Three Days, Three Outdoor Experiences in Central Montana

Canoeing the Missouri River near Fort Benton

Central Montana offers an amazing variety of outdoor activities as the fall season approaches.

Top of my list of favorites is an evening canoe or kayak trip on the Missouri River.

In Fort Benton you can launch at the edge of town at a campground managed by the Bureau of Land Management. To access it you drive through the Chouteau County fairgrounds. It’s an easy launch. Water levels and flow on the Missouri River in fall are typically low.

As you start out there are residences on one side of the river and the other side has tall sandstone bluffs. For a short canoe trek my favorite time to launch is about an hour before sunset. When you see those river bluffs with a late-day sun shining on them you’ll be glad you remembered your camera.

Kayaking under one of the bridges along the river levee

This easy canoe or kayak jaunt will take you along the river levee in Fort Benton and it also follows a paved non-motorized trail. Many years ago there was one block on the river levee that was dubbed the Bloodiest Block in the West. Today, times are pretty quiet but when the steamboats docked during the peak of the fur trade era it was evidently a wild scene. Lots of money trading hands, a little booze…you get the idea.

One side of the river opens up to views of cottonwoods and then comes a favorite spot for me. You paddle under a bridge spanning the river and then, well another bridge comes in to view! One is for vehicles, the other is a restored pedestrian bridge.

You can take out your watercraft near the Old Fort that has been rebuilt where the original once stood. This little float will take you less than an hour and then you can have a late dinner at a variety of restaurants in town. Restaurants serving locally sourced food and drink include the Union Grille at the Grand Union Hotel, Wake Up Coffee House & Restaurant and The Clubhouse. All are featured in Montana’s Taste Our Place program. And, by the end of August you’ll be able to have a cold microbrew at Golden Triangle Brewing.

Eager to canoe longer? Launch early and paddle about 20 river miles to Wood Bottom near Loma. You’ll see more wildlife and the changing geology along the river banks. It’s more of a day trip and well worth the time. Save some strength for the last half mile on this stretch of the Missouri. Sometimes you’ll get a headwind while paddling this curvy and meandering river.

Entrance to Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area

The next experience is bird watching and this can be done in a multitude of locations. Central Montana has a birding brochure that highlights twelve different birding areas with directions, habitat details, species and facilities.

Freezout Lake Wildlife Management Area is between Fairfield and Choteau along US Hwy 89. The area has the designation of an Important Bird Area and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site. Believe me, there are birds here year ’round!

Depending on weather, the latter part of September will see some migratory birds flapping their way to southern climates. Some of the bird species who winter at Freezout are northern shrike, rough-legged hawk, sharp-tailed grouse, gyrfalcon, snow buntings, Lapland longspurs and horned larks.

If you visit the refuge during migration the best time to see “the event” when the snowgeese lift off for the nearby fields, is usually between morning lift off around 9:30-11am or from 4-6pm for evening views.

The first time I saw lift off was definitely an experience for me. There were so many birds that the sky seemed to darken and the noise of the honking could have been heard for quite a ways. It’s awesome to experience. Staff at Freezout Lake WMA post updates on bird numbers during spring migration on a recorded message at 406-467-2646.

Lift off of snowgeese during spring migration

When the snowgeese arrive they basically use the refuge as a resting ground. The nearby crop fields provide their food source, there is water in the lake, and cover in the shelterbelts.

The habitat at Freezout Lake is marshy with adjoining grasslands, small grain croplands and several shelterbelts that draw birds. The refuge covers 11,000 acres and you’ll find plenty of pull-outs to stop, grab your binocs and check out the birds.

There are places to stay and dine in both Fairfield and Choteau. I’ve stayed at the Stage Stop Inn in Choteau and it has a continental breakfast, pool and full-service lounge on site.

The third experience – let’s talk elk bugling.

Bugling elk

Wherever elk are you can hear elk bugling in September/October but if you want to find a concentrated area of elk with convenient access for public viewing, head to an area on the C. M. Wildlife Refuge known as Slippery Ann.

To get to Slippery Ann you can access it from Hwy 191 north of Grass Range, northeast of Lewistown or south of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The Slippery Ann area is on the north side of the Missouri River and the turn is marked on Hwy 191.

The road going in to the viewing area is good and is traveled by all types of passenger vehicles and RVs. On the weekends I feel the area gets a bit of pressure so my favorite time to go is mid week.

Early evening is the best time of day for bugling as the bull elk are gathering their harems then.

Sometimes you’ll see a couple of bulls fighting and hear their antlers clashing. The cow elk (females) stand by nonchalantly, almost ignoring them.

Be sure to have binoculars and I take lawn chairs along. I always have a lightweight jacket and a blanket in my car. Evenings typically cool down nicely in the fall in Central Montana.

An elk bugles at Slippery Ann on the C M Russell Wildlife Refuge

Another recommendation is to take a picnic meal with you, settle in to your lawn chair and enjoy the show!

From canoeing to birdwatching to watching and listening to the elk bugle – three experiences, all in Central Montana.

Start planning your experience.



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