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The National Bison Range Scenic Byway
The National Bison Range, established in 1905, is an 18,500-acre reserve for the American bison located in Northwest Montana, near Polson. Between 300-500 bison roam the reserve and constitute the largest herd of free-roaming bison outside of Yellowstone National Park.
The National Bison Range also offers one of the most scenic drives in Montana, which I dub the National Bison Range Scenic Byway. The twenty-four mile route takes visitors up into the hills and mountains of the reserve, providing both superb wildlife viewing opportunities as well as stunningly beautiful views of the Mission Valley and Mission Mountains.
The National Bison Scenic Byway consists of two distinct roads, the nineteen-mile long Red Sleep Mountain Road and the five-mile long Prairie Drive.
The Red Sleep Mountain Road takes visitors through the heart of the reserve, up into the open, rolling hills and mountains of the reserve. Trailers are prohibited on the road due to the steep inclines, numerous sharp curves, and the roads narrow width. The road is also runs in one-direction only. Additionally, during the winter months the road is closed.
By contrast, the Prairie Drive road is takes visitors along the base of the mountain, through the “flats” of the reserve. This road is open year-round and vehicles with trailers are allowed.
The route begins at the entrance to the National Bison Range in Moiese, which is located on Highway 212, thirty-one miles south of Polson.
After passing the visitors center, the byway soon begins to climb into the hills and mountains. For the next nineteen miles, the byway slowly snakes its way through draws, scattered forests, open hills as well as making its way along the top of a ridge.
The views from the byway are excellent. At the beginning of the byway, visitors have unrestricted views of the Flathead River and the western part of the Mission Valley, along with the forested Salish Mountains.
As the drive meanders its way to the east and continues to gain elevation, the views really open up, providing superb vistas of the snowy peaks of the Mission Mountains, the agricultural fields of the Mission Valley that lie two thousand feet below, as well as more distant views of Flathead Lake and the Whitefish Range.
Once the Byway reaches the “flats,” the road changes character as it passes through open fields. The road also follows the Jocko River for a short distance. This section of the drive is excellent for viewing wildlife other than bison, as the Jocko River and the surrounding fertile grazing lands are home to deer, antelope and other wildlife.
The National Bison Range is a day-use area only. However, while there is no camping allowed on the reserve, there is a very nice picnic area set along the forested banks of the Jocko River near the Visitor Center.
Overall, anyone who will be visiting Northwest Montana (and if you’re visiting Glacier National Park, then you’re visiting Northwest Montana), should absolutely find the time to take this scenic and very unique byway.
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