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The Missouri Breaks National Backcountry Byway, Page 2

The Missouri Breaks of Montana
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The first fifteen miles of the Missouri Breaks National Backcountry Byway are, to put it bluntly, uneventful and nothing special. The drive passes through the Montana prairie, with few features to make the drive interesting.

However, after fifteen miles, the first hints of what lay ahead start appearing. Some smaller, steep hills begin to appear, and soon the first trees make an appearance. And after about twenty miles, the Byway enters the Missouri Breaks, where it remains for the rest of the drive.

The Missouri Breaks, for those unfamiliar with it, is a landscape characterized by steep hills, endless draws, scattered forests and in general very rugged topography. The entire Missouri Breaks region of Montana is, for lack of a better word, “unique.” While the Missouri Breaks lack the soaring mountain peaks found elsewhere in Montana, there is something special about the steep hills, the hidden draws, the open prairie mixed in with the scattered forest, that make this region of Montana extremely scenic and enjoyable to visit.

After twenty-miles, the road starts to deteriorate a bit, with the all-season gravel surface giving way to a mix of dirt and gravel. After twenty-five miles, the Missouri Breaks Byway enters the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, which is well-marked by a huge sign that is impossible to miss.

Beyond this sign, the road turns strictly into a dirt road, which soon gives way to a “two-track” dirt road. Additionally, the “impassable when wet” sign seen a few miles earlier speaks the truth here, since the road turns to a slick yet sticky “gumbo” when wet. Also, just beyond this sign is a confusing road intersection. Go right at this “Y” road junction.

The Missouri River & The Missouri Breaks
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At mile 27, there’s one last “danger” sign warning travelers of what lie ahead. While the “dangers” should be obvious by now, since the road has become a narrow two-track dirt road, this sign is helpful in another way. Less than half a mile beyond this “danger sign” is a damn confusing road junction. The Byway itself seems like it’s going straight. However, if you follow the road straight, all you end up doing is passing through an abandoned ranch.

Instead, the Byway follows a faint two-track trail that goes up a hill just before the road reaches this old farm/homestead. It’s very easy to miss the junction here, as the obvious direction is “straight ahead.” Anyways, the moral of the story is if you pass through the old farm, you’ve gone too far and need to turn around and look for a very faint two-track dirt road that climbs up a small hill.

The good news is that once you’ve found the road at this old farm, it’s tough to get lost for the remainder of the drive, for the simple reason that there’s no other roads around!

Beyond the farm, the Missouri Breaks Backcountry Byway enters the Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge (a tiny sign and a cattle guard mark the boundary of the wildlife refuge).

Once in the wildlife refuge, the Byway continues to wander through the Missouri Breaks region. Although there are no views of the Missouri River, the open nature of the drive allows for superb views of the canyon. In addition, the views of the entire Missouri Breaks area from the road are simply outstanding.

After thirty-five miles, the Byway drops steeply down into a small valley. Two Calf Creek runs through this valley. During late summer, Two Calf Creek usually is dry, making for an easy stream crossing since there’s no water! However, in spring and early summer, or following periods of wet summer weather, vehicles will need four-wheel drive to cross the creek.

Once across Two Calf Creek, the adventure now turns to getting out of the little valley since the road climbs very steeply to reach the top of the ridge. The road is so steep that I had to use four-wheel drive low on my pickup truck to climb the hill! I kept stalling out when in 2wd drive and 4wd high. What this means is that a passenger car almost certainly will not make it up this hill unless the car has an extremely powerful engine and the driver doesn’t mind some damage to their vehicle! Read more about this hill here.

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Map of the Missouri Breaks National Backcountry Byway

The map below shows the route and location of the Missouri Breaks National Backcountry Byway in Central Montana.

Map of the Missouri Breaks National Backcountry Byway