Scenic Drive: Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge

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Central Montana isn’t exactly full of surprises, but there was one attraction out there in the middle of nowhere that I wasn’t expecting.  I had no idea that the Missouri River cut through the vast emptiness of the state, creating a ribbon of green through the otherwise dry land.  And a great way to enjoy part of the river is to explore the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge.

Location

The Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge is located along the Missouri River in central Montana.  You can access the refuge by car by taking US 191 south from Malta, Montana.  Just before you arrive at the river crossing, you will find a dirt road that heads east (with signage marking the start of the Auto Tour Route).  The loop road begins here, and heads east, then north, eventually reconnecting with US 191.  You could drive the loop road in the opposite direction – but the northern end is not well-marked.

My Visit

I was surprised to find any kind of scenic detour out here, so far from civilization in the middle of Montana.  I had no idea what I would see, by taking this scenic loop, but with so few other distractions, I figured I had nothing to lose (except time).

The scenic route through the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge runs near the north shore of the MIssouri River for a while.  There are a few picnic areas off the main road in this area, which are closer to the river itself.  I didn’t make it a priority to drive down to the river, because I figured I’d be staying close to the river for a while.

Instead, the road did something unexpected. It split, and a small sign told me I should take the left fork – away from the Missouri River.  The scenic route switchbacked up a hill, taking me to some nice viewpoints of the valley.

The road climbed onto a ridge, passing through some forest, and then some wide-open plains.

Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge

Once I had made it to that wide-open view, I started to realize that I wasn’t going to see the river again.  And there was another clue that suggested where I was headed — suddenly I had another excellent view of the Little Rocky Mountains.  Earlier, I had been in Malta, and headed south to Zortman, before ending up here, so I knew that I was headed north again.  That’s not the direction I ultimately needed to go — I was destined for Billings that night.  But, there aren’t any alternative routes, once you’re on this scenic loop road, so I just kept going.

This is a wildlife refuge, but I didn’t see any wildlife.  I’m sure if I had taken more time, stopped in more places (especially along the river itself), and had some binoculars with me, I could have spotted something interesting. But, I had a long way to drive, and I needed to get going.

After reconnecting with US 191, I had to drive south again, covering the same 10 miles of road that I had already seen.  If I had to do it all over again, I would have tried to find the northern end of the road, and take the scenic route in the opposite direction, saving me that 10 miles of backtracking.  I’d also make a stop along the river, to see if I could see any wildlife there.

A short while after passing the turnoff to the scenic road, I spotted a tiny old barn on the plains, among some bails of hay.  It was the most interesting thing I found to photograph until I made it to the next town along my route, Grass Range, Montana.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the FAST drive from Malta to Billings, Montana, via US 191, Montana 19, and US 87…

… or the SLOW version, if that’s your preference …

… plus, a scenic detour through the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge:

The Bottom Line

Unless you’re really committed to looking for wildlife in this area, I don’t see a good reason to take this scenic detour.  For southbound traffic on US 191, it causes you to backtrack and wastes some time.  There are some nice views of the Missouri River and the Little Rocky Mountains, but for most travelers, it’s probably not worth the time.

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