Panoramic Excess: driving the Rocky Mountain Front

By Craig & Liz Larcom

    Even a panoramic camera can't squeeze in all the snow-covered tips and vast prairie lands that constitute the Rocky Mountain Front.

The peaks and ridges simply cover too much of the horizon as they surround the viewer in calendar-perfect scenery, particularly near Augusta and Choteau.

    These expansive views are the highlight of a loop drive that passes through farm and ranch land, skirting buttes of every shape and size, and travels alongside vast fenced prairie and into the shadow of the famed Rocky Mountains. Drivers in early spring will appreciate this route that wends though Chinook country, where warm snow-eater winds hinder heavy snow accumulation.

The circuit begins in Great Falls, following Montana Route 200 to Vaughn, then heads up the Sun River Valley to Simms, passing three landmark buttes along the way. The first, rock-rimmed Square Butte, seems to erupt from the earth. These buttes to the south of the road are the northern edge of one of the world's finest displays of laccoliths (a geologist's term for mushroom-shaped bodies that form when molten magma squeezes between two layers of sedimentary rock, making an intrusion that may be several miles across.)  Here, the sedimentary rock has worn away, leaving isolated buttes in varied shapes.

A few miles later, irregularly shaped Fort Shaw Butte rises just beyond the town of Fort Shaw, and steep-walled Crown Butte peeks over the hill south of Simms. Only the top third of this 900-foot butte, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy, shows at this point in the drive. Later, on the back half of the driving loop, you can see Crown Butte in its entirety, including its preserved native grassland that has never been heavily grazed or cultivated.

At Simms, the route continues west on Montana Route 21 toward Augusta. The countryside becomes hillier, and beef cattle and horses predominate over hay and wheat. Pronghorns, white-tailed deer, mule deer and magpies are likely sightings in this section, where good views of the Rockies begin. With all the nooks and crannies in the jagged faces of the mountains, the scenery looks spectacular at any time of day, although photographers aiming for the best picture will want to shoot in the morning. Even at noon, however, sunlight illuminates enough of the crags giving them a 3-D-like appearance. 

Near Augusta, the route intersects U.S. Route 287. This highway runs parallel to the Rocky Mountain Front and offers almost continuous views of the rugged peaks abruptly meeting the plains. The Continental Divide is only 30 miles away as the crow flies, but the driving loop stays on the valley floor. 

If you want to stretch your legs, stop in Augusta at Latigo and Lace, a fine arts and crafts shop with a reputation that reaches beyond the town limits. Or, venture down a gravel road to snap some photos of the Sun River Wildlife Management Area near Sun Canyon, where a wintering elk herd is often visible from the road. Bluebirds like this neighborhood as well. 

Back on 287, as you travel north to Choteau, you might notice that the paralleling fence lines have changed. Instead of the traditional posts driven into the dirt to support the fence, posts lean against each other to form an X. This method eliminates the need to dig into the rocky ground. 

At the courthouse in Choteau, the road meets U.S. Route 89. Turn southeast to circle back to Great Falls or linger and try an elk or venison burger at the Log Cabin Caf. The Old Trail Museum on the north end of town has the scoop on nearby dinosaur discoveries, Pulitzer-prize-winning author A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and the Old North Trail that was traveled by early people.

Though the seasons are shifting in March and April, drivers in an exploring mood might want to head west down gravel roads to sample downhill skiing at Teton Pass, snowshoeing in the Lewis & Clark National Forest or ice fishing on Nilan or Pishkun Reservoirs. Typically the seasons overlap a few weeks, and temperatures stay low enough to accommodate these activities.  

And if not, as you cruise from Choteau to Fairfield past Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area, you can expect to be compensated by snow geese, Ross's geese, tundra swans and pintail ducks. By the third week of March, waters at Freezout are likely to have thawed enough to accommodate these migratory birds. The northbound white geese arrive by the tens of thousands, entertaining observers with their gabbling sound and social habits. En masse, they whirl off the water, settling again after an eagle has passed, or perhaps heading off to nearby barley fields to feed. A recorded message at (406) 467-2646 lets wildlife watchers know whether the geese have arrived.

Four miles past Freezout is Fairfield, Malting Barley Capital of the World. In another seven miles the buttes come into view again. The road joins Montana Route 200 and the Rocky Mountain Front slips behind, mile by mile. Little bits of panorama pop into the rearview mirror, reminding you that the film processor awaits.