Badlands Loop

The Badlands Loop packs a lot of punch into three short-and-sweet days of travel in the remote northeast corner of Montana. Otherworldly badlands terrain and rock formations take center stage against the stunning backdrop of the Missouri River, the Great Plains and prairie terrain on this journey. As you traverse this mesmerizing landscape, you’ll discover lesser-known opportunities for four-season recreation, geologic wonders like Makoshika State Park and the engineering marvel of Fort Peck Dam, along with traces of the area’s rich history and enduring culture — from the time of the dinosaurs to the more recent days of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes, Lewis and Clark and the arrival of pioneers. No matter which sights your interests lead you to, you’ll enjoy views of fascinating badlands at every turn of this road trip.

Badlands Loop image 1   Visit Montana
Badlands Loop image 2   Visit Montana
Badlands Loop image 3   Rick & Susie Graetz
Day one

Glasgow to Sidney

For a trip through a lesser-visited part of Big Sky Country, it’s fitting to kick off the journey in Glasgow, a town that refers to itself as “the middle of nowhere” — tongue firmly in cheek, of course. Check out the Valley County Pioneer Museum’s eclectic exhibits on the Indian cultures that have historically called this area home, the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, Montana military history, early 20th-century homestead and cowboy life and the railroad, not to mention a collection of more than 200 wildlife mounts. And speaking of wildlife, visitors to the Children’s Museum of Northeast Montana and its hands-on arts and science exhibits can view the taxidermy collection of animals from around the world that make up the museum’s World Wildlife Experience. If experiencing wildlife in its natural surroundings is more your thing, head northwest of Glasgow to the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area or south to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge — prime places for wildlife watching as well as hunting or fishing. You can learn more about both museums, the World Wildlife Experience and the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail app.

Driving east from Glasgow on U.S. Highway 2 through the sweeping Great Plains landscape, you’ll soon enter the Fort Peck Reservation, home to members of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. Wolf Point, once a trading post, is the reservation’s cultural center and most populous town. Visit the Wolf Point Area Historical Society Museum — if you’re traveling on a summer weekday — to see artifacts of the area’s Native American cultures as well as antiques and heirlooms from settlers who arrived starting in the late 1800s. The museum — a spot on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail — also features a life-size statue of famed Montana artist Charles M. Russell made by a Wolf Point local.

From Wolf Point, head south on Montana Highway 13 to Circle, a stretch of road that also happens to be the northern half of the Big Sky Back Country Byway — you can find more information about the route and the towns it connects at kiosks in Wolf Point, Circle and Terry (at the byway’s southern end). Look for the historic Lewis and Clark Bridge, a Talking Trail Talking Point, when you cross the Missouri River — it was once the only bridge crossing of the river for 350 miles and was named in recognition of Lewis and Clark’s stop here in 1805. In Circle, a farming and ranching community at the crossroads of MT-13 and Montana Highway 200 in McCone County (a Talking Point on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail), stop into the McCone County Museum — you’ll know it by its quirky collection of concrete dinosaurs outside. The small-town museum focuses on the area’s homesteading history and houses more than 10,000 artifacts in its exhibits and onsite historic structures.

Turn east on MT-200 in Circle and enjoy views of rolling hills and hints of badlands terrain as you make your way toward Sidney, passing through country known for big game and upland bird hunting. You’ll soon come to Richey, a small but proud farming and ranching town. Richey celebrates its rural heritage with its own museum of local history — the Richey Historical Society & Museum highlights homesteading history through artifacts and six buildings with strong historical significance to the town — and by hosting events like the Richey Rodeo, an annual highlight on the community’s calendar for nearly 70 years. When MT-200 intersects with Montana Highway 16, turn north to reach Sidney, an agricultural community on the banks of the Yellowstone River. The town, with views of bluffs, badlands and red-capped hills, is a convenient jumping-off point for the area’s plentiful hunting and fishing opportunities. Take a walk into the past at Sidney’s MonDak Heritage Center, an art and history museum that features artifacts of area history from dinosaur bones to a 1906 Model N Ford, as well as an extensive early 1900s street scene complete with boardwalks. The center is a Talking Point on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail. From Sidney, follow the Yellowstone River north to where it meets the Missouri River, and at the confluence you’ll find Fairview, the easternmost town in Montana. In fact, the community is so far east it’s actually split between Montana and neighboring North Dakota — Interstate Street in town runs on the state line, so people on opposite sides of the street are standing in two different states. Take a little jaunt into North Dakota to see the Fairview Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel, points on the Talking Trail and relics from the days of the Great Northern Railroad’s plan for its Montana Eastern Railway that have since been developed into a walking trail.

Day two

Sidney to Terry

Greet the day early in Sidney — Montana’s “Sunrise City” — and head south on MT-16, hugging the Yellowstone River all the way to Glendive. Glendisaurus, a roadside triceratops statue, will welcome you to town near the intersection of MT-16 and Interstate 94, as will the T. rex sculpture on the “Welcome to Glendive” sign. They’re appropriate greeters: This area developed on the late-Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation and has been a hotbed of significant fossil finds for more than a century. In town, visit the Frontier Gateway Museum — a stop on the Montana Dinosaur Trail and a Talking Trail site — to see a collection of dinosaur fossils as well as a full-size skeleton cast of a Struthiomimus named Margie for the “finder” who discovered it nearby. (The museum showcases more recent history as well, featuring Native American and homestead-era artifacts and historic structures from the area). At the Glendive Dinosaur & Fossil Museum, view more than 23 full-size dinosaur and fossil exhibits, including an 18-foot-tall T. rex, a 39-foot-long Acrocanthosaurus and a 40-foot-long Tylosaurus, presented in the context of biblical history. If you’ve worked up an appetite after your museum visits, you’re in luck: Glendive is home to American Legion Post 28, whose Legionnaire burger earned it a spot on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail.

Next, head to the southeastern outskirts of Glendive to explore Makoshika State Park and its remarkable badlands formations — “Makoshika” (pronounced muh-KOH-shih-kuh) is a variant spelling of a Lakota phrase that translates to “bad land” or “bad earth.” A variety of hiking trails wind through the striking landscape, where wind and water erosion have sculpted caprocks, natural bridges, pinnacles, pedestals and fluted hillsides and helped to reveal dinosaur remains — the park is a site on the Montana Dinosaur Trail. Ten dinosaur species have been discovered at Makoshika, including T. rex, Edmontosaurus and the rare Thescelosaurus. You can see partially uncovered hadrosaur vertebrae in a hillside on the 1.5-mile Diane Gabriel loop trail, and the park’s visitor center features a triceratops skull in addition to other dinosaur remains and badlands interpretive displays. Makoshika State Park is Montana’s largest state park, and offers lots of activities beyond hiking and dinosaurs. Visitors will find scenic drives, a disc golf course, an archery range, a picnic area and campgrounds, and some trails can be used for biking and horseback riding. And the park’s allure only heightens when the sun sets — a site on Montana’s Trail to the Stars, it’s an absolutely breathtaking place for stargazing.

From Makoshika State Park, you’ll once again follow the path of the Yellowstone River, this time heading west on I-94 to Terry, the county seat of Prairie County. There’s great fishing to be had (for the likes of rainbow trout, paddlefish, perch and walleye) on this stretch, so if you’re inclined, stop at the fishing access site in Fallon, about 9 miles before Terry. In addition to fishing, it’s a great spot to hunt for Montana moss agates, which are only found on the banks of the Yellowstone. In Terry, stop at Prairie Unique, a shop — and unofficial visitor center — where you’ll find a wealth of Made in Montana goods, like gourmet treats, skin care items and gifts crafted from antlers. The kindly owners are a friendly source of local knowledge to boot. Enjoy an intimate perspective on turn-of-the-20th-century life in Terry and its surroundings in the photographs of Evelyn Cameron; you’ll find them at the Prairie County Museum and Evelyn Cameron Gallery and across the street at the Evelyn Cameron Heritage. Another spot to take in some Terry history is the Kempton Hotel, the oldest continuously operated hotel in Montana. Built by homesteaders and opened for business in 1902, it has hosted the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Calamity Jane, and continues to welcome travelers to stay in updated rooms that still retain historic charm. For its part, Roy Rodgers Bar Grill & Casino in town welcomes burger enthusiasts as another Southeast Montana Burger Trail stop.

After your explorations in town, head to the Terry Badlands — a Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Area (WSA) — for another breathtaking dose of badlands terrain or opportunities for rock collecting and backcountry hunting. You can reach a stunning scenic overlook via State Secondary Highway 253 north of Terry for views that are spectacular both during the day and at night — the area’s dark skies make the Terry Badlands Overlook a phenomenal spot for stargazing, earning it a spot on Montana’s Trail to the Stars. You can also head west from Terry on Old Highway 10 (the frontage road) to access the Terry Badlands via the Calypso Trail, which delivers a panoramic view of rugged, untouched prairie that looks much like it would have more than a century ago. From the Calypso Trail you can access the Natural Bridges Trail, a short, moderate hike to hoodoos and natural bridge formations. Note that you should visit the rough WSA terrain only when the road is dry and in a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Day three

Terry to Glasgow

Strike out for Fort Peck by heading out of Terry on S-253 going north. Keep an eye out for Terry’s Big Sky Back Country Byway information kiosk on the left side of the highway as you leave town — this stretch of highway between Terry and MT-200 makes up the southern portion of the scenic byway. And scenic it is — the wide-open prairie landscapes interspersed with badlands features make the big sky here seem even bigger. Turn west at MT-200, then north on Montana Highway 24, and soon the Big Dry Arm portion of the Fort Peck Reservoir will come into view on your left. Before crossing the Missouri River into Fort Peck, take a short detour to the Milk River Observation Point — Lewis and Clark stopped here in 1805 and observed the confluence of the Milk and Missouri rivers. One of the highest spots in northeast Montana, enjoy the incredible views from up high before heading into Fort Peck. After crossing the Missouri River, visit the Lewis and Clark Overlook, with interpretive signage and a picnic area. You can find out more about each of these two vantage points on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail app.

With its rich mix of recreational opportunities and cultural and historical sights — many of which are Missouri River Country Talking Trail Talking Points — Fort Peck truly has something for everyone. The town sits on Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana’s largest body of water. It was created by the construction of Fort Peck Dam, which stretches 3.8 miles across the Missouri River and is the largest hydraulically filled dam in the U.S. To learn more about the history of the dam — as well as the area’s natural history and wildlife — be sure to visit the Fort Peck Interpretive Center. The center is also a stop on the Montana Dinosaur Trail — a life-size model of Peck’s Rex, a T. rex found just 20 miles away, will greet you upon entry, and the center features a skeleton cast of Peck’s Rex as well as other dinosaur fossils. Two freshwater aquariums — the largest in Montana — feature the fish of Fort Peck Lake and the Missouri River, and a wildlife exhibit highlights animals that used to live in the area as well as those currently found on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the eastern part of which borders the lake. The center is open to the public during the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day) and by appointment the rest of the year. Another seasonal can’t-miss spot? The Fort Peck Summer Theatre. This historic — and very distinctive-looking — theater hosts a summer series of stage productions. Though built as a movie house in just nine months in 1934, this Montana treasure has stood for nearly a century thanks to its sound construction and craftsmanship (note the size of some of the interior beams and the handmade light fixtures) and the preservation efforts of the Fort Peck Fine Arts Council.

Perhaps the main attraction of Fort Peck, though, is the lake — and all the recreation opportunities it offers. It’s 134 miles long and has more shoreline than the California coast. It anchors six different recreation areas, which are popular for swimming, camping, hunting and year-round fishing. The Pines Recreation Area, at the end of the dirt Pines Road about 20 miles south of the dam, is a tucked away area that rewards visitors with serene scenery, great photo opportunities and, if you decide to camp, incredible stargazing — it’s a stop on Montana’s Trail to the Stars. The Pines Recreation Area features boating, swimming and fishing access too, and anglers here and around the lake will find many species to keep them happily busy, including walleye, northern pike, paddlefish, sauger, lake trout, smallmouth bass and Chinook salmon.

When you’ve caught your fill, hop back onto MT-24 and head north toward Glasgow, completing your loop and bidding farewell to this remote part of Montana, at least for now — this captivating landscape of badlands, prairie and river has a way of drawing travelers back again and again.

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Hit These Trails

Great Wide Open road trips intersect with a handful of engaging Montana trails — the Montana Dinosaur Trail, Montana's Trail to the Stars, the innovative Talking Trail app and the Southeast Montana Burger Trail — and our itineraries note when a point of interest is a site on one of them. These trails enrich your travel experience in Montana, highlighting places where you can learn about dinosaurs, listen to stories of local history, nature and culture, find great spots for incredible stargazing or discover some truly remarkable burgers. Visit each trail's website to learn more.