MAP OF MONTANA VIRGINIA CITY

GLASGOW: The Cottonwood Inn & Suites ($$, 406-228-8213) has 145 rooms and is the closest to an upscale choice. On site is a casino/lounge and Willows Restaurant, which sports a typical steakhouse menu plus a tasty chicken or beef stir fry. The Cottonwood is the only motel in town with an indoor swimming pool. The Star Lodge Motel ($, 406-228-2494) isn’t much for adornment, but it’s a solid choice for those who like a quiet, clean, mom-and-pop kind of place. Rundle Suites ($$/$$$, 406228-2800), in the heart of downtown, is typically booked as corporate lodging, but overnight stays are okay. They’ve got two-room suites with kitchenettes.

Saco: In 2014, Dennis and Michelle Simpson took on the daunting project of breathing new life into the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs Resort ($$, 406-527-3370). The result: the main facility has been beautifully renovated, including the four remodeled motel rooms. The floors are retiled, a new sauna was installed, the locker rooms have been updated, and the water is drained from the three pools nightly. Next on Simpsons’ agenda: renovating the outdoor pools. The area surroundings, including a campground, are anything but eye candy, though the Murphy’s Landing bar next door not affiliated with the spring provides a colorful diversion

Malta: The adorable and colorful Maltana Motel ($, 406-654-2610) has park-at-your-door spotless, spacious, and newly renovated rooms with lovingly maintained flower boxes in the windowsills. It’s just far enough from the main drag to offer some quiet. A half-block away is the two-story brick Great Northern Hotel ($/$$, 406-654-2100), which is owned by the same couple that runs the Maltana. At the Northern you’ll find the same impeccably clean rooms, and it’s the place to be if you like to enter your room from a hallway. Built in 1904, the Great Northern reveals its colorful railroad history in the form of photos on the walls. On site for convenience are a solid restaurant, lounge, mini-store, and an underground parking area for those wicked winter nights.

CREATING AN â˜AMERICAN SERENGETI’

At first glance, the sweeping vistas between Malta and the Missouri River east of US 191 don’t look like much. But National Geographic describes what’s happening on these untilled grasslands and in the rugged coulees as one of the most ambitious conservation efforts in the world. A Bozeman-based nonprofit organization called the American Prairie Foundation is working to create a 3.5-million-acre reserve the group likes to call âœThe American Serengeti.❠The goal is to protect, preserve, and expand one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth the prairie. When APF is finished, an endless horizon of native plants will again host nearly all the native species that roamed these lands when Lewis and Clark floated past the southern boundary. That includes a projected herd of about 10,000 wild bison thundering across the plains and coulees. By the summer of 2015, the reserve had more than 600 bison, compared to the original 16 imported from South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park in 2005. In 2010, another 94 with genetic roots in Montana the so-called Pablo herd, one of the last in the lower 48 states was imported from a national park in Alberta, Canada.

APF’s approach is to buy area ranch lands with the goal of stitching them together with neighboring public lands to create a reserve nearly the size of Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks combined. The group has secured seven-figure donations from people around the world and uses public-relations firms in New York and London in an effort to shine an international spotlight on this American outback, but its primary tool is first-hand experience. APF’s biggest donors are out-of-staters who were smitten by the wide-open spaces, solitude, and plight of vanishing prairie ecosystems. It’s a primitive world with no services, though APF opened an eleven-site Buffalo Camp campground in 2011 and a plusher Kestrel Camp with five temperature-controlled suites in 2013.

Though one of the APF’s talking points is the promotion of economic vitality in area communities, local resistance to the effort is stout. Fueled by the fact that APF’s headquarters are in trendy Bozeman, many believe the group’s ultimate agenda is to remove ranchers from lands they’ve homesteaded for more than a century. They also fear the creation of a national monument that would restrict such historic uses of the land as grazing and hunting. A few even envision herds of wild bison leaving paths of wanton destruction. In Malta, front yards are pocked with green-and-white signs saying âœNo Free-Roaming Buffalo, No Monument❠and âœDon’t Buffalo Me.â

To combat these perceptions, APF is reaching out to local ranchers with a program called âœWild Sky Beef,❠which pays a premium to livestock producers willing to meet certain wildlife-friendly protocols. That includes no longer shooting or poisoning such native creatures as prairie dogs, and installing fencing that, for example, enables pronghorn antelope to migrate easily. The beef is marketed as healthy and wildlife-friendly to consumers willing to fork out a little extra money in the name of conservation. As of 2015, the fledgling program, based on a similar model in Africa, had four area participants with a goal of 50 by 2018.

As you might guess of such a remote landscape, reaching the American Prairie Reserve requires some effort. From Malta, head south on Central Avenue and turn left onto MT 364. Shortly after the road turns to gravel, look for a fork in the road and take Regina Road to the right. It’s another 30 bouncy miles to a T-intersection, where you’ll turn left and drive another 6 miles to yet another âœT,❠this time turning right. American Prairie Reserve signs will guide you in from there to the headquarters.

Chinook: The pleasant and reasonable Chinook Motor Inn ($/$$, 406-357-2248) is centrally located to other businesses and also has the Chinook Grille & Bar (B/L/D) as an anchor. The thirty-eight rooms with queen beds are basic but clean. The restaurant is known for Chinese food and freshly ground burgers.

Havre: Most of Havre’s motels are located on US 2, the major artery through town. TownHouse Inn of Havre ($$, 406-442-4667), and AmericInn ($$/$$$, 406-395-5000) are some of the more corporate-style, locally recommended places to stay. The Best Western Great Northern Inn ($$, 406-265-4200) is another good choice, but like so much of the lodging on the Hi-Line, it’s near the busy Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks so you might want to bring earplugs.

Shelby: Similar to Havre, you can find a decent night’s stay at a couple of chains. The Best Western ($$, 406-424-4560) has a slight edge over The Comfort Inn ($$, 406-434-2212), though both are consistent in quality. To get away from the cookie-cutter variety, consider the O’Haire Manor Motel of Shelby ($, 406-434-5555), which remains a throwback to the 1950s, when oil and gas execs used it as a base to oversee the workers in the energy fields scattered across northern Montana.

Alternative Bunking

Camping: The Lake Shel-Oole Campground (406-434-5222) north of Shelby, is tucked beneath an earthen dam, has nearly 70 sites for RVs and tents, and decent fishing.

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