Most people think of Tiber Reservoir/Lake Elwell as a place for boating, camping and fishing and those are probably the activities that most people do. However, there are a lot more activities you can do at Tiber.
First, some history – the reservoir or lake, whichever you choose to call it, has 181 miles of shoreline (in two different counties) and was created when an earth-filled dam was built on the Marias River in 1956. The dam is 211 feet tall and 4,300 feet long. It was built mainly for flood control and also irrigation. Today, it also provides municipal and industrial water for the town of Chester, Rocky Boy Indian Reservation and several small towns along Highway 2.
I was in Chester, Montana (on US Hwy 2) and decided to head south on MT Hwy 223. I drove about 10 miles, then took the gravel Tiber Road to Route 366. The roads are well-signed but I’d recommend picking up a free map of the recreation area at the Liberty Quick Stop in Chester so you don’t miss any of the options to explore.
The Sanford Park turn veers southwest off the main Tiber Road and at the park you can camp under a nice grove of trees, launch a boat, picnic and do birdwatching. Since the location is near the lake, the Marias River, cliffs and grain fields, you’ll find a good variety of birds and this area is one of twelve designated birding routes in Central Montana.
On the main Tiber Road, just past the turn to Sanford Park, there are interpretive panels about the Lewis & Clark Expedition when they traveled through this area in the early 1800s.
Beyond the interpretive panels is the approach to the dam. Driving across the dam gives amazing views of Tiber Reservoir but you are not allowed to stop on the dam. Since the area is open, the views are just as good from either end of the dam. I was there at sunset and was able to take beautiful photos from both ends of the actual dam. In fact, I’d suggest photography as another form of recreation here. From wildlife to scenics, there are plenty of subjects to photograph. I was there the third week in April and campgrounds don’t open until May 1st but I still found plenty of opportunities for photos.
The VFW Campground is accessible right after you cross the dam and it has the most services. A summer-only marina operates there in addition to a boat launch that accommodates larger motorboats, plus plenty of campsites.
You travel ten miles from the dam before there is another access to the reservoir and that is on the Bootlegger Trail turn. After Bootlegger you travel the gravel road for 35 miles before you make any turns. This stretch had the most wildlife. In less then ten minutes I saw 3 large herds of antelope, one pheasant, two mule deer and a lot of raptors hunting for a late night snack in the grain fields. Old barns, two old rural schools, several farm homes, cattle and wide-open scenery kept me stopping along the roadside to take photos. By time I ended up driving through the spot known as Ledger I was almost out of daylight.
By taking this route you end up at I-15 just north of Conrad. I was amazed at everything I saw and could
do in the form of recreation. And, this is just the south side of Tiber Reservoir/Lake Elwell. The north side doesn’t have as much access to camping but two boat launches provide access for fisherman and recreational boaters.
I was lucky to drive this route at the beginning of sunset and that made it even more special. In years past I’ve camped at Tiber, fished, did a day trip to just boat around the lake and I have met friends there for a picnic. If you choose to fish, the typical catch is walleye and pike.
For my next trip to Tiber Reservoir I’d like to do the same route I just took only starting at sunrise. Then it would be fun to compare my photos.
The end of my story – get out and explore Central Montana’s backroads!