Breaks Loop

Exhilarating, unique recreation and captivating history flow together in this four-day road trip where the Missouri River — the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument stretch of it specifically — makes up the centerpiece of the route. Experience the river and its distinctive breaks terrain up close through scenic drives (or even a one-of-a-kind float trip), or visit the many wonderful museums and historical sites in the authentic rural towns along this itinerary to explore the Missouri’s history and how it shaped the region as we know it today. You’ll encounter prehistoric, Native American and geologic history too, as well as plentiful outdoor recreational opportunities, from wildlife watching to fishing and hunting to hiking — to ice caves, no less!

Breaks Loop image 1   Eric Visocan
Breaks Loop image 2   Megan Johnson
Breaks Loop image 3   Visit Montana
Day one

Great Falls to Havre

Start your journey in Great Falls, which straddles the Missouri and gets its name from the series of five waterfalls marking the river’s descent from the Rocky Mountains to the level of the plains. Get an up-close look at the Great Falls waterfall at Giant Springs State Park, which features one of the world’s largest cold water springs, a trout hatchery and paved and single-track trails — it’s a beautiful place to fish, hunt, hike, bike, bird watch or just spend relaxing time outdoors. At the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, situated on the river next to the park, learn some of the early history of the region, including how the Corps of Discovery portaged the five falls over the course of a month in 1805 — the exhibit hall features a two-story diorama of the feat. A short distance west of town at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, explore the archaeological site believed to be the largest buffalo jump in North America. Native peoples used the site — a mile-long sandstone cliff — for at least 2,000 years and the park’s interpretive trail and on-site education center help visitors to understand the history of this high plains hunting method and the people who practiced it.

Take U.S. Highway 87 north out of Great Falls and make your way to Fort Benton, “the birthplace of Montana” Fort Benton was established in 1846 — more than 40 years after Lewis and Clark traveled through the area — and is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the state. First a fur trading post and later a military post, a boisterous river port where steamboats docked and a destination for homesteaders ready to start new lives, the town is a National Historic Landmark recognized for its role in the opening of the Northwest and western Canada to settlement.

Delve into the area’s storied history starting with a tour of Historic Old Fort Benton, which, in the 1850s, was an important site of the fur and buffalo robe trade. Today, see preserved and reconstructed fort structures — including the trade store, warehouse and blacksmith and carpenter’s shop — staged with period furnishings and trade goods. Explore the Fort Benton Museums and Heritage Complex, an impressive group of museums and sites that together share a comprehensive picture of the region’s past. Another of Fort Benton’s gems of Montana history is the Grand Union Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in the state. When it opened in 1882, it was called the finest hotel between St. Louis and Seattle. A meticulous restoration has returned it to its original grandeur and today, guests will enjoy a warm welcome both at the hotel and at the hotel’s farm-to-table restaurant, the Union Grille.

Fort Benton also marks the start of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument — and many folks’ adventures upon it. “The Breaks,” as it’s known locally, stretches 149 miles from Fort Benton on US-87 to U.S. Highway 191 where the Fred Robinson Bridge crosses the river. The monument encompasses the terrain paralleling the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River — water and land that hold Native American, Lewis and Clark and homesteader history and provide unrivaled recreational opportunities including float trips, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, fishing and hunting (Fort Benton is home to many outfitters than can help facilitate Breaks excursions). As the name suggests, the landscape is quintessential breaks topography — higher country that “breaks” into steep slopes, canyons and ravines where it meets the river. To learn more about the natural and cultural history of the Breaks, be sure to visit the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center, part of the Fort Benton Museums and Heritage Complex.

From Fort Benton, drive northeast on US-87 to Big Sandy, an agricultural community and trade center situated among hilly wheat fields near the Bears Paw Mountains to the east. Check out the collection of early pioneer photographs — the largest in Choteau County — at the Big Sandy Historical Museum before embarking on an out-and-back side trip into the Breaks monument itself. Take Route 236 southeast from Big Sandy and head toward the town of Winifred on the other side of the Missouri. The road, which is mostly gravel, traverses rugged prairie and follows the path of the river, delivering views of the stunning topography that defines the Breaks. Keep an eye out for the White Cliffs, striking white sandstone formations that earned specific mention from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They hug the water’s edge over a 46-mile stretch from the Virgelle area to Judith Landing, where you’ll cross the river and continue on Route 236 to Winifred, a rural town situated within a picturesque mix of sweeping prairie land, timbered canyons and rugged breaks. The deer, antelope, elk and bighorn sheep that roam this landscape and the upland birds that inhabit the prairie draw both wildlife watchers and hunters here.

Head back the way you came and at Big Sandy, take US-87 northeast once again. Turn east when US-87 runs into U.S. Highway 2, the northernmost east-west road crossing Montana. This stretch of highway, together with the rail line it parallels and the towns and landscape along them, is known by locals as the Hi-Line. A short drive will bring you to Havre, a rural agricultural community and railroad town that sits near both the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in a landscape of wheat fields and prairie, with the Milk River to the north, and the Bears Paw Mountains to the south. On the northern slopes of these peaks, you’ll find 10,000-acre Beaver Creek Park, the largest county-owned park in the nation, and its abundant recreational opportunities: camping, fishing, hiking and bird watching in summer, ice fishing, skiing, snowshoeing and sledding come winter and epic stargazing all year round — the park is a Trail to the Stars site. And speaking of winter, Bear Paw Ski Bowl, nestled in the heart of the Bears Paw Mountains, is a little-known but beloved ski hill that is a favorite spot for locals to ski both downhill and cross-country.

Havre’s roots lie in the establishment of Fort Assinniboine in 1879: Traders were drawn to the fort, soon leading to formation of a small town that grew — particularly after 1890, when the Great Northern Railroad arrived — into Havre. Today you can tour Historic Fort Assinniboine, which was one of the largest forts built in the U.S. and constructed expressly to protect against attacks from Native American tribes living in the region, particularly the Sioux Indians. Of the forts in Montana, it has the most original buildings still standing. In town, explore the Havre of yesterday at Havre Beneath the Streets, a tour of the underground spaces that housed various Havre businesses — a honky-tonk, opium den, restaurant and bordello among them — while the community was rebuilt following a city-wide fire.

There are opportunities to explore area history that reaches back further than the 1800s, too. In addition to more recent area history, the H. Earl Clack Memorial Museum — a Montana Dinosaur Trail site — features an exhibit of 75-million-year-old dinosaur eggs and embryos found nearby in the Judith River Formation as well as a cast of a skull from the rare Stygimoloch. The museum also manages the Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump (pronounced WALK-paw CHEW-gun) — a true archaeological treasure. Used extensively by Native Americans over the last 2,000 years as a kill site as well as a campsite, the buffalo jump features exceptionally well preserved faunal layers that extend up to 20 feet below the surface and has been excavated in such a way as to leave artifacts exposed in the exact places they were left.

Day two

Havre to Malta

Leaving Havre, take to the Hi-Line for the 30-minute drive east through the Milk River Valley to Chinook. On the 500 block of Chinook’s historic main street, visitors will find Blaine County Museum. The museum, a Montana Dinosaur Trail stop, features hadrosaur, gorgosaurus, and edmontonia fossils from the Judith River Formation as well as remains of gigantic marine reptiles — mosasaur and plesiosaur — and invertebrates from the area, once covered by an ancient ocean. Other museum exhibits feature historical, early 20th-century photographs of the Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) and Nakoda (Assiniboine) people of Fort Belknap and artifacts from the early days of local ranching and homesteading. Chinook was once the stomping grounds of Montana’s famed cowboy artist Charles Marion Russell, and Blaine County Museum boasts a small display of CMR originals. The museum is a partner of the National Park Service and distributes NPS trail guides and other literature related to Bear Paw Battlefield — the site where the harrowing Nez Perce Flight of 1877 came to its dramatic close. On Oct. 5, following a five-day battle with elements of the U.S. Army led by Col. Nelson A. Miles, Chief Joseph delivered his immortal surrender, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Museum visitors will find exhibits displaying artifacts found at the battle site and time-period photographs, as well as the 20-minute documentary "Forty Miles from Freedom." Bear Paw Battlefield itself is located 16 miles south of Chinook.

A block from Blaine County Museum, visitors can experience Blaine County Wildlife Museum. Arguably one of Montana’s greatest hidden gems, the museum features world-class wildlife displays, spotlighting native species in painstakingly detailed representations of their natural habitats. A visit here serves as a kind of preview of the wildlife you might spot in refuge lands near Malta, a community about an hour’s drive east on US-2. Malta offers exceptional access to wildlife-centric recreation — even Lewis and Clark commented upon the abundance of animals here when they traveled through the area in 1805. Close by are the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge — a Missouri River Country Talking Trail Talking Point — both of which provide chances for deer, antelope, elk and upland game bird viewing and hunting in pristine wilderness. Fishermen will find opportunities to catch walleye, paddlefish, trout and other species at the nearby Milk River, Nelson Reservoir — another Talking Point on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail — and even local ponds.

Interested in wildlife of the prehistoric variety? Malta has you covered there, too. The town boasts two museums that are stops on the Montana Dinosaur Trail and the Missouri River Country Talking Trail : the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station and the Phillips County Museum. The Great Plains Dinosaur Museum features a wealth of fossils, from plants, turtles and crocodiles to Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs including triceratops, stegosaurus and the horned Maltaceratops. A real treasure here is “Leonardo,” a mummified duck-bill Brachylophosaurus canadensis so well-preserved that fossilized skin covers the body. At the Phillips County Museum, see a 33-foot-long, 95% complete Brachylophosaurus along with other dinosaur fossils and get a sense of Malta’s more recent history through exhibits on Native Americans, cowboys and outlaws, and pioneer life and through the historic H.G. Robinson House: a mail-order home that was originally constructed on the prairie in 1898 and now sits on museum grounds.

Day three

Malta to Lewistown

Start the day heading southwest on U.S. Highway 191 from Malta. Soon enough you’ll spot your destination in the distance: the Little Rocky Mountains — or Little Rockies, as they’re affectionately called. This group of buttes — Antoine Butte is the tallest at 5,720 feet — rises abruptly above the plain and can be seen from 75 miles away. For communities in the area, including Malta, the Little Rockies are a treasured landmark. Nestled in the Little Rockies is Zortman, a historic gold-mining town — in 1904, its Ruby Gulch mine produced as much as $14,000 per day in bullion. You can learn more about Zortman’s days gone by on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail app. Today, visitors here will find a picturesque village — a simple but elegant white clapboard church sits above town on a grassy mountainside, overlooking the town’s architectural mix of log cabins, miner’s shacks and more modern buildings. They’ll also find that it’s a great base for hiking, hunting, camping, trail rides and gold panning in the Little Rockies.

Back on US-191 heading southwest, keep an eye out for the intersection near mile marker 109. A left on the road leads to UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, a remote area that’s part of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge Complex — this “refuge within a refuge” is surrounded on three sides by both the 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the Fort Peck Reservoir. UL Bend offers great opportunities for wildlife watching as it provides protection for an array of species, including eagles, owls, bighorn sheep, black bear, elk and bobcat. Note that the road to the refuge can be quite rough — be sure to check weather and road conditions before visiting.

Continuing southwest on US-191, there is a turn off into the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and a self-guided auto tour with interpretive signage — it’s also a Talking Point on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail — that gives an up-close look at the refuge as it leads to the Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area. In September and October at dawn and dusk, you can observe the large numbers of elk that congregate in this spot during the rut (breeding season) — recent records document up to 500 animals gathering — and at night year-round, you can see a sky full of stars at this Trail to the Stars site. From the viewing area, the gravel road will lead back out to US-191, now fully in a breaks landscape. Turn south and cross the Missouri River via the four-span steel girder Fred Robinson Bridge that marks the end of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and is itself on the National Register of Historic Places. On the south side of the bridge is the James Kipp Recreation Area — a Talking Point on the Missouri River Country Talking Trail and a Trail to the Stars site — which provides convenient river access for fishing or putting in or taking out watercraft as well as a campground with scenic river views.

From the river, you’ll continue south on US-191 across gently rolling prairie, even as the road bends west and southwest into Lewistown, the geographic center of Montana. This agricultural community is a true gem of outdoor recreation, thanks to the surrounding island mountain ranges, proximity to rivers and lakes, and a spring-fed stream — Big Spring Creek — that runs right through town. Big Spring Creek offers opportunities for year-round red-ribbon fly fishing. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks maintains six seasonal fishing access sites on the stream, and summer sees swimmers, tubers and kayakers flock to the water. Hikers, campers and wildlife watchers find much to enjoy in the national forest land in the nearby Little Belt and Snowy mountains, and the big game and birds that populate the area make for excellent hunting here, too.

The treasures in Lewistown don’t stop with recreation, either. Take in the beautiful architecture throughout Lewistown’s five historic districts and visit the Central Montana Museum to soak up some of the colorful local history — it traces Lewistown area history starting from the 1870s, highlighting some of the notorious characters of the past along the way. There are literal gems too — Lewistown is known for Yogo sapphires, which are mined only in nearby Yogo Gulch and prized for their naturally occurring cornflower-blue hue. You can find them in Lewistown shops. 

Day four

Lewistown to Great Falls

Enjoy some of the Lewistown area’s renowned recreation with visits to nearby lakes. Just 18 miles south of Lewistown, tucked into the Big Snowy Mountains, you’ll find Crystal Lake, a scenic hub of outdoor pursuits. Stay at the campground and take in a sky full of stars — Crystal Lake is a stop on Montana’s Trail to the Stars. There’s great fishing on the annually stocked, 45-acre lake itself, and non-motorized watercraft are allowed. Explore incredible trails — there are ones for hiking, biking and horseback riding — that range from a leisurely loop around the lake to the challenging Ice Caves Trail: an 11-mile round-trip hike that leads to jaw-dropping views (on clear days all the way to the Tetons 220 miles south) and permanent ice caves — limestone rock formations cold enough to have ice year-round. The happy medium option might be the 7-mile round-trip hike to Grandview Point that affords expansive views of the lake and adjacent canyons and mountains.

Southwest of Lewistown, near the community of Hobson, you’ll find Ackley Lake State Park. The park offers a relaxing spot for boating, water skiing, four-season fishing — the lake is stocked with rainbow trout and tiger muskie — canoeing, swimming, hiking and birding, all with incredible views of the Little Belt and Snowy mountains.

After your recreational fill, head north from Lewistown on Route 236, and when you reach Montana Highway 81, take a left. The Highwood Mountains will be on the horizon in front of you all the way to Montana Highway 80. At the junction, look to your right (north) to spot a landmark in Choteau County called Square Butte. The solitary formation rising from the plains captured the imagination of renowned Montana artist Charles M. Russell, who included it in his 1900 painting “Tenderfoot.” (You can turn north on MT-80 to get a closer look, but the butte is on private property and isn’t accessible to the public.)

At the T-intersection of MT-81 and MT-80, turn south on MT-80 and then west on US-87. At Geyser, you can take a detour on a combination of Route 551 and scenic rural back roads (that, be advised, can be quite rough in places) north to experience the Virgelle Ferry river crossing. The ferry here operates seasonally and has carried people over the Missouri since 1913. Today, cars drive onto its 50-foot-long steel frame and deck that’s pulled by a power cable — and it’s perfectly acceptable to ride the free ferry across and then right back to where you started.

From Geyser, it’s just a 46-mile drive west on US-87 between the Highwood Mountains to the north and the Little Belts to the south to return to Great Falls. Back in town, take a stroll along the city’s paved riverside trail and enjoy a knowing view of the Missouri River, familiar now with the incredible landscape it’s rushing off to.

  • Perfect for:
  • Families
  • Adventurers
  • Sightseers
  • History Buffs

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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.