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The Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive
The Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive is a fifty-three mile excursion in Southwest Montana, along the Montana/Idaho border, that takes the visitor through the heart of a massive and forgotten about valley called the Centennial Valley. The route runs between Monida and Henry’s Lake, following one all-season gravel road that goes by many names.
I brought my mother to the Centennial Valley in 2002. Her first thought on seeing this sprawling, empty valley was that it reminded her of a Yellow Pages television commercial she once saw. The commercials purpose was to highlight what happens when a business doesn’t advertise in the Yellow Pages, which, of course, was nothing. To reinforce the message, the commercial – complete with crickets chirping in the background – showed a black and white view of an empty, lonely place. For my mother, the Centennial Valley of Montana will always be that empty, lonely land shown in the Yellow Pages advertisement.
I’ll be the first to admit, the Centennial Valley of Montana is far from popular. Indeed, empty is a good as word as any to use to describe it. Beyond the handful of dwellings in the town of Lakeside (a town that mainly serves to support the Red Rock Wildlife Refuge), there are only a dozen or so livable dwellings/ranches in the Centennial Valley. Indeed, there are far more remnants of past dwellings than there are “current active” ones.
Now, that empty feeling wouldn’t be so bad if the Centennial Valley was a small place. But “small” is a label never to be applied to the Centennial Valley. Massive would be a far better term for it, as the valley is nearly 15 miles in width and over forty miles in length. With only a handful of dwellings located in the valley, perhaps you can sense why my mother thought the Centennial Valley was a place straight out of the Yellow Pages phone book advertisement she saw.
Though the Centennial Valley may be empty, that doesn’t mean it’s ugly. Far from ugly, the valley is beautiful, tucked away along the northern edge of the Continental Divide along the Montana/Idaho border. The Centennial Mountains rise steeply and abruptly off the valley floor, providing a wonderful contrast.
Then, of course, there is the beautiful marsh, grasslands and lakes in the valley. Two relatively large lakes, Lower Red Rock Lake and Upper Red Rock Lake, form the heart of the Red Rock Lake National Wildlife Refuge, with the Red Rock River running between the two lakes.
Moreover, located in the refuge are some of the most beautiful grazing lands you’ll find in Montana, where lush green grass gives way suddenly to the steep rise of the mountains on the south and the marshy bog along the edges of the two lakes.
So yes, the Centennial Valley is empty, desolate even. Yet it is one of Montana’s most scenic, and unknown, gems.
The fact that the Centennial Valley is not just empty but also seldom visited is, admittedly, somewhat bewildering to me. It’s not like the valley is located in some faraway land. After all, the western starting point begins right off Interstate 15, and the eastern starting point begins right along the shores of the popular Henry’s Lake in Idaho, not all that far from West Yellowstone.
Despite how easy it is to reach the Centennial Valley, nobody visits it. I’ve driven through the Centennial Valley several times during the summer and have never seen more than a few vehicles along the entire route, a drive which takes several hours at a minimum. And once, during the middle of July on a beautiful summer day, I drove the entire route and not once encountered another vehicle.
So why do I bring this all up? The Centennial Valley is a place that caters to those that truly enjoy wide open, absolutely sweeping views in a lonely and empty part of Montana that few native Montana residents know about, let alone out-state visitors. Indeed, my strange interest in endless map reading was the only reason I discovered this hidden valley.
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