For those who have traversed it, the Gravelly Range Road evokes a certain reverence. What makes this adventure on gravel unusual even for Montana is that about half of the route rides the spine of a mountain range the Gravellys.
The Gravellys aren’t the most dramatic mountains in Montana, but the ability to drive along their backbone yields extraordinary views of the Snowcrest, Madison, Tobacco Root, and Greenhorn ranges in addition to the Gravellys, plus the Madison and Ruby River valleys, and the Madison River all from a road that seems to unwind just beneath the clouds, and all with an incomparable sense of isolation. What makes this adventure possible are the relatively sedate contours of the Gravellys, though don’t be fooled: some peaks rise above 10,000 feet, and much of the route is above 8,000 feet.
Especially spectacular are the 38 miles from Ennis southwest to Black Butte Cabin. But we encourage taking an entire day and covering all 72 miles at a leisurely pace. And the beauty of this drive is that it’s comfortable in a typical sedan; no high-clearance or 4-wheel-drive needed, unless you encounter rain and subsequent gumbo where the roads are dirt instead of gravel.
The Gravellys got their name from the coarse pebbles that comprise much of the range. In some of the lower reaches, over time these pebbles have been ground to a fine dust called talc. The range is one of the largest producers of talc in the world, though you won’t see any evidence of it on this adventure. The Gravelly Range is so wild with the grizzly bears and wolves to prove it that conservation groups have worked (unsuccessfully thus far) to protect parts of it and the Snowcrest Range to the west as wilderness. These mountains serve as stepping-stones for geographically isolated Greater Yellowstone wildlife going to and from the wilds of central Idaho and northwest Montana. Elk and deer are everywhere.
Don’t come on the Gravelly Range Road thinking you’ll find an ice cream stand or souvenir shop for a break. The closest thing to services is Black Butte Cabin, a primitive one-room building at 8,900 feet in elevation that’s in the Forest Service’s recreational rental program The cabin is B.YO.E. Bring Your Own Everything, except mattress pads, cooking utensils, and firewood. It does offer unobstructed views of 10,546-foot Black Butte Mountain (the highest in the range) and incomparable stargazing.
In short, this drive is all about scenery and seclusion at the top of the world. Much of the route is rolling from sub-alpine mountain meadow to sub-alpine mountain meadow, punctuated by forested draws and ravines. Spectacular expanses of wildflowers linger here deep into July, long after they’ve succumbed to the heat of summer elsewhere. About 20 miles past the junction at Black Butte, which offers the opportunity to escape westward to the Ruby River Valley or east to the more populated Madison at West Fork, the road begins its gradual descent into the remote Centennial Valley.
There are several ways to come at the Gravelly Range Road: Starting in Ennis in the Madison River Valley and finishing in the Centennial, starting in the Centennial and concluding in Ennis, or a shorter compromise. Most folks start in Ennis, but that means after 72 miles you’ve still got another hour or more of driving on dirt and gravel in the Centennial before eventually arriving in West Yellowstone. Starting in the Centennial means you’ll have dining, lodging, and fuel options awaiting you’re arrival in Ennis, where you can drop your bags in a motel and head for the Madison River with a fly rod. If you don’t want to commit an entire day, start in Ennis, drive to the Black Butte junction, and return to US 287 on the gravel Standard Creek Road to West Fork.
As with many of Montana’s dirt backroads, it isn’t advisable to drive this route during or immediately after a rainstorm. Parts of the road turn to muck or become rutted, especially in the southern reaches. Also, the road typically isn’t entirely accessible until late June; earlier in the spring, it isn’t unusual to be able to drive for miles on a dry, sunny day, only to be abruptly lima: Jan’s Cafe ($$, 406-276-3484, B/L/D) has been around since the 1960s and is known locally for a filling pork-sausage cowboy burger and delicious deep-dish fruit and cream pies. dell: Bring your hunger to one of the more renowned rural restaurants in Montana and not just among I-15 truckers. Yesterday’s Calf-A ($$, 406-276-3308, B/L/D) is 8 miles northwest of Lima on the interstate, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. They still believe in old-fashioned service, real home cooking, and huge helpings. The Calf-A, housed in an 1890s red-brick schoolhouse, bell and belfry still intact, has school furniture, real chalk boards, and pleasing aromas. Tender beef pot roast alongside a mountain of mashed potatoes and thick brown gravy is a staple, as are the homemade pies, cinnamon rolls, and other sweet treats. Outside seating in summer gets an A-plus for views of the towering Tendoy Mountains.
YESTERDAY’S CALF-A IN DELL, ONCE A PIONEER SCHOOLHOUSE, IS A FAVORITE OF I-15 TRAVELERS FOR ITS HOMESTYLE COOKING Best Bar west Yellowstone: Not only does the Wild West Pizzeria & Saloon (406-646-4400) have the best pizza in Greater Yellowstone, it also has the best hangout factor. The pizzas hand-tossed, made from Wheat Montana brand flour, and topped with freshly grated Wisconsin mozzarella cheese take some time to get to your table. But they are definitely worth the wait. Meanwhile, big-screen TVs in the handsome, expanded digs make the wait tolerable as well. The bar has a pool table and can get loud, so just take your beverage back to the pine tables and benches for cordial conversation about Yellowstone National Park and other elements of the Wild West. Another bonus: it’s open year-round.