Chances are your adventure will start in Terry (pop. 605), a blip on I-94 between Miles City and Glendive. About one-third of vast Prairie County’s residents live here. The town, named for a general who was instrumental in winning the Indian Wars, is largely built around agriculture, though it becomes noticeably more crowded during hunting seasons in the fall. Terry’s arrival is announced by the sight of the barren, erosion-pocked hills rising immediately to the north of town above the Yellowstone River. These are the Terry Badlands (406-233-2800), and if you appreciate unusual geologic formations sculpted by years of wind, rain, and heat, you’ll want to spend a day exploring here.
Before heading into the badlands, though, there is at least one mandatory stop in Terry: The Cameron Gallery (406-635-4040). Lady Evelyn Cameron was a strong-willed British woman who moved to the Wild West to homestead in the late 1800s, including a year in Prairie County. She brought a camera and began capturing the unvarnished black-and-white essence of prairie life in eastern Montana. Though Cameron’s keen eye generated some fame in her new home and some interest back in England, her compelling photos weren’t brought to full life until the 1970s, when boxes full of negatives were found in the basement of a friend’s home nearly a half-century after she died. Soon after, the book Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron was published, and today her riveting photos are on display in the Cameron Gallery.
For others who are history minded, the Prairie County Museum (406-635-4040) next door is full of the type of homesteading equipment Cameron was so adept at capturing on film The museum also reflects the town’s connection to the Northern Pacific Railroad and offers attractions you’ll surely see nowhere else a steam-heated outhouse, for example. The museum is in an old stone bank building next to the Cameron Gallery and is open every day except Tuesday from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend. After lunch or breakfast, peruse the byway kiosk at the 4 Corners convenience store before crossing the Yellowstone River on MT 253 and rising into the bleached, scoria-capped buttes of the badlands.
The Terry Badlands is a federal wilderness study area managed by the Bureau of Land Management, meaning the government has deemed the area wild and scenic enough to consider including protecting it under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Until that happens, the spires, natural bridges, and other extraordinary landforms in the 45,000-acre area are accessible by motor vehicle. One access point is a left turn off MT 253 3 miles north of Terry, though an unimproved road enters from the west on an abandoned Milwaukee Road grade. This is rugged travel on dirt, and the primitive roads turn to tire-grabbing muck on rare rainy days. It’s a mecca for rock hounds and fossil enthusiasts, and there is a rainbow of vivid colors among the sandstone hoodoos and prairie potholes. Translucent agates of varying shapes and colors are found in the badlands and along the Yellowstone, many destined to be shaped into jewelry with a diamond saw (see Side Track).
Out of the badlands, MT 253 rises gently over the Big Sheep Mountains, mere molehills by Montana standards. The Big Sheep represent the continental divide between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, which eventually meet about 80 miles away on the Montana-North Dakota border. To the west is Big Sheep Mountain, a 3,625-foot bump that’s the range’s apex. Aside from an occasional distant ranch and windmill, there is little sign of activity until Brockway (pop. 140), at the junction of MT 253 and 200. You’d never guess it from its weary facade, but Brockway was the country’s number-one livestock shipping port in 1934 and even featured a drive-in movie theater as recently as 1962. Northern Pacific Railroad cars arrived empty and left full of livestock and wheat, barley, and hay. Look closely amid the weeds, and you’ll see the abandoned railroad grade, a microcosm of a town that says it’s proud of its past and optimistic about its future. On the third Saturday each July, the town returns to its robust roots with the Brockway Dairy Days Rodeo (406485-2543), which began in 1918 and can boast qualifying no fewer than 21 cowboys and cowgirls in the annual National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Turn right on MT 200 and venture another 10 miles along the nondescript Redwater River into the agricultural community of Circle (pop. 584), another town that clearly has seen more vibrant days.
Arriving from the south, you’ll see the McCone County Museum (406-485-2414, May-Oct.) on the right. Inside are more than 7,000 historical items, including more than 200 mounted animals and birds that call the Big Open home. In recent years, a Northern Pacific Railroad depot and caboose, homestead, church, and prairie school have been moved to the grounds. You’ll also notice a statue of a Brontosaurus in town, a nod to the many fossilized dinosaur bones found in the area. If the creatures that roamed what had been swamps 65 million years ago pique your interest, take a side trip from Brockway about 70 miles west to Jordan on MT 200. Aside from being known as the most remote county seat in the nation and the site of a standoff between the FBI and a group called the Freemen in 1996, Jordan is also dinosaur central in Montana. A virtually complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton was discovered here in the late 1990s, and has since been moved to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
Circle, named for the brand on a nearby ranch, has several gas stations, all offering diesel. The town also has the only two cafes the Wooden Nickel and Lunch Box between Terry and Wolf Point. At the north end of town, continue straight on MT 13, toward Wolf Point.
The only community between Circle and Wolf Point is the unincorporated Vida (pop. 243), which has two churches, a post office, and a dance hall. By this point, you might feel as if you’ve been transported from Big Sky Country into central Nebraska. The land is flatter, and distant grain elevators are visible in both directions along US 2. Wolf Point (pop. 2,663) is the largest town on the byway and has long served as an Indian trading post on the north bank of the Missouri. Long gone are the days when wolves were common here. Reviled by the European culture, wolves were hunted and trapped relentlessly, and their hides were stacked here waiting for steamboats to take them for sale in the Midwest and East. Wolves were eradicated by the 1880s, but the name remains. When the Fort Peck Indian Reservation was created in 1912, with Wolf Point as its largest town, the buildings were moved away from the river to the Northern Pacific line. If you happen to be in Wolf Point the second weekend in July, the Wild Horse Stampede (406-653-1770) is considered the granddaddy of Montana rodeos because it’s the state’s oldest.
Perhaps the most interesting human-created attraction in the area is the Fort Peck Dam, 35 miles west of Wolf Point reached either by taking US 2 on the north side of the Missouri or the more interesting County Road 528 to MT 24 on the south side. Start your visit at the Fort Peck Dam Interpretive Center and Museum (406-526-3493) between the huge dam’s powerhouses and campgrounds. Built over seven years at the height of the Great Depression (1933-40), Fort Peck is one of the world’s largest earthen dams and employed more than 11,000 workers at the apex of construction, turning quiet villages into 18 raucous Wild West boomtowns overnight as many as 50,000 people lived here. The numbers for the nation’s fifth-largest man-made lake are staggering: a dam 21,000 feet long and 250 feet high, 1,520 miles of shoreline, a lake 134 miles long, 18.7-million-acre-feet of water, and a drainage area of 10,200 square miles. The interpretive center explains the magnitude of this endeavor in photos and journals. Also on display are dinosaur bones unearthed during the construction, including yet another skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Fort Peck Reservoir, surrounded by the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (406-538-8706), has become a recreation hub for boaters, fishermen, and hunters.