THE ART DECO BUILDINGS OF DOWNTOWN GLASGOW, northeastern Montana’s largest city, reflect the area’s place in history. Glasgow boomed right after the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s largest and most ambitious New Deal project took place nearby: the 3.9-mile-long Fort Peck Dam, named for a 19th-century trading post in the area.
The dam, completed in 1940, impounds the grand Missouri River, creating one of the world’s largest reservoirs, with 1,520 miles of shoreline—almost twice the length of California’s Pacific coast. Campgrounds and parks dot Fort Peck Lake’s edges, providing many recreation options for boating, fishing, hiking and camping. Spanning west from the dam, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge preserves 1.1 million acres for elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bald eagles and other wildlife in habitats like native prairie and “breaks” badlands.
The massive dam and jumbo dinosaurs share the limelight at Fort Peck Interpretive Center. A 62-million-year-old T. rex known as Peck’s Rex was found near Fort Peck in 1997. A cast of the dinosaur stands alongside Montana’s largest fish tank, filled with 8,500 gallons of water and fish from Fort Peck Lake Reservoir. Displays also educate visitors about the history of the dam, and tours of the powerhouse can be arranged from the interpretive center.
DARK-SKY MAGIC Some of America’s darkest skies are found in this region, so you don’t want to miss the star show. Check-in at Cottonwood Inn and Suites in Glasgow, where an indoor pool and hot tub make it easy to relax. After a Montana ribeye at Durum Restaurant or pizza at Eugene’s, stay up late for a star-studded evening. Lay out a blanket on the grass at Hell Creek State Park or The Pines Recreation Area at Fort Peck Lake, and you’ll be wowed by 360-degree views of the Milky Way.
Shows of another kind sparkle at the Swiss-chalet-style Fort Peck Theatre, home to a five-decade-old summer theater company. The theater is part of the town of Fort Peck, created to support the dam’s construction. For another peek into history, pop into the Valley County Pioneer Museum, a trove of vintage tractors, moonshine exhibits, Assiniboine Indian artifacts and a 1940s radio station.
Drive U.S. 2 east through Fort Peck Indian Reservation to Wolf Point, where the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede, held in July, is one of Montana’s oldest and best rodeos. At Wolf Point Area Museum, see saddles, guns, old Victrolas, an Edison phonograph, beaded moccasins and tools from homestead life. If you’re in the mood for a microbrew or a nonalcoholic root beer, stop in Missouri Breaks Brewing (also known as Doc’Z—it’s owned by a local physician).
An hour east on U.S. 2 is Culbertson, a grain-producing hamlet. Brush up on homesteader history at the Culbertson Museum, or make a detour 25 miles north to the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Before the last ice ages, the Missouri River flowed through these rolling plains and left behind shallow lakes and wetlands. Binoculars will help you see ducks, white pelicans, cranes and herons. Pronghorn and deer roam the prairies.
Culbertson’s cozy Wild West Diner has been serving breakfast and lunch since 1957, and even if you’re not hungry, swing by to stock up on local raw honey and jams before making a run for the state border. Straddling the line between Montana and North Dakota, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site commemorates Montana’s largest fur-trading post, which stood here on the banks of the Missouri River from 1828 until 1867, east of the present-day Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The trading post served both the Euro-Americans and the Native Americans—the Assinniboine and six other Northern Plains tribes—in a peaceful state of coexistence. The Indians exchanged buffalo hides and beaver pelts for guns, blankets and cloth.
LAZY FLOATS AND FISHING From Fort Union, head 25 miles south to Sidney, where the mellow Lower Yellowstone River is ideal for lazy river floating in inflatable rafts or kayaks and fishing for warm-water species: pike, walleye and smallmouth bass. Rockhounds hunt for translucent agates along the riverbanks, and photographers seek out the subtle beauty of sagebrush-covered plains, cottonwood groves and the prairie’s vast sweep. MonDak Heritage Center is the region’s arts and cultural hub, offering art classes and exhibits plus displays of eastern Montana artifacts. Drop-in at Meadowlark Public House to sample top-shelf craft brews or nosh on bison meatloaf, then rest up at the Best Western Golden Prairie Inn and Suites.
To finish the trip, veer southwest on MT-200 to the agricultural community of Circle—named for a local ranch brand—and savor your final miles through the countryside. As you drive north on the scenic Big Sky Back Country Byway (MT-13) heading to Wolf Point, you’re more likely to see a cow or a mule deer than a human. In the belly of the prairie, animals outnumber people by a ratio of hundreds to one, and that may just be the region’s most alluring feature.