Ultimate Montana Summer: Exploring back-country roads

Welcome to our series, “Ultimate Montana Summer,” where we share our favorite things about Montana’s unbeatable summers. In this series, we share a Western Montana summer through the eyes of long-time residents. 

I always smirk when someone asks me, “What’s on your bucket list for international travel?” I live in Montana. I could spend ALL of my retirement years exploring Montana’s 71,000 miles of roads, 76% of which are not paved. Read that again. In Montana, ¾ of the roads are dirt. If adventure sparks your soul and you live in Montana, you are in the right place. 

Montana has its big, splashy attractions like Glacier and Yellowstone National Park, but for locals, filling up the gas tank and going for a drive on familiar and unfamiliar dirt roads is equally thrilling. 

It’s mind-boggling to me that after living in this state for 40 years (minus a four-year stint south of the Twin Cities in Minnesota) I can happen upon a road I’ve never traveled – and that I don’t have to look very hard for such a route. Montana is not only Big Sky Country, it is Big-Sky-With-Endless-Dirt-Road-Adventures-Country. 

Here are a few things to remember before setting out on a backroad adventure…

White lupine wildflowers in Montana

Pack the car!

The last thing you need on a Montana backroad adventure is to be ill-prepared for whatever the experience calls for. Here is a list of things to have in the car (in fact, I just leave these things – plus my golf clubs –  in my car all summer!)

 

  • Bug spray – We’re fortunate that Montana is not humid and is not as buggy as some locales. Still, at dusk and around the water, you will definitely want effective bug spray. Nothing can ruin a great adventure faster than a pack of blood-thirsty, buzzing mosquitos! 
  • Bear spray — I’ll never forget the day I went trouncing around Bowman Lake (near Polebridge) with my cousin who was visiting from L.A. The trail looked short, and quick, and it hugged the lake. I didn’t think TWICE about bears or bear spray — I figured we’d just get out and stretch our legs for 10-15 minutes. Imagine! Me, a near-native, who has lived in Montana 39 years, not remembering some method of bear protection! Well, the trail DID NOT hug the lake, and before my cousin and I knew it, we were surrounded by five-foot thimbleberry bushes you couldn’t see through. Sure enough, we heard a bear somewhere ahead of us in the trail, “barking.” What a rookie move! The moral of the story is — DON’T FORGET THE BEAR SPRAY, even if you think you won’t be out of the car for long.
  • Sunscreen – One of the best things about backroad adventures is getting out and exploring. Don’t risk a miserable sunburn because you forgot to pack the sunscreen!
  • Water and snacks – If you map out an adventure, you should know how long you’ll be in the car. But if you’re like me and you have one of those, “Hmmm, I wonder where that dirt road goes” moments, your curiosity can lead to several hours in the car. Make sure you always roll with extra water and snacks. Also, having grown up on the side of a mountain, pre-crisis management is in my DNA. If you get a flat or your car breaks down and you have to walk out or hang by your rig for a bit, you want to ensure you have the proper provisions. This seems like a great place to point out that you should have a full tank of gas before heading out on any back road adventure – be it planned or spontaneous. 
  • Firewood, an ax, and lighter fluid – This is not a must, obviously. I travel with this in case I want to have an impromptu campfire (in a designated area, of course) along the way. 
  • Camp chairs and a padded blanket/sleeping bag – I have two old camp chairs that are a trunk staple in the summer because I never know when a random creek or river will beg me to sit beside it. If you enjoy sunbathing, make sure to throw in a padded blanket. The sleeping bag speaks again to my Darwinistic upbringing – should I break down, I can fold the seats down in my Subaru and stay warm for the night. 
  • First Aid Kit – When you head for the backcountry, pack a well-stocked first-aid kit. If you are traveling with people on medication or who have allergies, make sure you have those things with you as well. 
  • Fishing poles/fly rods/tackle/fly boxes – Few things are more disheartening than driving past a “fishy” spot on a creek or river and not being able to wet a line! Make sure you have a current fishing license and regulations – what you can catch and keep varies significantly from one river to the next in Montana. 

Heron perched on a dead snag in Montana

Bring the camera

Everyone has a camera on their phone these days, but if you have a good camera collecting dust in the corner of the closet, dig it out! Driving back-country roads is what we Montanans call “live caveman theater.” I recently traveled the back country roads around Red Lodge with my sister and my brother-in-law. In two hours, we saw a coyote, a heron (on a dead snag in the middle of the woods –featured above), four young bull elk, twin bulls, a cow moose, and endless wildflowers, including white lupines — also featured above. 

Charge your phone – turn on airplane mode/phone charger 

Make sure you have a fully charged phone and turn it on airplane mode so the battery doesn’t become depleted from constantly looking for a signal. If you get in an emergency in the woods, you will likely get cell service eventually since most towers are located on top of mountains. It’s also important to have a fully charged phone in case you need the flashlight to walk out of the woods or if you get a flat tire after dark. Naturally, this is less of a concern if your vehicle has a phone charger.  (My Subaru has a phone charger, but it has since stopped functioning several back road adventures ago.)

Now that you are adequately prepared for a wilderness adventure let the good times roll! 

Here are a few ideas to inspire you…

NOTE: Many of Montana’s backroads are extremely narrow and have sharp corners that you can’t see around. GO SLOW, take wide corners on the outside, and tight corners on the inside. Drive like someone is coming in the other direction ALWAYS. And keep an eye out for turnouts – you will use them a lot to let other cars pass. 

Four young bull elk in Montana

Anywhere in the Darby/West Fork/Sula area 
Philipsburg to Hamilton via Skalkaho
Bear Creek Overlook outside of Victor

HELP! I want to sell my house, but it needs so much work! >>>

Gash Creek outside of Victor
Ambrose and Burnt Fork Creek roads east of Stevensville
One Horse Creek outside of Florence 
Blue Mountain area, Missoula
Rock Creek outside Missoula to Philipsburg
Anywhere in the Potomac, Blackfoot, Brown’s Lake, Seeley Lake area

Helmville area outside Drummond (don’t forget to stop at Parker’s Restaurant, which features over 100 burgers on the menu! The Helmville Rodeo is also a favorite with locals) 
Jacko River and Arlee area (don’t miss the Buffalo range!)
Kalispell to Ashley Lake 
Hungry Horse Reservoir
Kootenai to Koocanusa
Yaak Loop 
North Fork area outside of Glacier National Park (specifically a road trip to Polebridge Merc with its legendary huckleberry bear claws)

Off The Grid: Friends become neighbors in the foothills of Glacier National Park >>>

These are just a few quick ideas to spark your inner Lewis and Clark. Most of us live in Montana for the lifestyle and recreation, so get out there and explore. Be warned – backroad adventures can become addictive. Luckily, our options, like the Big Sky, are nearly limitless. 

Images courtesy of Kat Hobza

 

Kat Hobza has lived in Montana since she was nine, and was raised in the mountains west of Victor, Montana. There she learned to hunt, fish, shoot competitively, chop and stack firewood, and drive on icy or muddy roads. Kat has over two decades of experience in professional writing and content marketing. When she’s not crafting copy for Glacier Sotheby’s International Realty, she’s either hanging with her hilarious adult kids or soaking up the sun somewhere – a riverbank, a golf course, or her deck.

 

 

 

 

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backcountry roads in MontanaMontana adventuresroad trips in Montana