The Sweet Grass Hills Backcountry Drive
Towering above the rolling prairie, the Sweet Grass Hills are one of the more noticeable geographic features in Montana. Located in north-central Montana along the Canadian border, the Sweet Grass Hills consist of three distinct buttes separated by vast sweeps of rolling grasslands. The drive takes visitors through the heart of this remote and seldom visited part of Montana. Yet those who make the time and effort to explore this forgotten part of Montana will reap the rewards of seeing a nearly unspoiled grass prairie that marches off to the horizon in all directions.
The Sweet Grass Hills Backcountry Drive is a sixty-six mile route that takes the visitor through a part of Montana that few natives ever see. The route is remote, lonely, usually windy, utterly devoid of any services, and not always easy to navigate.
Moreover, while the road is generally in decent condition when dry, during the mud season or following heavy rains the roads the route follows frequently turn to a sticky mud that makes travel difficult, if not downright unpleasant. Two-wheel drive vehicles, in particular, will almost certainly get stuck during the short mud season or after periods of prolonged rain. As such, anyone venturing off into this part of Montana should pay special attention to the condition of the road. If the road is wet, it is generally best to wait a day to allow the route to dry out.
The Sweet Grass Hills Backcountry Drive follows two different state highways, Montana 552 and Montana 409, and travels between the tiny town of Sunburst and the nice, quaint town of Chester. Outside of Sunburst, the road is initially paved but turns to gravel as it approaches the first of the buttes.
Beginning in Sunburst, the route travels through open, rolling, grassland prairie as it approaches West Butte. As the road gains elevation through this section, the views from the top of the rolling hills are truly sweeping.
A few miles beyond West Butte, the Sweet Grass Hills Scenic Drive reaches the junction with Highway 552. The scenic drive itself heads off to the left on Miners Coulee Road as it traverses to the north of Gold Butte toward the tiny town of Whitlash. In the event you miss this junction, or the road itself looks nasty, the visitor can head south on Highway 552 until reaching Oilmont Road (Highway 343), and then head back to Whitlash on Strawberry Road (Highway 217). Visitors should remember that these roads are rarely marked. As such, visitors will have to use a bit of “intuition” to determine which road to take based on mileage and general direction.
From Whitlash, the route heads south on Highway 409 (Whitlash Road). The remaining 34 miles of the drive south of Whitlash pass through more rolling prairie that provide excellent views of Gold Butte and Mt. Brown. As the scenic drive approaches US Highway 2, hay and wheat fields also become a common sight.
For those wishing an extended drive through the Sweet Grass Hills, there is an eastern alternate route available. I haven’t taken this route, so anyone who travels it is “on their own.” Beginning in Whitlash, the route travels around the northern and eastern side of Mt. Brown, before linking up with the Sweet Grass Hills Backcountry Drive to the south of Mt. Brown at the junction with Old Whitlash Stage Road (Highway 409).
Overall, the Sweet Grass Hills Backcountry Drive is a superb route for those who enjoy rolling prairie and vast views. The grasslands in this part of Montana are beautiful, and visitors will likely come away with a new appreciation of the Montana prairie.
- Length: 66 Miles
- Highlights : The Sweet Grass Hills (West Butte, Gold Butte, Mt. Brown), Remote Montana Prairie
- Road Type : Primarily gravel
- Nearby Towns : Shelby, Chester, Sunburst
- 4wd needed? : Only when roads are wet/muddy/snow covered.
- Traffic : Light
- Trailers? : Yes
- Season : Year-round, weather permitting.
Map of the Sweet Grass Hills Backcountry Drive
The map below shows the route and location of the Sweet Grass Hills Backcountry Drive in Central Montana. The drive runs between Sunburst, MT, and Chester, MT.
Where to Stay & Other Services
There are no services of any kind along the Sweet Grass Hills Scenic Drive. The tiny town of Sunburst does have limited services, but the visitor will find many more services (at less cost) in nearby Shelby.
There is no lodging directly along the drive. However, the nearby towns of Shelby and Havre have lodging at affordable prices. Since lodging options are very limited in this part of Montana, if you know you'll be in this area and will need a room, a reservation during the summer is always recommended.