Take a Montana Drive This Fall
Steve McGann | Wednesday Nov. 1st, 2023
Before I lived in Montana, the most vivid recurring image I had of what it would be like involved driving. My mind-picture was of an old bench seat pickup, slowly moving up a long hill on a gravel road through a grassy meadow. There were a couple of us in the truck, not necessarily talking, simply enjoying the Saturday evening low sunlight across the sky. Decades later, though I have done that many times, the original image still exists, not completely replaced by any reality.
Driving for pleasure seems to belong to an earlier time, prior to commutes, running errands, and hauling the kids to practice. Our generation took a shot at it with cruisin’ the drag, endless loops around nighttime streets and drive-ins in our hometowns. Cars and trucks and miles are an American tradition. Here are some options for evening rides around our area. Of course, the roads go ever on, so any of these could become full on day trips, too. Or keep a bag packed in the trunk; you never know where the road will take you. In the excitement of the drive, a person could end up in Billings, Missoula, or on the Pacific coast. Just sayin’.
After a hot summer of quick. purposeful trips to the mountains and the lake, it is nice to take some slow, cool cruises around and beyond our autumn valley. That type of older, relaxed driving for the sake of it. Soon enough, snow will shrink our travels. Here are some suggestions:
A drive to Livingston is simply called, “Over the Hill.” Interstates are more for getting there than enjoying the trip, but 90 is handy. Take it as far as Jackson Creek and then switch to the frontage road. Once in Livingston, a stroll along the Yellowstone River in Sacajawea Park can earn a milkshake at Mark’s In & Out. On the way home, take Jackson Creek on into Bridger Canyon and through the narrows into Bozeman.
During ski season, the traffic in Bridger Canyon can be as bad as on N. 19th. But in the fall months before snow, the drive is beautiful. The green meadows and golden aspens reaching up to the fir forest and then up to the Bangtails and the Bridger Ridge are sublime. Make a quick turnaround at Bridger Bowl or go on over Battle Ridge for views of the high peaks to the north. A longer day is possible with loops through Clyde Park or Wilsall. This drive is a real Southwest Montana showcase.
The road on the west side of the Bridgers is more casual, a ‘wave at the other drivers’ route. Of course it begins on N. 19th, but the traffic fades out on the way to Springhill. Past Riverside, the subdivisions become ranches. The land seems to relax. The road ascends out of the valley and becomes gravel. Springhill Road becomes Rocky Mountain Road; just the name itself is a good reason to drive there. At the North Cottonwood trailhead, turn around and gaze out at the entire Gallatin Valley. On the return, the view of the Bridgers, now on your left, is unique.
Trail Creek road most closely resembles my Montana fantasy. Gravel, winding, and fairly deserted. Access it from Interstate 90 in Rocky Canyon. The northwest side winds its way up through fields and woods. At the top and down the east side, the view of the granite peaks of the Absarokas is close to scary in its dominance. The road ends in Paradise Valley, and the drive up to Livingston along the river is almost as dramatic. When the Bridgers become familiar, a view of the high, sheer stone Absarokas can fill one with proper awe.
The road to Hyalite used to be quite a challenge. Unpaved, it could be mud or dust in the summer and, if tried in the winter, you were guaranteed getting stuck. Now, the sleek paved route is a fun cruise in the warm months, and is plowed clear in winter. The canyon and the creek are beautiful, yet the real payoff is reaching the reservoir with the high peaks surrounding it. An added joy is getting out for a walk or a longer hike on any of the many trails. Hyalite is the best place to take more sedentary visitors for a real feel of the wilderness.
A variation of the Hyalite road involves bypassing the turn up the canyon, staying straight until the Cottonwood intersection, and then taking a left and proceeding on to US 191 at Gallatin Gateway, then north to Four Corners and east on Huffine. This little trip involves city and country driving, with quite a few potential stops for meals or snacks. It combines city and country driving.
Another route that can provide a pleasant hike or, in this case, a riverwalk, is the Missouri River Headwaters State Park. Head west on I-90, take the Logan exit onto the frontage road. Turn north into the Park a few miles later. There are a number of turnouts and trails to explore. My favorite is the confluence of the Jefferson and the Madison, where the Missouri officially begins. The Gallatin flows in a half-mile below and has its own turnout. A hint: later on, in the dead of winter, this area gets little snow and can provide hikes where, on a sunny day, one can pretend that winter is gone.
Speaking of rivers and of a rather untraveled road, the Gallatin Forks north of Manhattan is a possible jaunt. Take the interstate or the frontage road to Manhattan. Drive west on Railroad Avenue and jog right onto Nixon Gulch Road. Drive straight to the Confluence of the Gallatin with the East Gallatin. There is a park nearby to stroll through, check out the river, and look for wildlife. The East Gallatin is important since it comprises all of the creeks in our area; Bridger, Trail, Bozeman, Hyalite and countless other small streams that traverse the east valley and then flow together.
Like Bozeman, Big Sky is a dynamic and constantly changing community. It is worth the occasional drive to check out a new labyrinth of roads into the latest condo development. The possibility of a brand new coffeeshop or bistro beckons also. The added attraction of this route is that it winds through the beauty of the Gallatin Canyon. Stop along the way to marvel at the kayakers running the Mad Mile. Or grab your own peace and quiet by casting a line into a likely hole along the river. The signature hike at Big Sky is the Ousel Falls trail. It has some elevation loss and gain, but is paved for a good part of the way. It’s a good leg stretcher before resuming your drive back up the canyon.
For a longer experience, head west and then maybe south. Drive to Four Corners and stay straight west on Route 84. This road ascends and takes you up and out of the Gallatin Valley and into the drainage of the Madison. You will pass the classic float of that river and then wind on to Norris. Check out the Hot Springs, then turn south into the expansive Madison Valley. At Norris Junction, Highway 287 climbs south and then down into McAllister and Ennis. There is usually wind, and always far-off scenery in the Madison Range, the Tobacco Roots, and the Gravellys.
These are ten solid suggestions. There are dozens of other possibilities among the hundreds of miles of roads in our valley and the surrounding mountains. They seem to beckon our attention and desire to explore. Plan a route or, better yet, simply take off (do, however, be sure to bring winter ‘survival’ gear along; in Montana, serious squalls can sneak up pretty much any time of the year).
There are a few rules (or at least strong suggestions). Be sure to stop for roadside historical signs. They provide a break in the action, and you might learn something. Be the first to wave at other drivers. The fluttering full hand is a bit much, but the index finger up off the wheel is classic. Keep at or below the speed limits; don’t zoom 80 on the interstate; keep at a speed where it is possible to both concentrate and observe the scene. Going slower will allow you to gawk around. There is much to see.
Mileage and times are not provided here. These are easy enough to figure out, but a drive is not about either one. Get behind the wheel, take off, listen to some good music, but lose the phone. Enjoy the moment, turn around when the sun begins to sink, and travel home in the dusk.