Driving the Hi-Line Across Montana: An Overview

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Montana is very big.  And most of it is very flat.  It’s easy to forget this if you only visit the Rocky Mountains in the western portion of the state.  But when you reach the end of those mountains, everything changes.  And once the mountains are gone, there’s nothing but Big Sky and vast, empty land for hundreds of miles — and one road that ties it all together.  The Hi-Line is US Highway 2, and if you choose to drive it, you’re going to experience a part of America that most people will never bother to see.

Location

The Hi-Line refers to the railroad that cuts across northern Montana, as well as US Highway 2, which runs parallel to the tracks for much of the route.  The Hi-Line begins roughly at Browning, Montana and continues to the North Dakota state line.  Major cities include Shelby (at the crossroads with I-15), Havre, and Malta.

My Visit

After finishing up a few days in Glacier National Park, I had to make a decision.  I needed to get to Billings in two days, but Billings is really just one day’s drive away from Glacier.  So why not get there in the most indirect way possible?  I thought it might be fun, or at least interesting, to head east on US 2, for no other reason than to see what was out there.

So, what exactly is out there?  I’ll go into more detail on the next few pages, but here’s a quick rundown.

Driving the Hi-Line

When you leave Glacier and head towards Browning, Montana, this is what you see in your rear-view mirror.  It’s a persistent reminder that you’re heading in the wrong direction.  Mountains are amazing, and they’re packed with adventure. And as you head east on US 2, they gradually get smaller and smaller, until they’re lost in the haze, or they vanish behind a tiny little hill.  You’re trading in those mountains for small towns, grain elevators, quirky tourist attractions, and historic sites.

First on that list is a historic monument, marking the northernmost point on Captain Meriwether Lewis’s exploratory mission.  He was just about as welcome in this area then as he is now, which probably explains why the site is significantly vandalized.

Oddly enough, I was sweating as I took this picture in Cut Bank, Montana — the coldest spot in the nation.  The 27-foot-tall penguin is supposed to talk, but I didn’t hear anything.  Maybe it was too hot that day.

And then there are grain elevators.  So many grain elevators.  This beauty is in Ethridge.

The crossroads of Shelby has a nice downtown with numerous funky neon signs.  It also provides access to Interstate 15 — an escape route, if you’ve already grown tired of the monotony of farmland and… well… not much else.

Galata is essentially a ghost town on a hill above the highway.

Chester, Montana has the usual assortment of silos, grain elevators, and farm equipment.

This is not Joplin, Missouri…

… and this is definitely not Moscow.   Each little oddly-named town is far enough apart to give you something to look forward to.

Drive the Hi-Line, and you might get to stay in a funky motel that’s trapped in the 1970’s.  The Siesta Motel in Havre is one such place, and I loved it.

Zurich offers not one, but two grain elevators, plus a pile of railroad ties.

Detour off US 2 on a dirt road that hugs the original Hi-Line (the railroad tracks), and you’ll get to see this time-capsule of a rural schoolhouse in Savoy, Montana.

Dodson has at least two businesses — both of them bars.

And Malta has a video rental store.  Yes, apparently they do still exist.  I’m guessing Netflix is probably a little sluggish out here.

About half a day of driving took me from the mountains to Havre, and then another half of a day delivered me to Malta.  I would have loved to have gone further.  It would have felt great to say I crossed the entire state of Montana on US 2. But, I would have needed another day for that.  I had to get to Billings, so my eastbound journey ended in Malta.

Will I ever go back and finish the trip?  I have to be honest — probably not.  Montana is huge, absolutely immense, and it takes a big commitment and a lot of caffeine to drive across it.  But who knows?  It is fun to see some places that almost everyone else will never see.  Fun, or at least, interesting.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the entire drive across US 2 from Browning to Malta, Montana:

The Bottom Line

It’s roughly 250 miles from Browning, Montana to Malta, Montana. Add another 190 miles to make it to the North Dakota border.  If you have the endurance and patience to make this drive, you’ll be treated to endless expanses of farmland and open range, tiny towns and slightly larger tiny towns, and a way of life that isn’t changing as quickly as the rest of the world.  I’m glad I invested a couple of days in a long drive into the middle of nowhere, just to see what is there.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy it too.

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