DOWNTOWN AUGUSTA, GATEWAY TO THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN FRONT US 89 crosses nearly 40 miles of foothills scrubland, dipping and rising in and out of creek and river bottoms, before arriving in the Blackfeet capital of Browning (pop. 1,079). It can feel as if you’ve entered a foreign country, and in a sense you have, given that the tribes technically are sovereign. It’s also obvious that times are tough for the Blackfeet. But as they undergo a cultural rebirth of sorts, Browning is becoming more hospitable. One example: where the Rocky Mountain Front drive ends, with US 89 meeting US 2, is the Museum of the Plains Indian (406-338-2230, $5 in summers/free Oct.-May), a must for anyone who appreciates the rich history of Native peoples. No fewer than 11 Plains tribes are represented here. The museum is under the auspices of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, so you know you’ll be getting their stories in words and pictures. The Blackfeet Heritage Center & Art Gallery (406-338-5661, Mon.-Sat. summers) is another place to get an understanding of Indian culture. The center sells jewelry, moccasins, beadwork, baskets, drums, and other Native items. In Browning, mark your calendars for the second week of July and the Northern American Indian Days, a four-day powwow where colorful teepees seem to extend to the horizon.
TOURISTS CAN SIGN UP FOR DINOSAUR DIGS NEAR EGG MOUNTAIN AND EXPECT TO UNEARTH FOSSILS A BIGHORN SHEEP PEERS AT A RARE INTRUDER ON THE ROAD TO TETON PASS
For fishermen, the Blackfeet Reservation is a paradise of lakes, rivers, and streams. Due to their belief that these waters hold mystical powers, the Blackfeet traditionally haven’t fished, and so there are dozens of small lakes and potholes, eight large lakes, and nearly 200 miles of streams filled with big trout and other species. Stop in Browning for a tribal angling permit. Browning does have a few motels and restaurants, but more appealing options are in East Glacier about 15 miles west but still on the reservation.
Best Places to Bunk
Wolf creek: Wolf Creek Angler ($/$$, 406-235-4350) is the place to stay if you’re looking to hook into some trout. They have four detached cabins, each with railroad-themed signage prominent above the front doors. Also available are four connected motel rooms and three bungalow rooms with kitchens. Fishing supplies, guides and free advice are a roll cast away, and the parking lot is always filled with SUVs or pickups tugging driftboats and rafts. Limited lodging is available through the winter. More secluded is the 7 R Guest Ranch ($$, 406-235-4207), a hideaway that’s actually a handful of RV sites and motorcourt-esque motel rooms on gurgling Little Wolf Creek. A large country dining room is open to the public from May to New Year’s Day. Rooms are dated but clean, and there are throwback resin picnic tables outside the rooms. Back in the day, owner Ron Adams was a touring singing cowboy. If you’re lucky, he’ll play a dinner set or two on weekends. To get there, take MT 434 northwest of Wolf Creek about 3 miles to where the gravel-topped Little Wolf Creek Road veers to the left. Take the fork and drive another 2 miles or so.
Augusta: In this two-horse town, the choice with the most personality is the Bunkhouse Inn ($, 406562-3387), an Old West-style hotel in a century-old structure. It has nine neat-as-a-pin rooms, each sharing the two bathrooms at either end of the hall. Aimee and Dylan Lennox have done a meticulous job of retaining the historic character of the reputedly haunted building (ask Aimee for a ghost story). The Diamond Bar X Ranch (406-562-3279, May-Oct.) south of town offers nine guest cabins, full equine accommodations, and a campground with RV hookups in the Dearborn River canyon. choteau: Choices are limited, but the Stage Stop Inn ($$/$$$, 406-466-5900) is the most appealing, especially to families with kids, because of its indoor pool the only heated pool within 50 miles, the hotel’s managers like to say. A hot breakfast is included in their seasonal rates. It is a non-smoking, no-pets facility, but they have a dog kennel in back to accommodate the many hunters who stay in the fall.
Dupuyer: The Inn Dupuyer Bed & Breakfast ($$, 406-472-3241), is a century-old hand hewn log home restored and renovated specifically for lodging. Three single rooms and a two-bedroom suite each have their own bathroom. Your stay is completed by a full western breakfast, easy access to outdoor exploration and activity, and sensational mountain views.
Choteau: “Camp the Front” at Choteau Mountain View Campground ($, 406-466-2615 May-Oct) in one of their 49 RV sites, 20 tent sites, or three cabins ($50). In this relatively urban setting, at least by small-town Montana standards, they have running water in the camp but showers require an additional fee.
Forest service: A plethora of Forest Service campgrounds are in the Lewis and Clark National Forest west of Augusta and Choteau, with two cabins recently added to the roster. The one-room Kenck Cabin ($45/sleeps six) near Choteau was built in 1924 by a local doctor/dentist. The family donated it to the Forest Service in 2003 upon the death of the last surviving son. The cabin, which has no running water or electricity, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The West Fork Cabin ($45/sleeps six) just past the Teton Pass Ski Area is available only in the winter, when it isn’t manned by the Forest Service. As for campgrounds, Home Gulch (fifteen sites) and Wood Lake (nine sites) are 20 and 24 miles west of Augusta, both peaceful places on a lake where motorboats are prohibited. Two miles beyond Wood Lake is Mortimer Gulch (twenty-eight sites), which has a boat launch and is the largest of the Rocky Mountain Front campgrounds. Another 4 and 5 miles up the road are Benchmark (twenty-five sites) and South Fork (seven sites) campgrounds, both popular jumping-off points for Bob Marshall Wilderness forays. Another four campgrounds are northwest of Choteau: Cave Mountain (fourteen sites), Elko (three sites), Mill Falls (four sites), and West Fork (six sites). Elko and Mill Falls are free, and the other two offer quick access to “the Bob.”
Wolf creek: Save your appetite for the Uncle Joe’s Oasis Bar & Grill ($$, 406-235-9992, L/D), on the east side of the freeway in Wolf Creek. The grill side specializes in top-shelf food, including hand-pressed burgers with unique toppings, creative soups, and their most expensive dinner entree: an extra-large New York steak with all the trimmings. In the dead of winter, the kitchen takes a break. augusta: Mel’s Diner ($, 406-562-3408, B/L/D) has serviceable made-to-order to meals, but what keeps plenty of folks coming back are the generous scoops of Wilcoxson’s ice cream and the homemade pies. Mel’s does serve dinner (known ‘round here as supper), but only until 7 pm. Just down the street, the amiable Kerry will get you what you’re hankerin’ for at the Lazy B Bar & Cafe ($, 406-562-3397, B/L/D); she’s the mother of the owner, after all. Whether it’s their famous biscuits ’n gravy, a bowl of homemade soup, a fresh handmade pizza, pork riblets, or just a slice of pie, they’ll get ‘er done. It’s located in the 1883 Augusta Hotel, which was billed as “a quiet place to meet gentlemen friends” back in the day.
Choteau: Despite the natural beauty of the lands to the west, the tourist trade can be sparse in Choteau. So the restaurants work together and share the limited wealth by not being closed on the same days. The Elk Country Grill ($$$, 406-466-3311, L/D, Mon.-Sat.) is a favored spot for a sizzling steak, elk medallions, or a seafood entree accompanied by homemade soup, a bottle of red wine, and a slice of pineapple upside-down cake or fresh-baked pie for a finish. For lunch, give the Indian taco a twirl. The Log Cabin Family Restaurant ($$, 406-466-2888, L/D, Tues.-Sun.) is renowned for bison burgers, steak, a succulent walleye dinner, and a selection of 20 to 25 home-baked pies. The giant hanging flower baskets adorning the outside of the restaurant come courtesy of the owner’s other business, the nursery next door. John Henry’s ($, 406-466-5642, B/L/D Wed.-Mon.) offers large portions of classic Montana fare for modest prices. Choteau is also hip enough to have a health-food store the Mountain Front Market (406-466-2684, 11 am-6 pm Mon.-Sat.) stocked with all the requisite healthy food and drink for a long hike into the Front country or for cooking your own meals.
Augusta: Montana bars and taxidermy are synonymous, but the classic western Buckhorn Bar ($/$$, 406-562-3344, B/L/D) in Augusta takes animal wall mounts to another level. Several dozen on the log beams overhead preside over you as you chow down on their famed broasted chicken (Grandma Dellwo’s secret spice blend is in the coating) and handmade Montana beef burgers. All menu items are less than $10 except for the 16-ounce rib steak with baked potato and salad, for just under $18. The Buckhorn opens at 8 am and closes at 2 am, making it one of the few good choices in the area for early or late eats; after 10 pm, you’ll have to settle for a pizza. The Buckhorn has been in the Dellwo family for four decades and is a regional icon. Before it burned to the ground in 1974, the kitchen was in a trailer off to the side. Now the Buckhorn is in an attractive and intimate log building, complete with a photo on the wall of Grandpa Dellwo’s smiling face. He seems to be saying: “Life is all good in Montana.” wolf creek: Like a good pair of used waders, the well-worn and well-loved Frenchman and Me ($/$$, 406-325-9991, B/L/D) is an enjoyable place to unwind after a day of casting to trophy trout on the Mighty Mo. As you’ll readily notice by the photos and artifacts on the walls and tables, the fishing roots run deep here. The historic cinder-block building west of I-15 was once a mercantile owned by the family of Jessie Burns, who met A River Runs Through It author Norman Maclean at a Fourth of July festival here and eventually married him Norman and his younger brother, Paul, took Jessie’s Hollywood brother, Neal, on a fishing adventure near here that’s revisited in the movie. The mercantile eventually became a bar and, in later years, a grill was added before it evolved into the all-purpose watering hole Tim Hefner owns today. Hefner, an Irishman, never got around to changing the bar’s name to reflect his heritage. He did get around to skillfully serving up favorites such as heaping plates of biscuits and gravy, the region’s best broasted chicken, and a belly-satisfying rib-eye steak dinner. The ubiquitous Montana staple burger ’n fries is renowned and hard to beat for under 10 bucks. And Tim’s mean Bloody Mary will help you quickly forget about all the big ones that got away. Beer, wine, and a full bar means you can find whatever you’re angling for and, if your timing’s right, you’ll be treated to local musicians showcasing their talents. Also important: The Frenchman and Me is the only year-round restaurant between Helena and Cascade.