmosphere that descends on Montana.
A chinook’s presence is visible in the form of a “chinook” arch of clouds, at once dark and beautiful. If the sun catches it just right, a stunning sunset paints the arch, embellishing the entire sky with a multitude of colors. Often, these winds vanish as quickly as they arrive, with the push of a ferocious northern blizzard reclaiming its season.
It is said the mountains make western Montana, but east of the Northern Rockies, they are only a modest share of a diverse province, appearing as islands floating in a big sea. None are lofty, but where they rise from the prairie they make their presence known. The views from their summits are far-reaching and impressive. They are the Little Rockies, the Sweetgrass Hills, the Bear Paws, the Highwoods, the Little Belts, the Moccasins, the Judith, the Big and Little Snowies, the Bull, Pryor, Bighorn, Rosebud, Sheep and Wolf mountains. These highlands serve as watersheds, wildlife sanctuaries and respites from summer heat. They harbor forests of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, aspen and willows. Ecologically, some are mini-versions of the mountains of the Continental Divide, others are a blend of prairie and alpine zones.
The Big Snowies, in the center of Montana, provide a high stage to view a dozen mountain ranges. From the summit of 8,681-foot Great House Peak, a hiker can take in a 300-mile view, northwest to the Sweetgrass Hills and south to the Beartooth Mountains.
As Lewis and Clark made their way westward, the first major rise of land they viewed was the Little Rocky Mountains. Called Wolf Mountains by the natives, white people came to them for their gold and outlaws used them for hideouts.
One of Montana’s most prominent ski areas, Showdown, is centered in the Little Belts, the largest of Montana’s outlying ranges.
Ice caves, wild horses and a desert environment below their southern slopes make the Pryors an attraction. With the Bighorn Mountains, they guard the narrowed canyons holding 67-mile long Bighorn Lake and Bighorn National Recreation Area.
Other elevated features mark the Montana prairies. The Medicine Rocks and Chalk Buttes stand as silent sentinels in southeastern Montana’s cowboy country. Black Butte, on the eastern rise of the Judith Mountains, can be seen from more than 50 miles away. Western artist Charlie Russell used the imposing Square Butte near Geraldine and the larger Square Butte, southwest of Great Falls, as backgrounds for his famous paintings.
Badlands, often described as miniature deserts, and river breaks add to the fascination of Montana east of the Rockies. Shaped by wind and water, places such as Makoshika, the Terry Badlands, the Piney Buttes and the Missouri and Yellowstone breaks present vivid colors, a wild landscape and a country void of people.
The short-grass prairie is a dominant characteristic beyond the mountains. In some areas flat, in most gently undulating, dissected by coulees and marked in places with sandstone formations, it is part of a serene environment accentuated by space and the sound of the wind.
Before the arrival of white travelers, the land stretching east of Montana’s Northern Rockies was a wildlife kingdom and a vast native hunting ground. Millions of bison, great herds of antelope, timber wolves and grizzly bears were common. The wild bison are now gone and the grizzlies have retreated to the mountains, but the prairie is still home to an enormous population of large animals, small critters and winged creatures. Turkeys, burrowing owls, white pelicans, elk, ospreys, deer, blue herons, pronghorn antelope, Canada geese, sandhill cranes, cormorants, ducks, foxes, eagles, bighorn sheep, pheasants, coyotes, Hungarian partridge, grouse, prairie dogs and more than 200 species of birds are some of the wild residents of Great Plains Montana.
Montana’s eastern domain presents wildlife entertainment unlike anywhere else. The spectacle of ducks and geese landing to gather on the prairie’s waters in the fall before migrating south, the excitement of spring as they convoy home again to refuges, lakes and wetlands scattered from the east slope to the Dakotas. Observing their raucous presence is a spectacular encounter. And the heralding of the summer ahead via the peculiar spring mating dance of the sharptail grouse, performed on favored stages, is a special attraction to witness.
Plenty of space, minimal human activity and protected lands ensure thriving wildlife and waterfowl population.
Together, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, tucked in Montana’s northeast corner and Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge out of Malta make a home for more than 200,000 ducks and geese, as well as lake pelicans. Other havens, such as Half-Breed National Wildlife Refuge at Rapelje, Freezeout Lake near Choteau and War Horse Lake National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Winnett, also attract migratory congregations.
Then there is one of America’s extraordinary places: the wild, remote and beautiful Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge includes 1,100,000 acres in a 200-mile strip encircling Fort Peck Lake. Its deep canyons, rough river breaks and isolation provide a sanctuary for wildlife, big and small. It includes the UL Bend Wilderness, home ground for native elk and transplanted bighorn sheep.
Remnants and vivid reminders of old West Montana also dot the landscape. Portions of former travel byways such as the Great North Trail, the Nez Perce Trail, the Wood Mountain Trail, the Whoop-Up Trail and the Pony Express Route are still visible, as are the ruins of forts, trading posts and stagecoach stops. Undisturbed areas show signs of travois tracks, wagon wheel ruts and tepee rings.
Evidence of the era of the first sodbusters is plentiful. Old buildings that once housed these settlers and their dreams still stand, only to serve as refuges for small animals, birds and owls.
Although the drought and economic conditions ended their hopes, some hearty pioneer families persisted, stayed on and today are the backbone of the Montana prairie country.
Descendants of the homesteaders and products of cattle outfits that have been in the same family for generations provide the area with a sense of permanency and independence, a strong profile dictated by rural life and past experiences that characterize this corner of the Great Plains.
Here, space dwarfs the human presence whether it is on farms and ranches well apart from neighbors, or in towns with colorful names: Sunburst, Judith Gap, Roundup, Cut Bank, Plentywood, Medicine Lake, Redstone, Sand Springs, Whitewater, Whitetail, Flaxville, Choteau, Big Sandy, Chinook, Lame Deer, Lodge Grass, Ekalaka, Grassrange and Wolf Point, as well as Billings, Great Falls, Lewistown and Miles City. The latter four, large towns by Montana standards, are but small outposts on the vast Montana plains.
High school basketball teams often have to travel up to 300 miles one-way for games. The population is dispersed enough to support many one-teacher schools consisting of grades one through eight with an average of 15 students. More than 50 of them are still open east of the Rockies.
Towns are the essence of this territory where the natural features capture attention. Social and commercial activities interact within them in a way that is all but disappearing across America. Cafes, hardware and grocery stores are where stockmen, farmers, implement dealers and bankers meet to discuss ag-economics, their families, and the weather. You’ll still find drug stores with soda fountains and chances are that you can walk in the door of any business and shake the hand of the owner. A genuine, welcoming atmosphere prevails.
To the uninitiated, life in many of these hamlets might seem carefree, but the problems of a lagging agricultural economy, lack of opportunities for the young, and drought are real. The people of these isolated havens that dot the sprawling prairie deal with them and never give up. A “can do” attitude holds sway over town meetings or at the supper table as residents look for answers and new possibilities.
Livestock operations and dry land farming are the major economic pursuits of Montana east of the mountains, and most of the cultivation involves wheat.
Winter wheat is planted in late summer and gains a foothold before the cold descends. It renews growth with spring’s warmth and is harvested in July. Montana’s dominant crop, it crowds the horizon of The Golden Triangle, the country north and northwest of Great Falls. Farther east and north, where winter is colder, spring wheat colors the fields. Seeds are sown at winter’s end and the crop is cut in late summer.
Strip farming is a trademark. In heavily cultivated areas, successions of wheat, interspersed with fallow earth, stretch as far as the eye can see. This farming practice serves as a deterrent to wind erosion and conserves moisture. Each year the pattern is reversed.
Sugar beet farming doesn’t create the same scenic mosaic as the ribbons of wheat fields do, but in the valley of the Yellowstone River, especially between Laurel and Glendive, it adds to the well-being of southeast Montana.
While the big, unfenced ranches of the mid- to late-1800s are gone, cattle are still very important on Montana’s high plains. Cowboys continue to work the range and substantial ranches exist in Yellowstone and surrounding counties. Miles City in Custer County is known as the “Cattle Capital of Montana.”
Montana’s Indians, to a degree, survived the devastation of their homelands and are a prominent part of this piece of the Big Sky Country. They are the Blackfeet, the Chippewa, the Cree, the Crow, the Northern Cheyenne, the Assiniboine, the Gros Ventre and the Sioux nations. Some still occupy a portion of their ancestral grounds, others do not. Most live on six reservations scattered throughout the Northern Plains. Powwows, rodeos, Milk River Indian Days, North American Indian Days and the Crow Fair are tributes to their proud tribal traditions.
As the first residents of Montana, these natives were good stewards of the land. They respected it and took only what they needed to survive. They passed through and left it as they found it. Their legacy is still present out here in the places that have remained unaltered with the passing of the ages, and their spirit is still carried on the wind. Listen for it and feel it as you explore and marvel at Montana east of the mountains.