I was thrilled to receive an invitation from Visit Montana to explore and photograph the eastern half of the state. After crisscrossing Montana’s Rocky Mountains in 2015 while biking the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a Montana road trip along the Missouri River and across the prairies would complete my state-wide explorations.
It was hard to set expectations, as I’d grown up immediately east of the Canadian Rockies and knew the landscapes could be surprisingly varied. It turned out to be an apt description; I discovered deep river coulees, wide-open farmland, massive lakes, and stunning badlands throughout my five-day visit.
Since we’re being honest, Central, Southeast and Missouri River Country aren’t Montana’s most popular tourist destinations. Whitefish, Glacier, and Bozeman fill that list. But exploring off the beaten tourist track always comes with benefits, like meeting authentic locals and avoiding crowds. When it comes to exploring the Eastern half of Montana, there were more than enough stunning locations that I wish I’d had a month rather than a week to explore.
13 Images to Inspire your own Eastern Montana Road trip
My road trip began in Great Falls, Montana, and headed eastward in a 1313 km (816 mile) counter-clockwise circle to Havre. I plotted the map here. As I was headed north, I skipped the 180 km (112 mile) return trip to Great Falls that would have completed the circle tour. While it seems like a shocking amount of driving in just 5 days, the road trip allowed me to explore the diversity hidden across eastern Montana.
Central Montana: Great Falls, Fort Benton, and Lewistown
Central Montana offered a few surprises that made it an absolutely incredible places to photograph. I jumped into ice caves, wandered through never-ending wheat fields, and followed the Missouri River towards the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
The first images I captured in Montana remain some of my favourites. Great Falls is named for the stunning series of waterfalls just outside of the city and it’s where I began my journey. Access proved quite difficult, but I eventually found a way to the river’s edge and was able to wade across a narrow channel to get close enough for this image. It came with some risk, though, as I was immediately below a dam and a nearby sign warned that eight whistle blasts meant to evacuate the river immediately.
I followed the Missouri River from Great Falls to Fort Benton, where it transformed into a wildly popular floating highway. Thousands of boaters but in near Fort Benton every summer to float through the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to get out on the water, seeing images of the white stone cliffs that line the Monument did leave me wanting to return.
Despite having a wonderfully comfortable room at Fort Benton’s historic Grand Union Hotel, I barely slept. Clear night skies meant I was out chasing the milky way across the Montana prairies. This old school house, which lies just outside of Loma, became my favourite subject. I used a small battery-powered lantern to light the interior. The building sits just on the edge of the main road between Havre and Great Falls. There was some traffic passing by as I worked. I couldn’t help but wonder if any long-term locals drove past with shocked expressions, seeing the lights on for the first time in years.
Above the Missouri River, rich agricultural lands has room to flourish. The wheat fields, in particular, stretched towards the horizon, where a number of small mountain ranges hinted at what lay ahead in Lewistown as I continued my Montana road trip towards the south.
Arriving into Lewistown, I was smack dab in the centre of the prairies. I’d been driving through fields for a few hours; however, a small mountain range beckoned me from just south of the city. Within an hour, I’d climbed high above Crystal Lake, which is part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The entire landscape changed and it all felt a world away from the prairies I’d spent the past two days exploring.
Speaking of feeling a world away, the hike I chose in Crystal Lake led to a series of Ice Caves. It was over 30C when I parked my car and two hours later, I was surrounded by wild ice formations that remain year round. It’s quite the location and, although I found it difficult to photograph, I would recommend anybody who visits this region find both the time and energy required to undertake this 16 km (10 mile) hike.
Southeast Montana: Glendive and Makoshika State Park
My Montana road trip truly began when I left Lewistown, as the distances between towns grew as I headed eastward. It took most of the day to reach Glendive, which lies along the Yellowstone River just a few miles from the North Dakota border. The region’s biggest destination is Makoshika State Park, which became my first stop once I arrived.
The badlands within Makoshika State Park are home to fossils of both the t-rex and triceratops. Despite an entire afternoon exploring, I didn’t find any fossils but I discovered more stunning landscapes than I could have imagined. My favourite area was near the Amphitheater, which caught the warm glow of sunset perfectly.
By the third day of my Montana road trip, I was eager to stretch my legs. The Cap Rock trail became my starting point. Although it’s just over a mile long, the trail takes in a number of different badlands formations, including this stunning natural bridge. After this short hike, I continued to the Valley View Loop.
All across Montana, the sunrises and sunsets hadn’t produced much color. As I was setting up my UAV for a flight, I turned around to discover this view. Unexpected and wonderfully colourful.
In Makoshika State Park, I flew my Phantom 4 with permission from park staff. It’s an awesome way to capture some unique footage, but it is important to ask first! While airports and National Parks are official no-fly zones, other restrictions apply in different areas. I always check with the right authorities before taking off. In this case, the park made an exception and I captured a few different perspectives.
Missouri River Country: Glasgow, Wolf Point, and Fort Peck
From Glendive, I headed back in my prefered direction of travel: west. There is just something special about driving towards the distant Rocky Mountains. I’ve always loved watching them grow from small specks on the horizon to the looming peaks that I call home. Before I’d make it that far west, I discovered the true wild west in Missouri River Country. Life slowed down, cell reception disappeared and the never ending landscape unfolded in front of my vehicle.
Missouri River Country, which covers most of northeast Montana, is all about wide open spaces. Views stretched into the distance across both fields and lakes. On the Visit Montana website, the region is described as a place where “refugees from the modern world come here to escape blaring sirens and traffic jams, losing themselves to the seemingly endless great wide open.” It’s hard to describe it any better.
The Fort Peck Reservoir is the largest lake in Montana and it’s home to plenty of water sport fun. While I was there, the weather was absolutely astounding. Within 30 minutes, I ran from two thunderstorms, photographed a cloudless sky, and watched rainbows appear in the distance.
Like all good adventures, my Montana road trip ended with a quintessential road shot. This time, I captured the scene outside Malta with my Phantom 4.
I have to admit, I enjoyed my time in Montana more than I thought possible. After two visits – and a total of about 10 days – I’ve seen my fair share of the state. There is one missing piece; however, as I’ve never been to Glacier National Park. I am actually headed back south again for another Montana road trip, because I absolutely must see that park! This time, I am traveling at my own pace! Let me know if you are in the area!