When the mercury drops and cold northerly winds usher in the new winter season, Montana buttons up, hunkers down, and says goodbye to the millions of visitors who call on our state during the warmer seasons. For many, it is a time to rest and relax, but for the hardy, there is still much to see and do in Montana in the winter months. Scenic views and breathtaking drives away. Cold and snow be cursed. A whole world of fun and adventure is out there for those willing to find it.
Road trips through Montana’s back country need not end in winter. On the contrary. Those who live in Montana year-round know winter it is a chance for renewal. And it flushes out many of the tourists who fill our roads so we can have this beautiful state all to ourselves. And with a lot less traffic.
Everyone knows about Montana’s most famous scenic drives, including Going-to-the-Sun Road and the Beartooth Highway. But these are not routes you can enjoy in the colder months, too. It is also nice to have a route or two to enjoy regardless of the season so you can witness its changes from season-to-season. And although many of Montana’s most scenic drives are off limits in the winter, it does not mean there aren’t roads to explore. It just means your routes change. And your level of preparedness needs to be better.
These are some of my most favorite drives in Montana, regardless of the season. But I think they can be appreciated even more so in the colder months of the year. So, grab your Thermos of hot cocoa, an extra warm blanket or two, and your best winter tires, and let’s go for a drive.
KINGS HILL SCENIC BYWAY
Whether you are looking for a beautiful road trip in the winter or summer, Kings Hill Scenic Byway along U.S. Highway 89 through Cascade and Meagher County offers plenty to see and do. If it’s me, I’m starting my journey in Belt, which is quintessential small-town Montana. This quaint little nook southeast of Great Falls is busy regardless of the season. And oddly, it often seems to have a completely different climate than what you will experience on the rest of your trip through the Little Belt Mountains. Load up on fuel and supplies at the Belt Valley Grocery Store and then walk over to Belt Creek Brew Pub for some delicious food and/or revelry if you’re making the trip in reverse. A bottle of Beltian White from Belt’s very own Harvest Moon Brewing Company is a great beer for those who aren’t driving.
Heading south to Armington Junction and you will continue your trek toward White Sulphur Springs. You will drive through beautiful rural foothills and pass wild streams, changing terrain, and you are likely to see some wildlife along the way. Be sure to stop at the scenic overlook 12 miles south of Armington Junction to peer down into Upper Sluice Boxes State Park. Whether it’s summer or winter, it is quite a view. From there you will drive through Monarch and Neihart, which are a buzz of activity in the winter as both snowmobilers and skiers make this their base camp for a host of different winter activities in the region.
As you climb the mountains toward Kings Pass, Belt Creek, mountainous vistas, and plenty of Ponderosa pines through the center of the Lewis and Clark National Forest will accompany you along your journey. Upon arriving at Kings Pass, at an elevation of 7,385′, you will be immediately greeted by tall slopes of Showdown Montana, which a popular central Montana alpine ski area. In the winter you can of course sk or, if skiing is not your thing, you can still visit King’s Hill Grille for some delicious hot food as you watch the men and women fly down the slope. In the summer the views are still spectacular as you drive along 89 past Showdown where only a guardrail, good driving, and control of your dark impulses prevent you from plummeting thousands of feet below.
Before hitting White Sulphur Springs, consider turning west onto Newlan Creek Road to drive around this beautiful reservoir hidden in the mountains. From there you can enter White Sulphur Springs from the west, where you will find plenty to do. Bar 47 and The Jawbone are among the many great restaurants in town, but also consider a sweet treat from Wild Oats Baking, breakfast from Branding Iron Cafe, or a beer from 2 Basset Brewery. If shopping is your thing, Smith River Custom Apparel and Red Ants Pants are must stops.
Heading south you will drive through Ringling, Montana, which was founded by John Ringling, one of the brothers of the Ringling Brothers’ Circus. And a turn west onto Highway 86 just north of Wilsall and make a trip through beautiful Bridger Canyon. It is the perfect punctuation mark for your trip, especially if out rubber necking on a snowy winter’s day.
FORT BENTON TO WINIFRED
Fort Benton by itself is a wonderful starting point for any excursion into central Montana’s back country regardless of the time of year. Its small-town charm coupled with the beautiful Missouri River and historic Grand Union Hotel, are a wonderful opening act for what lay ahead. I love this drive so much, regardless of the time of year, as it takes you through Montana’s geological past, including a scenic tour of the Shonkin Sag, the prehistoric route of the Missouri River. This route also takes you along the northern edge of the Highwood Mountains on your way through the beautiful Judith River Breaks.
Driving east from Fort Benton on Highway 80 you will cut through some of the most fertile farmland in the entire state. Just south of Geraldine the landscape suddenly changes, though, from flat, open fields to ridges, buttes, and extreme terrain. You will be flanked by the beautiful Chalk Cliffs on the east and majestic Square Butte and Round Butte to the west.
As the elevation drops and you make a sharp turn back to the west, you will officially be entering in the Shonkin Sag. The mighty Missouri River no longer flows here, but tiny little Arrow Creek does, and the hilly, sage brush crusted landscape that flanks this small stream is still a feast for the eyes. That’s when you enter an area of the highway notorious for sloughing, before exiting the valley. Here you will see a beautiful old grain elevator in what remains of the town once called Arrow Creek, beautiful views of the buttes behind you, and the Highwood Mountains off in the west.
From there you drive into Denton, which was devastated by a wildfire last December. When there I always stop in at the Shade Tree Cafe for breakfast or lunch. Then just east of town turn north onto Route 547, also known locally as Bear Springs Road. It is paved for quite a distance before it turns to gravel, but don’t fret. It’s a good gravel road. And where you’re headed, you don’t need paved roads.
Stay on Bear Springs Road as you wind your way through coulees and tranquil landscapes swaddled in blankets of prairie grass and wheat, which are dotted with beautiful barns and teetering homesteads. Soon the plains that flanked you along the way will give way to steep embankments lined with beautiful evergreen trees. Some 32 miles later and you will find yourself in the middle of the Judith River Breaks. From there you will make hair pin turns into the river’s valley below. Off to the east are the beautiful Judith Mountains, which is a view that was most surely an inspiration for one of C.M. Russell’s paintings.
Once you cross the Judith River the road becomes known as Judith River Road, which will take you into Winifred. There, believe it or not, you can bowl in Montana’s newest bowling alley and eat a wonderful steak in the elegant 1028 Steakhouse and Fireside Lounge. Winifred International Suites is right next door, which was uniquely styled after different places around the world. This road, and the sites along the way, truly is one of Montana’s hidden gems.
EAST SIDE OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS
Going-to-the-Sun Road, of course, won’t open until late June or July, and most of the rest of Glacier National Park is closed to road traffic, but it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the majesty of one of America’s most beautiful national parks in the off season, too.
Be sure to make this trip in the morning when the sun paints the mountains with many different shades and colors of light. Late in the day the most beautiful scenes are hidden in shadows, so mornings are your best bet if it’s beauty you seek. Early mornings on U.S. Highway 89 here are also usually teaming with wildlife. And as an added benefit, you will usually have the entire route to yourself on sunny, winter mornings, which offers ample opportunities to stop, roll down the window, and enjoy the cold winter air, sounds, and views from the comfort of your warm car.
While the route north toward Glacier National Park is quite busy in the summer when roadside services are abundant, please keep in mind this changes once the weather turns. Many places are closed, so be sure to plan ahead. This includes packing some extra food and water (just in case) and be sure to get more fuel whenever you have the chance. Cut Bank and Browning offer the best chances to do so, though the Sinclair station in St. Mary may be open, too.
Be sure to stop at the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning as you begin or end your trip on this route. This wonderful museum features art and historical artifacts from many of Montana’s native American Indian tribes all in one location. Their collections include historic clothing, horse gear, weapons, and a lot more. It is also a great place to learn about the history of this region, which hold great significance with the local Blackfeet people who have called this place home for centuries.
U.S. Highway 89 from Browning to St. Mary surrounds you with beauty regardless of the time of year, but especially on an early January morning when the sun illuminates the mountains from the east and wakes the wildlife along the way. There is even a herd of wild horses that often emerges from the forest where they hide from tourists in the summer. They gather along this route to warm themselves on the black pavement in the morning sun.
Once you pass through St. Mary, take Highway 17 north of Babb. It is usually plowed part of the way into the mountains. At the end of this road and you will see beautiful snowcapped views of Chief Mountain and its easily recognizable gray shale peak as it emerges from the forest floor. Called Ninaistako by the Siksika Nation, it is sacred to many First Nations peoples in both the United States and Canada. Native people from all over North America travel to this location to soak up the energy of this place. You should too.
As you leave the area, consider taking Duck Lake Road (Highway 464) east more winter landscapes on your way back to Browning. From there you can head south on U.S. Highway 89 back to Great Falls, enjoying the impressive views of the Bob Marshall Wilderness along the way.
Hopefully you have been inspired to get out this winter season and explore Montana on your own. There are many beautiful places to see regardless of the time of year. All you need is a little extra planning and a desire to see the state in all its beauty to make an unforgettable road trip of your own.
OTHER WONDERFUL MONTANA ROAD TRIPS REGARDLESS OF THE SEASON:
- Bitterroot Valley from Missoula to Sula (U.S. Highway 93)
- Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway from Anaconda to Drummund (Highway 1)
- Sweet Grass Hills drive from Jerusalem Rocks and Sunburst to Chester
- Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway (Highway 37)
- Big Coulee Road between Ryegate and Rapelje and Columbus
- Bear Paw Mountains from Havre to Chinook
- Ekalaka to Tie Creek Road and Capitol Rock
- Paradise Valley from Livingston to Gardiner (U.S. Highway 89)