A HISTORY-FILLED ADVENTURE BEGINS IN FORT BENTON, set in a tree-shaded spot along the Missouri River. One of Montana’s oldest settlements, it was founded as a fur-trading post in 1846, linking steamboat-traveling traders from Montana, Washington and Canada. Today, most of the original Fort Benton is a National Historic Landmark, and the city’s museums contain a wealth of history. At the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, get schooled on the hardships endured by homesteading families, who came with golden dreams of settling the vast shortgrass prairie. Historic Old Fort Benton displays buffalo robes, beads and furs that the Blackfeet Indians traded for guns, cookware and blankets. View exhibits on Fort Benton’s heyday as an inland port at the Museum of the Upper Missouri, and learn about the river’s natural and human history at the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center.
Since Fort Benton’s beating heart is the “Mighty Mo,” get out and paddle with Missouri River Outfitters. Do-it-yourselfers can rent canoes and kayaks, or you can join a professionally guided trip. For a luxe overnight, book a room at the Grand Union Hotel, an 1882 showstopper that’s still classy by modern standards. Dine on the deck of the hotel’s Union Grille while overlooking the Missouri River.
PRAIRIE POST The next morning, drive northeast on U.S. 87 through the Upper Missouri River Valley’s waving prairies. The tiny riverside enclave of Virgelle, settled by homesteaders in 1912, entices solitude-seekers. The Virgelle Mercantile (or just the Merc) is the town’s only business, with antiques for sale, renovated bed-and-breakfast rooms and six original homesteader cabins for rent, complete with kerosene lamps and wood-burning stoves. The Virgelle Ferry has been crossing the river here since 1913, and it’s free.
From Virgelle, head northeast to a region known as the Hi-Line. Running adjacent to U.S. 2 less than 100 miles south of Canada, this land of wind-sculpted prairies and wheat fields seems to extend forever. Havre, the Hi-Line’s biggest city, was founded as a railroad hub in 1879 and eventually developed a split personality, one at the street level and one below. The upper city was staid and respectable. When a 1904 fire destroyed the city, businesses moved to their basements to continue operating. The underground district—built into hollowed-out tunnels that connected the basements—grew to house a brothel, gambling houses and opium dens. Hear this fascinating below-the-sidewalk history on a Havre Beneath the Streets tour.
More history can be seen at the H. Earl Clack Museum, where you’ll find a great display of dinosaur eggs, plus amazingly informed guides who can walk you through the neighboring Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump Archaeological Site. At this 2,000-year-old site, see where and how stone tools were used, learn how to throw an atlatl and marvel at a wall of buffalo bones that’s 20 feet deep. Before leaving Havre, fill up on soup and sandwiches at Havre Grateful Bread, then make your way east along the Hi-Line. At Bear Paw Battlefield, a Nez Perce National Historical Park site, take a ranger- or self-guided tour of the area that saw the final battle of the Nez Perce Flight of 1877. More history awaits at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation; book a visit with Aaniiih Nakoda Tours to learn about the Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) tribes.
SEE CREATURES Quaint Malta is a key stop on the Montana Dinosaur Trail, with 14 locations statewide that highlight prehistoric finds. At the Phillips County Museum, you’ll get to know Elvis on a first-name basis—he’s a 33-foot-long Brachylophosaurus skeleton. Then stop at Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, where your kids can take part in an active dig. If you’d rather visit creatures that still roam the earth, drive 15 miles east to the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. An auto tour through the marsh provides the chance to spot white pelicans (more than 1,400 pairs nest here) and white-faced ibises.
From Malta, take U.S. 191 southwest toward Lewistown. Plan ahead for a guided tour at Bear Gulch, a private property with well-preserved pictographs and petroglyphs on canyon walls. Then continue on to Lewistown, Montana’s exact geographic center. The town’s biggest event is the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where poets come from all over the western U.S. and Canada to read their rhymes. Lewistown cherishes its early 20th-century architecture, with three neighborhoods listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Spend the night in a sleek room at The Calvert Hotel, constructed in 1917 as a high school dormitory, now luxuriously renovated. The Charlie Russell Chew Choo historic dinner train features prime rib and sunsets over the prairie.
COOL WATERS Seven miles southeast of Lewistown, Big Spring is one of the world’s largest freshwater springs, spouting more than 50,000 gallons of water per minute. Go swimming or tubing on Big Spring Creek, or fish for rainbow or brown trout. You’ll find bites of a different kind at Rising Trout Cafe and Bookstore. Explore more around the city by hiking or biking the 20-mile Lewistown Trail System. If you’re traveling from Lewistown to the Great Falls International Airport, continue your nature exploration by detouring off U.S. 87 to hike or fish at Sluice Boxes State Park, a geologic gem of limestone cliffs, steep canyons and amazingly clear water.
Northwest of Great Falls, Shelby offers attractions like the Marias Museum of History and Art, packed with artifacts and memorabilia from the area, and the new Carousel Rest Area of Shelby, with a restored 1936 merry-go-round.