Epic Country Drive in Central Montana – Over the Bear Paw Mountains, Into the Upper Missouri Breaks

Entrance to the Bear Paw Battlefield

History, mountains, rugged river breaks, a national monument and a ferry ride – this drive covers all of these and it is beyond epic!

It was a sunny Saturday morning and we had a yearning for some quiet county back roads and amazingly diverse scenery – that’s all it took to stir up excitement for this drive.

My first advice – this is a seasonal drive and definitely a no-go when roads are muddy or it’s raining. The day looked perfect for us though and we left Chinook on US Hwy 2 with a good cuppa java and some snacks.

As you drive south from Chinook a road sign states “Ferry 79 miles, No Services”. That’s our drive!

We had a paved road for the first 25 miles, then it went to gravel, then dirt. After that you arrive at the Missouri River where there is no bridge, just a river ferry to take you across. My kind of route!

Leaving Cleveland and heading into the Bear Paw Mountains

We traveled past the Bear Paw Battlefield, site of the last major Indian battle in the United States, and a mere 15 miles south of Chinook. The Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph, were trying to get to present-day Canada and the US Cavalry was chasing them. It all ended at this battlefield, a touching, yet sad and emotional place to visit. Allow time to tour it if you can. A park ranger is on duty there during summer months.

Next up, the little burg known as Cleveland. You’ll see a school, the former Cleveland Bar and a few other buildings but there are no services here. The butte on the east side as you turn in to Cleveland is McCann Butte.

At Cleveland the road changes from asphalt to gravel and the terrain also changes as you enter the foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains (some say Bear’s Paw…let’s not go there!). Grain crops start to disappear and you’ll see lush hay fields. This is cattle ranching country.

Baldy Mountain, highest peak in the Bear Paws

The Bear Paw Mountains are an “island range” since they aren’t connected to a major spine. The highest peak, Mount Baldy, tops out at  6,916’.

The legend behind the name – Native oral history ties the name to a lone hunter in search of deer to feed his clan. He killed a deer but, while returning to the prairie, encountered a bear. The bear held the hunter to the ground, and the hunter appealed to the Great Spirit to release him. The Great Spirit filled the heavens with lightning and thunder, striking the bear dead and severing its paw to release the hunter. If you look to the west toward Box Elder Butte you see the paw. Centennial Mountain to the south of the butte resembles a reclining bear.

The drive curves around mountains, past local ranches and grazing cattle. It gradually climbs but the peaks aren’t that high on this drive. We also passed a cemetery about 65 miles in to the drive, the Alice Nash Memorial cemetery, a well-kept small cemetery with endless views.

View overlooking the Missouri River Breaks

Photo ops are everywhere and we finally realized that we had to limit our stops or we’d never get to the river ferry.

The terrain began to change with wide open spaces, we were no longer climbing in elevation, and the road also changed. The soil color seemed different although we were still on a good gravel road.

A few more miles and we were entering the rugged river breaks, losing elevation and negotiating curves. Vegetation changed. This country looked unforgiving as far as aiding any growing things but there were coniferous trees jutting out of fragile rock, deciduous trees (cottonwoods for sure, and others), vast growths of sagebrush and a variety of grass.

Finally, on an unimproved non-gravel road, we descended in to the last stretch and saw the Missouri

Descending the Missouri Breaks to the river

River. We followed along the river bottom for about a couple of miles and then the old-style river ferry came in to view. Named the Stafford McClelland ferry (for the first ferry operators) this is the only way to cross the Missouri on this road. The last ten miles would have been impassable if it was raining or had recently rained – believe it!

After seeing nobody for the last 30 miles, we came upon a family gathering riverside and a canoe group paddling downstream towards the Fred Robinson Bridge.

The ferry operator saw us approach so we didn’t need to “ring the buzzer” to summon him for our trek across the river. He was a happy and chatty fellow, full of knowledge about the area and said he had the best job in the world taking people and vehicles across the Mighty Mo. He asked where we were going and our response – across the river and back! His response – lots of people do that.

Stafford McClelland ferry crossing the Missouri River

We could have gone another 15 miles south to Winifred, home to a museum who’s claim is that they have possibly the largest collection of Tonka toys. The Tonka toys are well-displayed amid other area history and the museum is worth a visit. Winifred has lodging at the International Suites, a small grocery store, dining at the Winifred Café and also the 1028 Steakhouse.

The time had come to turn around, point our wheels north, backtrack and enjoy this epic country drive from a different angle.

The return trip took less time with fewer stops for photos. It’s hard to believe just how much terrain variety there was on this drive. At first I wondered if I’d make all the correct turns but the “ferry” sign was visible each time I came to a fork in the road.

Know before you go: Facts and Trivia

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management out of their Lewistown office (406-538-1900 or BLM.gov).

In October 1976 a 149 mile stretch of the Missouri River was designated a Wild & Scenic River.

BLM National Monument sign

Fort Benton is River Mile 0 and the James Kipp Recreation Area at US Hwy 191 is River Mile 149.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was established in January 2001.

Land along the national monument is privately owned, access is limited.

In the early 1800s the Lewis & Clark Expedition traveled upstream on the Missouri River.

Check the weather forecast before you go.

Leave a Comment