I was at a large gathering of tourism professionals this past week and was surprised when someone asked what an island mountain range was.
In Central Montana we refer to several of our mountain ranges as islands. We call them islands because they are isolated from a larger chain of mountain ranges and, on the plains, they look like islands on high ground. You’ll find many island ranges in the northern Rocky Mountains of the US. Because they are isolated you’ll often see plant or animal species that aren’t found elsewhere.
I have a lot of “favorite” islands in Central Montana – the Big Snowy Mountains, Crazy Mountains, Bear Paw Mountains just to name a few. The island mountain range that I talked about this past week was the Little Rocky Mountains. Very few people had heard of them and they really are an oasis.
If you are on US Hwy 2 near Harlem, Montana you turn onto MT Highway 66 and point your wheels south. This route takes you through Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and as you get near Lodge Pole and Hays you are in the foothills of the range. I like to turn east and drive through Hays and then an area referred to as Mission Canyon. You would absolutely not believe how quickly the terrain changes! The northern part of Fort Belknap is a rolling prairie but by time you reach Hays (about 35 miles) you are surrounded by foothills.
If you drive through Hays you enter the beautiful Mission Canyon where there is a natural stone bridge that could be used for walking (it’s narrow though!). The canyon has a creek running along side the road, several roadside picnic areas and rocky canyon walls. All of sudden that canyon empties into a meadow surrounded by trees. This is the location of the pow wow grounds and it is suited perfectly for that.
The Little Rockies are rich in Indian lore but there was also quite a mining era there. Gold strikes and mining camps dotted this area and many fortunes were made, some lost, in these mountains.
I’ve heard it said that every story needs a villain so I’ll at least mention Kid Curry and his gang. There were several hideouts in the Little Rockies reported to be used by the famous train robbers.
I hope you take some time to visit at least one of our island mountain ranges. Scenic driving routes will take you to wonderful photos ops, perhaps some wildlife, and plenty of history. Time to grab a map and go exploring!