The loneliest road in America is, supposedly, US 50 across Nevada. But I’d suggest a different road. US 191, heading south out of Malta, is certainly lonelier. There is nothing out here, for miles and miles, except for the pavement, the sound of your engine, and the thoughts inside your head. The most exciting thing you can do to break the monotony is taking the side-trip out to Zortman, Montana.
Montana’s Little Rocky Mountain range is located in the middle of the state, just to the west of US Highway 191, south of US 2 and Malta, Montana. The community of Zortman is not located on the main road – you’ll need to detour onto either Bear Gulch Road (paved) or Seven Mile Road (gravel) — or utilize both to create a loop back to 191.
This is what you face, as you leave Malta, Montana. I’m not sure I can fully express how vast and empty it is. Make sure you have a full tank of gas and everything else you’ll need for the day. Your options will be very limited.
While it’s empty, it’s not all flat. The Little Rocky Mountains are a surprising feature. It’s hard to take your eyes off of them — because there isn’t much else for your eyes to do. That’s probably why, when given the opportunity to detour out to Zortman, Montana, I decided to take it.
I must admit, the name itself is partially what drew me to Zortman, Montana. A town with that name would have to be interesting, right?
The truth is, Zortman doesn’t offer a lot. There is a store and motel here, and a restaurant. For the most part, the businesses in Zortman cater to hunters who are staying in the area. There was a mine in the area, but it closed in the late 1990’s, and reclamation plans are now underway.
There weren’t any businesses that beckoned me to come inside…
… and the only real attraction that captured my attention was the Zortman Jail. This two-room accommodation is located on Main Street. There were no current residents when I visited.
You’ll probably find the jail doors unlocked. Step inside for a taste of what it would be like to misbehave in the wild west.
Zortman, Montana has one other worthwhile attraction that I noticed but didn’t visit. The historic Zortman Church is perched on a hillside above town, and I’ve read that the doors are left open, 24 hours a day, for anyone to stop by and say a prayer.
I took Seven Mile Road back to US 191. It’s the kind of dirt road that’s well-maintained and allows you to drive relatively fast. But I didn’t make very good time, because I kept stopping to take pictures. The field next to the road is quite pretty, with the Little Rocky Mountains as a backdrop.
Once you’re on US 191, there are very few other options. Montana Route 66 is one of just a handful of intersecting roads — and all it does is take you back to the Hi-Line, at Harlem, Montana. At first glance, it looks like it runs directly into the Little Rockies, but in reality, it skirts around the west side, then continues north.
As you drive south, the Little Rockies fade from view in your rear-view mirror. There is, however, one more good place to admire them. Keep an eye out for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, in the area of the Missouri River crossing. I’ll show you what I found on the Refuge’s scenic loop drive on the next page.
Here’s a look at the FAST drive from Malta to Billings, Montana, via US 191, Montana 19, and US 87…
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… or the SLOW version, if that’s your preference …
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… plus, a scenic detour through the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge:
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The Bottom Line
This stretch of US 191 is remarkably lonely and untraveled. You’ll feel all alone as you drive south from the Hi-Line. A brief detour over to Zortman provides some much-needed contact with civilization, but otherwise, there isn’t much of a reason to go.
Zortman has a history that few will ever know. You can not just drive to Zortman and live the history. You must drive to Zortman and ask questions and you will get stories. I know, I stayed in Zortman in the early 70’s and worked the mines in the 80’s and 90’s. I still own land there today. Yes, there is a story or two to tell. You must ask though!