Think of Montana, and images of snowcapped mountains, pristine free-flowing rivers, and weathered cowboys traversing vast prairies astride proud horses likely come to mind. After all, these portraits are the core of the Montana mystique, captured in the lilting prose of the late Ivan Doig and A. B. Bud Guthrie, the vivid paintings of C. M. Russell, the gritty black-and-white images of Evelyn Cameron, and the breathtaking cinematography of A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer, and Legends of the Fall.
Certainly, this is the romanticized Montana, and yet these snapshots offer an alluring dose of accuracy as well. Even today, more than a century after the open-range era that emblazoned the Old West’s image in the American psyche, visitors can participate in an actual cattle drive, cast a caddis or nymph to glistening pools full of fat wild trout, watch magnificent herds of wild elk on the march, and marvel at brawny mountains in every direction. In many respects, Montana is still a raw, rugged, and wild place even as well-heeled cowboys and ranchers from elsewhere flood river valleys and mountain resorts in the western half of the state. They’re all yearning to reconnect to a bygone era that’s probably more myth than truth.
Yet it’s still possible to experience the Montana of popular mystique, especially if you’re willing to leave behind the well-traveled highways that cater to the whims of tourists and newcomers. It’s on these backroads and byways where the adventurous can best see why Guthrie dubbed Montana Big Sky Country. You’ll also recognize the evolved definition of the term Treasure State. After a century of drawing deep upon rich reserves of minerals, timber, rangelands, and fossil fuels, Montana’s nickname now better describes the state’s scenic, cultural, and natural wonders as residents and visitors work to protect what’s been lost elsewhere in America.
Once away from the hum of Missoula, Kalispell, Billings, Great Falls, and Bozeman still small by eastern standards but veritable metropolises in a state that barely surpassed 1 million residents in 2012 you’ll find a remarkable variety of landscapes and cultures.
Did you know, for instance, that Montana has a temperate rain forest? The hardy, rugged loggers and farmers of the cool, damp, and gray Yaak River Valley in the northwest corner of the state certainly can tell you about it.
Did you know that Montana is dotted with semiarid deserts? Lest you doubt, check with the ranchers near Bridger in the south-central part of the state and at Hot Springs up in the northwest, where annual rainfalls in a good year are about the same as in Tucson, Arizona.