Back on Red Rock Pass Road, you’ll follow the south shore of Upper Red Rock Lake. Look for trumpeter swans and ducks on the lake, sandhill cranes and white-faced ibis in the grasses, and Shiras moose browsing on the willows. On the other side of the road, look for pronghorn in the sagebrush and elk moving in and out of the tree line and you might even spot a wolf or bear. If you have your fly rod, these clean, cold waters offer great fishing, including the chance to catch (and release) westslope cutthroat trout.
Welcome to the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (406-276-3536), literally the country’s last best place for trumpeter swans. Some 30 to 50 can be seen at any given time (in pairs and family groups), with that figure bumping up to 100 cygnets and mature birds in the summer. The northeast corner is federally protected wilderness, one of the few marshes in the country given a designation that strictly prohibits development, mechanized vehicles, and even chainsaws for cutting firewood. There are no established human trails. Any noticeably trafficked route across the grasslands was created by wildlife. The refuge is also a National Natural Landmark.
Much of the area’s human activity begins at the refuge’s headquarters in Lakeview (pop. 86). A drive-through kiosk provides maps and an overview, and a cabin houses U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staffers who happily offer more detailed insights and information. Though abundant bird life is everywhere, you’ll be thankful for bringing a spotting scope. Access to both Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes is limited. Hiking is allowed anywhere, but it can be dicey. Wander off a game trail, and you could find yourself thigh deep in a bog. The best time to see the widest variety of wildlife here is in the fall, before snowdrifts close Red Rock Pass to autos.
Lakeview is mostly a collection of small cabins. Aside from the refuge, it’s also the home of the International Center for Earth Concerns, a nonprofit that preserves and protects habitat in the United States and as far away as Kenya. Headquarters are located in a renovated historic structure that’s hard to miss. The center has also been restoring and preserving settler homes in the valley, and has plans for a museum
Heading west, you’ll notice Lakeview’s connection to the outside world: telephone poles stretching to the horizon. The valley broadens even more, and thousands of black dots appear amid the grass and sage. These are Angus cattle tended by ranching families that have braved long, fierce winters and isolation for more than a century. Most of those same cattle will spend their winters in milder climes to the north. These sweeping views remain much the same for the next 28 miles, with only the mountains to the north changing from the southern tip of the Gravellys to the southern edge of the even more secluded Snowcrests. The more adventurous and freeway-averse might consider turning north on FS 202, an improved gravel road that slices between the Snowcrest and Blacktail ranges en route to a meeting with I-15 at Dillon.
If you continue on to I-15 at Monida, the first services are still another 15 miles to the northwest at Lima. For more conventional lodging and dining, continue past Lima to Dillon. Clark Canyon Reservoir is a well-used recreation site, and the Beaverhead River downstream from the dam is a favorite of trout fishermen, especially in the spring and early summer when other rivers are largely unfishable due to spring runoff. See the Big Hole Loop for more on Dillon.
West Yellowstone: Lodging is pretty homogenous in this theme-park-like town, ranging from clean and well-kept mom-and-pops to standard chain motels. It’s difficult to distinguish between the 30-plus properties, including chains such as the two Best Westerns, a Days Inn, and an upscale Holiday Inn, many of which sprang up when West Yellowstone had unrestricted snowmobile access to Yellowstone National Park during the winters. A few to which we’re partial begin with the year-round Brandin’ Iron Inn ($$, 406-646-9411). It’s a basic motel, but the 80 affordable rooms were recently renovated and the owners are engaged in the community. Another is the year-round Hibernation Station ($$, 406-646-4200), an intimately grouped collection of log cabins with bright interiors. The 1931 Evergreen Motel ($$, 406-646-7655, April-Oct.) is a pleasant motor-court motel in fact, its original name was Evergreen Auto Court with pretty hanging flower baskets outside of tastefully decorated rooms. For a taste of the town’s earliest history, The Historic Madison Hotel ($$, 406-646-7745, May-Oct.) is a hotel, motel, and youth hostel rolled into one. The two-story 1912 building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has much of the original architecture, and many of the rooms feature original antique furnishings and clawfoot tubs. Lodging options include upstairs hotel rooms that sleep up to four, cabin-themed motel rooms in back and male/female dormitory-style hostel accommodations for less than $45 per night. centennial valley: The J Bar L Ranch ($$$$, 406-684-5927) is an innovative working cattle ranch that raises grass-fed beef in a valley that time forgot. Rockefeller heir Peggy Dulany bought the ranch in the early 2000s and restored four decaying pioneer buildings for vacationers who’ll truly appreciate the regenerative values of being in the middle of nowhere. The two-story Anderson House and three-story Smith House were originally homes. The log-built Stibal Barn once housed livestock, and the most luxurious, the Brundage Cabins, are actually three rustically elegant off-road cabins overlooking the meandering Red Rock River. For anyone wanting another original Centennial Valley experience, Elk Lake Resort ($$/$$$, 406-276-3282) is a throwback to dude ranch camps. The resort, which likes to say it’s on the backside of nowhere, is open seasonally and only accessible by snowmobile in the winter. The modest collection of seven cabins plus ranch house can be rented nightly with breakfast buffet included, or as multi-day packages with or without three meals. Due to the effort required to secure food elsewhere, you’ll be glad you opted for the meals. lima: The Mountain View Motel & RV Park ($, 406-276-3535) just off the I-15 exit has clean, serviceable lodging for bucks and does, and a made-in-Montana gift shop. Jan’s Cafe ($$, 406276-3484) has two gussied-up cabins (next to the diner) that sleep up to six in each. Beware: no WiFi.
Dell: Off the interstate and just down the road from the Calf-A is the Stockyard Inn ($$, 406-2763501), providing seasonal lodging (closed Dec. 15-April 15) in six upscale western-themed rooms, including one suite with a pink Jacuzzi tub. Ellen and Mark O’Brien’s reasonable rates ($85/night) include a continental breakfast with homemade muffins. High-end dinners are planned entirely around guests’ wishes Ellen went to culinary school and average around $20 per person. Many returning guests request the pork medallions in apricot brandy sauce or stuffed shrimp.
West Yellowstone: Six miles west of town on US 20 is the 200-acre Bar N Ranch ($$$, 406-6460300, May-Oct.), which has upscale lodge rooms and cabins, and a chef-prepared breakfast that can be included in your package deal. Besides the distinctions of personal hot tubs (cabins), wood-burning fireplaces, and a full-service bar, guests have access to a secluded section of the Madison River for blue-ribbon trout fishing. Six lodge rooms share a hot tub and heated pool. For glampers, now located behind the ranch are tents that range from $90 to $400 per night (May-Sept.). Several styles are available, including a family tent with an adjacent teepee for the kids. When the lodge is open, the restaurant is open to the public. For what you get, the prices aren’t out of line. camping: In the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, the Upper and Lower Red Rock Lake Campgrounds are open year-round. They are accessible in winter only by snow machine and seldom filled perfect for solitude and wildlife viewing. A bit primitive, you’ll find Port-a-Potties, potable water in the spring, fire rings (no chainsaws permitted), and picnic tables. forest service cabins/lookouts: (Reservations: 877-444-6777 or www.recreation.gov.) The Basin Station Cabin (406-823-6961, $30/sleeps four) on the Gallatin National Forest is 2 miles off US 20 and along Denny Creek Road about 7 miles west of West Yellowstone, so it isn’t the primitive experience one thinks of in terms of cabins and lookouts, but its accessibility is a bonus. For a serious sense of solitude, try the remote West Fork Cabin (406-682-4253, $35/sleeps three) on the West Fork of the Madison River on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. As the crow flies, it’s less than 10 miles due north of the North Side Road just east of Eureka Basin, but get a map from the Madison Ranger District when making reservations. Another great primitive experience is the Antone Cabin (406-682-4253, $35/sleeps two) at the end of a gravel road in the southern end of the Snowcrests. Though Antone has a nearby spring, it’s unreliable, and potable water should be brought to all these cabins, which feature propane cooking stoves and outhouses. Antone Cabin can be reached from the Centennial Valley via the Blacktail Creek Road (FS 202), which is an exceptional off-the-beaten-byway gravel route back to Dillon.
West Yellowstone: The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist J. R. Moehringer once said that history is the narrative of people searching for a place to go. The Madison River Crossing ($$, 406-6467621, D) fits the narrative for people searching for that place to go a low-key place away from West’s tourist energy. American food staples and neon arrows point this way to a well-stirred cocktail or fine glass of wine and some delectably delicious dinners served by a professional yet friendly staff. Bullwinkle’s Saloon & Eatery ($$, 406-646-9664/406-646-7974, L/D), and Ernie’s Deli ($, 406-646-9467, B/L/D) are also open year-round. Bullwinkle’s is the place to get messy with baby-back ribs but also offers some not-so-standard specialty salads, pan-fried trout, and pasta along with the ubiquitous beef and bison steaks. They also own a conveniently located liquor/wine/beer store where you are welcome to purchase a bottle to accompany your meal. Ernie’s has eye-opening morning coffee, sandwiches, salads, and plenty of vegetarian options. Check out the latest area earthquake activity on Ernie’s Web site; it will awaken you to the shaky ground beneath your feet. If you’re a big breakfast fan but not in a big hurry, head over to Running Bear Pancake House ($/$$, 406-646-7703, B/L), open summer and winter but not during the shoulder seasons. For an ultra-fine dining experience Memorial Day through September, Bar N Ranch ($$$, 406-646-0300) will tantalize your taste buds with seared salmon, pasta prima, hazelnut trout, and bison ribeye. If a full dinner is more than you want, select from their bistro menu offerings that include well-dressed burgers, roasted chicken tacos, and Cajun shrimp salad.