Joplin’s Secret Scenic Drive

Biggest Little Town On Earth

Joplin hosts an annual Art In The Park and Car Show each June and it was on my list of events to attend this year. And what an event it was! There were vendors of all kinds, live music and over 60 vintage vehicles in the car show. And, of course, I couldn’t pass up a yummy slice of pie at one of the food booths. What kind? Raspberry rhubarb with pecan topping. Homemade, unique and very delicious!

Perched on Montana’s hi-line, Joplin is just 10 minutes east of Chester, county seat of Liberty County. And even though I said this scenic route is Joplin’s secret, I’ll let Chester share in it’s beauty too.

Liberty County is 1,458 square miles with an economy that is almost all supported by agriculture. The county’s population hovers a bit over 2,000 so, even just driving through the area, you get a feeling of Montana’s wide open spaces and endless views. Joplin, like Chester, has a beautiful metal sign just off US Hwy 2 but as you drive in to the town itself, you see the sign proclaiming Joplin as the Biggest Little Town on Earth!

Back to my scenic drive. I pointed my wheels north of Joplin. It’s no surprise that the paved road I was on was called the North Joplin Road. Pavement lasted for about 17 or 18 miles and I continued on another 3 miles of gravel before I turned west on the Bear’s Den Road.

Distant view of the Sweet Grass Hills with a flowering crop.

Before I took the Bear’s Den Road I stopped several times to take photos. The Sweet Grass Hills to the northwest were getting closer each mile I drove and their beauty is absolutely captivating. My favorite photo is one of a yellow blooming field with the Sweet Grass Hills in the background. I’m not sure what kind of crop it was but I suspect it could be mustard. A lot of spring wheat is grown in this area too.

After a few miles on the Bear’s Den Road I came to another stop at a small church basically in the middle of nowhere. It’s quite a surprise as you drive along this road where I didn’t see any other buildings. A nice surprise! A local told me they have services there about once a month. The church building looked well cared for, with new siding, and I loved both the stone sign and a weathered old wooden one. A true treasure along this road.

My next stop was at a fork in the road where you could go to what is known as the Bear’s Den. The Sweet Grass Hills are rolling foothills here and this “den”, created by what appeared to be sandstone rock, looks

The church is about 20 miles north of US Hwy 2

like someone planted rock to do fashionable landscaping.

It’s hard to imagine the rocks took the shape they did because it goes from rock to grass with little change between the two. Geologists love this terrain and it is technically called igneous rock that was forced up from underground.

The Sweet Grass Hills are isolated peaks. From a distance it looks like three peaks but there are multiple hills, mountains, or peaks easily seen as you get closer. They are sacred to the Blackfeet Indians and have served as vision quest sites for some.

The tallest peak in the Sweet Grass Hills is West Butte at 6,983 feet. Compared to the elevation of the surrounding plains, the hills rise 3,000 feet. The three peaks most visible from a distance are named West Butte, Middle Butte or Gold Butte, and East Butte. Ironically, they aren’t buttes (as we know those funny mountains with flat tops) but I’m not going to argue with anyone about the names! I also think they should be the Sweet Grass Mountains, not hills.

I traveled along the south side of the Sweet Grass Hills on this drive but you can also continue following the Bears Den road and drive along the north side. It’s been several years since I’ve taken that loop and it seemed like a totally different climate, almost a micro-climate that received more moisture. It’s north-facing so it gets fewer of our

Hoo doos on the southeast side of the Sweet Grass Hills

chinook (warm) winds, perhaps a bit more snow and the snow melts much slower.

On the south side of the hills there were cattle grazing on the slopes, then as the terrain changed to rolling plains I saw more crops.

I ended up on the Whitlash road heading directly south back to US Hwy 2. If I had turned north I would have driven to the town of Whitlash, a border crossing between the United States and Canada.

The gravel turned to pavement about 5 miles before I reached the highway. When I turned on to Hwy 2 I was about two miles west of Chester. So yes, this secret scenic loop belongs to both Joplin and Chester and it’s a beauty!

Once you get back to Chester there is lodging at the MX Motel and the Great Northern Bed & Breakfast. There are several local retail stores and for meals give Spud’s Diner or The Grand a try.

A favorite photo of the Sweet Grass Hills with silvery sage in the foreground.

South of Chester are access points to nearby Tiber Reservoir/Lake Elwell, a popular fishing, camping and boating location. I’ve also done birdwatching at Sanford Park on Tiber Reservoir, and sunsets over this massive body of water are mighty impressive.




8 thoughts on “Joplin’s Secret Scenic Drive”

  1. If the traveler had been past that little church just a day or two before there would have been a dozen vehicles parked there. Depending on the time of day sixty plus children would either have been happily singing, learning Bible lessons, doing crafts or filling the church yard with all manner of children’s games after enjoying lunch seated on blankets scattered on the ground. Then one evening the church fellowship hall would have held packed with moms and dads, grandpas and grandmas who came to listen to beautiful children’s voices singing and sharing what was learned at Vacation Bible School.

  2. What a beautiful story. Think my Dad was influential in starting that church. Beautiful tribute. Ed McClellan from Joplin. I am Gail McClellan Kaaiakamanu now living in Kaneohe, Hawaii. Aloha to all.

    • Thanks for the correction Darryl Wolery. I do get directions mixed up every now and then and I’m going to edit the post so I don’t confuse potential visitors. It was such a beautiful day. I was born and raised a bit east of Chester (Chinook) and I love veering off the highway and seeing the dramatic landscape changes.

  3. Took most of this route last summer with the Havre Trails group. Great hike into the Sweetgrass Hills and one of its caves as well as a fun trek into the Bear’s Den….the Den was like being in the Southwest US with the its blond and reddish canyon walls, large boulders, vegetation and oasis-like feel. This loop is not only a great drive, but good opportunity to take time to get out and walk through this really interesting BIG landscape (with private property owners permission) Check out the Havre Trails hike list and join them. They do a great job showing folks what north central Montana is all about.


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