The Gravelly Range Road Backcountry Drive
Running between Ennis and the lonely Centennial Valley, the seventy-two mile long Gravelly Range Road Backcountry Drive is one of the most scenic routes in Montana. While the route follows a number of different roads, the primary road followed is the Gravelly Range Road which travels across a high-elevation and expansive plateau in the heart of the Gravelly Range mountains.
Highlights of the drive include superb views of the Gravelly Range, the Snowcrest Range and the Madison Range mountains. The drive also provides some nice views of the Madison Valley and the Madison River.
The Gravelly Range Road Backcountry Drive is very different from most mountain routes in Montana. Usually, most scenic drives in the mountains climb to cross a pass and then travel through a scenic valley or parallel the base of the mountains. What distinguishes the Gravelly Range Road Backcountry Drive from most other drives is that the route travels for over thirty miles across a high-elevation plateau. As this plateau consists of primarily of high-altitude meadows, with scattered forests, the views of the Gravelly Range and other nearby mountain ranges seemingly never end.
The entire Gravelly Range Road Backcountry Drive runs for over seventy-miles, connecting Ennis and the Madison Valley to the north with the massive and empty Centennial Valley to the south. In terms of time, the full one-way trip will take at least four hours, potentially much more depending on the weather.
Due to the length of the drive, a suggested option for visitors who start the drive in Ennis is to drive to Black Butte Mountain, a distance of about thirty-eight miles. While the voyage south of Black Butte Mountain is extremely beautiful, the most stunning scenery and the best camping spots are between Ennis and Black Butte Mountain.
Additionally, by beginning the route in Ennis and turning around near Black Butte Mountain, the visitor avoids the problem of entering the remote Centennial Valley and being a long ways from anywhere - although the Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive can take visitors back toward Ennis and the Madison Valley.
The Gravelly Range Road Backcountry Drive follows a number of different roads, each with their own different surface. Outside of Ennis, the road is paved before switching over to a good-conditioned gravel road. As the route reaches the plateau in the Gravelly Range, the road is a mixture of dirt and gravel. As the road descends into the Centennial Valley, the road switches over to dirt entirely, particularly in the northern part of the Centennial Valley. Then just as suddenly, the road then changes back over to an all-season gravel road before the route ends at the junction with the Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive.
When dry, the entire Gravelly Range Road Backcountry Drive can be easily driven by a normal passenger vehicle, although high-clearance does come in handy on the outskirts of the Centennial Valley, due to large ruts. Vehicles with trailers also will not have a problem with the route when the road is dry.
However, everything changes when the road is wet. As this photo shows, when the road is wet the surface becomes a sticky yet slick type of clay that clings to even the best of tires. To avoid getting stuck when the Gravelly Range Road is wet will require four-wheel drive and some good tires.
Thus, the moral of the story is that anyone taking this backcountry excursion needs to be aware of both the weather as well as know whether rain has fallen in the higher elevations recently. Failing to know this is a recipe for an “interesting trip” through a remote and very isolated part of Montana.
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