Big Sky Backcountry Byway TERRY TO WOLF POINT
ESTIMATED LENGTH: 105 miles estimated time: 3 hours to 2 days
Highlights: Terry Badlands, Cameron Gallery, Prairie County Museum, McCone County Museum, Fort Peck Dam Interpretive Center and Museum, Kempton Hotel
Getting there: Veer off I-90 a few miles east of Billings onto I-94. Take Exit 176 from I-94 at Terry. On the northernmost point, Wolf Point is on US 2 and the Amtrak line, and it is served by Big Sky Airlines as well. The closest major regional airports are in Billings, 175 miles to the southwest of Wolf Point, and Williston, North Dakota, 130 miles to the northeast.
Some call it the Big Open. Some call it the Big Dry. Others think of it simply as the forgotten Montana. Whatever it’s called, the Big Sky Backcountry Byway is a memorable experience as much for what it once was and could be again as it is for what little there is to see and do in this vast country that’s largely devoid of humans and their trappings.
With only the slightest imagination, you can gaze from the windows of your car and envision bison outlined against amber hillsides, grazing on the short-grass prairie. Or picture a band of Sioux sitting astride horses above a coulee, scouting for a camp or warily scanning for a wagon train of settlers. Even in our modern world, neither image is overly far-fetched. For it was in the Big Open that the hooves of great bison herds last thundered across Montana, before wanton slaughter in the late 1800s rendered the shaggy beast extinct in the Northern Rockies in all but a remote valley in Yellowstone National Park. And it’s here where some dreamers see bison roaming this undulating country again as part of a vast national park called the Buffalo Commons. Here also was where the legendary Sioux made a last stand, the most stubborn of the “hostiles” relegated to the arid and inhospitable Fort Peck Indian Reservation north of the Missouri River. At a forgotten place called Cedar Creek, about 35 miles north of Terry, the Sioux chief Sitting Bull best known for orchestrating Custer’s demise at Little Bighorn surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles in the autumn of 1876 and permanently returned to the rez. The Indians were treated nearly as shabbily as the bison, and similarly what remains of a shattered culture today bears little resemblance to that of yesteryear.
This is some of the country that inspired great Western writers. It also was the inspiration for Montana’s best-known name outside the state: Big Sky Country. The byway bisects the Big Open from south to north through McCone and Prairie counties, from Terry on the meandering Yellowstone to Wolf Point on the mighty Missouri. It’s part of an old trade route connecting Regina, Saskatchewan, with Yellowstone. Lonely windmills seem to outnumber lonelier trees, and you’re as likely to see a pronghorn or mule deer as a cow or horse or human. All of 1,700 people live in McCone County, which covers 1.7 million acres. In the 105 miles between Wolf Point and Terry are two towns: Circle and Brockway, once thriving cattle communities now clinging to their legacies in a region rapidly losing its youth to urban areas. Cattle and sheep outnumber humans about 100 to one in rugged country where the annual rainfall is only slightly higher than in Arizona’s deserts and winter temperatures of minus-30 degrees aren’t an aberration. On the north end of the byway, Wolf Point is a half-Indian, half-white community on US 2 that serves as a regional hub. In these parts, what suffices for a hub is an Albertson’s grocery store, a few gas stations, and three serviceable motels.
If you’re looking to be wowed, you’ve come to the wrong place. The beauty here is stark, subtle, and nuanced. There are no towering mountains, no glistening rivers, no thick forests rich with wildlife, no scenic vistas in the traditional sense. Stop and listen to the silence, broken only by the rustle of breezes massaging the sagebrush. Stop and look at the hardy flora and fauna in small coulees in the Terry Badlands. Or just sit and admire a fiery sunset that seems to go from here to eternity, and then marvel at the night lighting up with more stars than you’d ever imagine. This is Big Sky Country.