After you’ve absorbed all of the majestic beauty on a visit to Glacier National Park, save some time to explore the region on the eastern side of this national icon. Central Montana has a mix of it all when it comes to geography – mountains, rivers and plains.
Day 1 in Central Montana
After leaving East Glacier and then Browning, turn south on US Hwy 89 and follow this route that hugs the east slope of the Rocky Mountains. Look west and you’ll see those dramatic peaks of the Rockies and trails that lead to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Look east and you’ll see the contrast of rolling grasslands dotted with relaxed-pace small communities.
Stop for a meal at Buffalo Joe’s Restaurant as you drive through the town of Dupuyer, Montana, or enjoy local gifts at Dupuyer Cache. Yarn from Merino sheep raised nearby is available at the Cache along with books authored by Ivan Doig, who spent his school years here.
Travel twenty miles south on the same highway and you’ll be in Bynum, population about 33, and home to an incredibly significant dinosaur center. The Montana Dinosaur Center, formerly Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, has the world’s largest replica of a Seismosaurus stretching throughout the facility, a bone prep lab, the first discovered dinosaur remains in North America and other dino displays. The Montana Dinosaur Center conducts paleo digs for all ages too.
Keep heading south on US Hwy 89 for another 20 minutes and you’ll be in Choteau. The highway goes through the middle of town, splitting as it goes around the Teton County Courthouse. Before you get as far as the courthouse though, this small town is a great place to overnight and the Stage Stop Inn is on the way. Kids and adults alike can take respite in the pool at the hotel and also stroll over to the Old Trail Museum complex. Did we mention ice cream? Oh yeah, you’ll find that too along with all-local restaurants and coffee shops.
Day 2 in Central Montana
After enjoying a complimentary continental breakfast at the Stage Stop Inn (or local breakfast fare in town) get ready for a short hike. The Rocky Mountain Ranger District of the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest is across the street (highway) from the Stage Stop Inn and they have trail maps and current trail information. Sunscreen, a hat for shade, water and a snack are all available in town and will be handy on your hike. Backtrack north on US Hwy 89 for 5 miles and turn west on the Teton Road. Follow it to the trail you chose for your morning hike. There are a variety of hikes – just a few include the North Fork Teton Trail, South Fork Teton Trail and Our Lake hike.
A late lunch or afternoon snack will be your reward when you get back to Choteau and you won’t be disappointed if you find a table at the Log Cabin restaurant. Tip – the Log Cabin has great pie and typically a huge selection of pie varieties to select from.
Back on the highway, heading south, you’ll arrive at Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area, home to great wildlife viewing opportunities. Get the binoculars out! A nice variety of wildlife call Freezout home and some just visit, including upland game birds and raptors in winter, waterfowl migrations in spring and fall, and waterfowl and shorebirds in summer. Deer and antelope are frequently seen in nearby fields. There are several scenic driving loops through the wildlife management area.
After enjoying some time at Freezout, continue on about 35 miles and you’ll be in Great Falls. Options are plenty here. After checking in to your hotel choose a place for dinner. Many downtown restaurants have outside dining during warm months and you’ll find some good local fare. And, a nice variety of options for dining can be found all over town. Looking to quench your thirst? Breweries and local lounges are a good option. Mighty Mo Brewing is family friendly and has great pizzas and salads, the Sip ‘N Dip Lounge is a tiki bar for adults featuring live mermaids and Enbar is a craft cocktail lounge. There are many more local places for a beverage.
Day 3 in Central Montana
The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, managed by the US Forest Service, sits on a bluff overlooking the river and one of the waterfalls the expedition portaged over 200 years ago. It’s interesting for all ages. Just east of the interpretive center is Giant Springs State Park, home to a fish hatchery, the Roe River (tied for the world’s shortest river), a freshwater spring that bubbles up at a constant 55 degrees year-round, bird watching, and ponds where you can feed the fish.
The next recommended stop is not just for art afficionados – the C. M. Russell Museum complex is truly a treasure with the largest collection of art by Charlie Russell, America’s Cowboy Artist. There is art by Russell’s contemporaries featured too. One room is set up for kids who can dress like a cowboy and paint like Charlie. A visit here just might inspire a future artist!
Hungry yet? Locals enjoy Roadhouse Diner, a burger joint with unique toppings sure to fill anyone, The Block for gourmet grilled cheese and salads, or Tracy’s downtown for a full menu. Dante’s offers a quiet lunch with a varied menu.
You can walk off some of your lunch when you arrive at First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park, about 15 miles west of Great Falls near Ulm. A visitor/education center are good for your first stop and the visitor center has our favorite photo op with a buffalo (bison). Yes, he’s stuffed and stands proudly in the lobby just waiting for you to pet him and take a photo. The buffalo jump was used before the days of horses and firearms and many Indian tribes traveled this area to harvest their winter provisions. Interpretive walking trails take you from the visitor center to the top of the jump or, you can drive. Views here are literally endless with square butte the most visible (many people think it is the jump site but it isn’t).
You’ve visited three locations on day three of this itinerary and covered just a few of the highlights of Great Falls.
If you are staying another day, plan visits to the History Museum, Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art (contemporary), Montana Museum of Railroad History, Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum, Galerie
Trinitas or the Ursuline Center.
And then, we are more than willing to help you plan a return visit for everything else you missed!