Great Drives: The Rocky Mountain Front
Posted on 21 July 2016
Buttes and Rockies Loop
Ear Mountain, photo by David Reese, Montana Living
By Craig & Liz Larcom
Passing through farm and ranch land, this loop skirts a region of picturesque buttes, then takes visitors to spectacular views of the Rocky Mountain Front. This is chinook country, where warm “snow-eater” winds mean that snow seldom accumulates, even in the depths of winter. In March and April the seasons are shifting but when skiing, snow shoeing and ice fishing fail, the spectacle of migrating snow geese arrives.
The route begins in Great Falls, following Montana 200 to Vaughn, then traveling up the Sun River valley to Simms. Five miles past Vaughn, the first of three landmark buttes appears -- Square Butte, a favorite subject of artist Charlie Russell’s. The 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.) In this case the sedimentary rock has worn away leaving isolated buttes with interesting shapes.
The Adams Stone Barn at the 8 mile marker is the next item of special interest Completed in 1885, the stone barn is tucked among buildings on the south side of the road. Once a stage coach stop, it’s on private land, so travelers must settle for a roadside view of the barn with its horse-shaped weather vane.
Fort Shaw butte, located just beyond the town of Fort Shaw, and Crown Butte to the south of Simms, complete the views of buttes along this part of the drive. Steep-sided Crown Butte, owned by the Nature Conservancy, preserves native grassland that has never been heavily grazed or cultivated. It rises 900 feet above the prairie, showing its top to travelers on the loop.
At Simms, the route continues west on Montana 21 toward Augusta. The countryside becomes more hilly and cattle and horses predominate over wheat. Pronghorns, white-tail deer, mule deer, and magpies are likely sightings in this section, where glimpses of the Rockies begin.
Fifty-four miles from the outset the route joins U.S. 287. This highway runs parallel to the Rocky Mountain Front, with almost continuous views of craggy peaks abruptly meeting the plains. The continental divide is only 30 miles away as the crow flies, but the driving loop stays on the plains, turning left for a mile to visit Augusta, then heading back north 25 miles to the town of Choteau (say it “SHOW-toe.”).
Shoppers will especially enjoy Latigo and Lace, a fine arts and crafts shop in Augusta. Those who are hungry or thirsty should head for Mel’s Diner.
Gravel roads extend short distances into the Lewis and Clark National Forest and drivers in an exploring mood may want to venture closer to the mountains on gravel roads from Augusta or Choteau, as weather allows. Closer views and the possibility of downhill skiing at Teton Pass, snow shoeing in the national forest or ice fishing on Nilan or Pishkun Reservoirs are reason enough to set out on gravel roads marked on the official state highway map.
Driving north towards Choteau, motorists who can glance away from the peaks will notice that the view is framed with odd-looking fences. The posts are replaced with wooden X’s because this eliminates the need to dig into the rocky ground.
At Choteau the loop turns southeast on U.S. 89 at the courthouse, but travelers will find plenty of reasons to stop for a spell. Dining that includes elk and venison burger is available at the Log Cabin Café. Shopping highlights include antiques, gifts and Ellen’s Dress Shop. The Old Trail Museum on the north end of town (winter hours 10-3 on Wednesday through Sunday) 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 man.
Cruising down U.S. 89 towards Fairfield the traveler will find an abundance of tumbleweed, romantic to some, and a pestilence to others.
In five miles the road cuts between Priest Butte and Priest Lake then arrives at Freezout Wildlife Management Area, on both the left and right sides of the road. By the third week of March, waters at Freezout are likely to have thawed enough to accommodate snow geese, Ross’s geese, tundra swans and pintail ducks. The northbound white geese arrive by the tens of thousands, creating an awesome sight and sound. Sociable creatures, they whirl off the water in a mass, 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 geese have arrived.
Fairfield, “Malting Barley Capital of the World,” is four miles beyond Freezout. Another seven miles return the traveler to Montana 200, the route back to Great Falls.