I’ve traveled through much of the American west and there are very few places that I didn’t find amazing, but one of my favorite areas to explore is western Montana. Missoula and Helena are eclectic towns with a great mix of art, modern culture, and rich history and any outdoor enthusiast would be on cloud nine in the areas surrounding those two cities.
While living in northern Idaho my family had a great opportunity and excuse for making our way into our neighboring state on a regular basis. There were two major routes from the Idaho panhandle into Missoula, but our favorite was to wrap around to the east side of Lake Pend O’reille and follow the frolicking Clark Fork River on Highway 200. Not long before hitting the junction for Interstate 93 which would take us to the Missoula outskirts there is a small brown USFW sign indicating that the National Bison Range lies down a nondescript gravel road to the north. I can’t tell you how many times we passed this sign without giving it much thought. We may have wondered aloud what exactly the National Bison Range was at times, but it took several years before we finally decided to stop by and wow, were we glad we did!
Our first stop was at the visitor’s center where the friendly staff gave us maps and a brief history of the 18,500 acre reserve. The reserve was established in 1908 by then President Theodore Roosevelt and is now home to between 350-500 bison, black bear, coyotes, elk, whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, cougars, and a plethora of smaller mammals and bird life. These animals all range free through the park so visitors are limited to the several driving routes and occasional marked hiking trail.
The longest and best wildlife viewing route is the Red Sleep Mountain Drive which takes you on a 19 mile loop through low mountain terrain. Two hiking trails also depart from this road and allow a different perspective and chance to get a close up view of the animals (though I recommend giving the bison and bears plenty of space). The vistas alone made this visit worthwhile, though the animal sightings made our time there unforgettable.
David and I thoroughly enjoyed the several hours we spent on the range, but Justin and Jesse enjoyed it just as much. They were great at helping spot wildlife and Jesse loved the chance to photograph wild animals. The walking trails were a nice break for stretching legs and wearing off some of the endless energy that kids enjoy. If you ever find yourself in this corner of Big Sky Country, don’t pass by that little brown sign; you won’t regret your visit!
What you should know:
- Admission costs $5 for a private vehicle, slightly more for larger vehicles or groups.
- Red Sleep Mountain Drive is open mid-May through early October. The shorter Winter Drive is open the rest of the year.
- Visitors must remain at or in their car or on designated walking trails.
- Pets must be on a leash when outside the vehicle.
- Hunting is prohibited within the reserve.