Montana East of the Mountains: An Uncommon Landscape

The Powder River meanders through remote prairie lands southeast of Miles City

The Powder River meanders through remote prairie lands southeast of Miles City. (Photo by Rick & Susie Graetz)

The imposing Rocky Mountain Front defines the eastern flank of Montana’s mountainous domain before it flows into open terrain to the east.  On the north, it stretches 460 miles from Browning and the east slopes of Glacier National Park to the North Dakota line just beyond Sidney. Somewhat less defined, the central boundary begins in the valley of the upper Musselshell River, near Harlowton, and reaches for 300 miles to our state’s eastern edge. On the south, it is 250 miles as the golden eagle glides, from Red Lodge and the east face of the Beartooth Mountains following the Wyoming border to the South Dakota line. It’s a distinct region unto itself and one of America’s great pieces of geography. This exceptional corner of the Great Plains harbors unique landforms and grand scenes – badlands, sculptured sandstone, river breaks, canyons, wilderness grasslands, wildlife refuges, lakes and island mountain ranges – intermingled with smaller bits of geologic wonderment. Space, much of it undisturbed, is its greatest commodity. This vast territory of unending sky delivers a feeling of no borders or confinement – a place where a human can stretch and breathe.

At first, the openness, immensity and distances of Montana east of the mountains may seem overpowering. Gradually, though, you get comfortable with it all and notice the beauty and splendor. Not just the imposing geologic structures, but also the abundance of simple grandeur … cottonwoods along a small creek; a lone tree silhouetted on a hillside; waves of wheat dancing in the summer wind; the first rays of sun illuminating sandstone cliffs; delicate snow patterns drifted against a weathered barn; the northern lights shimmering across the night sky; antelope moving quietly through sagebrush-covered prairie; and the soft fusion of earth and sky on horizons that seem endless.

Striking features command your attention – the 1,000-foot deep canyons of the Missouri River; the enormity of Fort Peck Lake; stately prairie buttes; isolated mountain ranges such as the Little Rockies and Big Snowies; the Makoshika and Terry badlands; and the canyons of the Bighorn River.

Montana’s mightiest waterways have carved their routes through this territory. Born of mountain snows and springs, the prairie gives them room to grow. They are fabled waters … the Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Marias, the Judith, the Bighorn, the Powder, the Tongue, the Milk and the Musselshell. The wide Missouri and the free-flowing Yellowstone were routes of exploration for Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and other adventurers.

These lands east of the Northern Rockies are Big Sky Country. Out here, a formidable canopy of sky provides a constantly changing panorama – a playing field for clouds and weather. From the moment the sun bursts onto the clear eastern horizon of Montana, beginning its journey toward the closing of day, many surprises may appear depending upon the mood of the heavens.

Remnants and vivid reminders of early day eastern Montana are everywhere. Portions of former travel byways such as the Great North Trail, the Nez Perce Trail, the Wood Mountain Trail, the Whoop-Up Trail and the Pony Express Route are still visible, as are the ruins of forts, trading posts and stagecoach stops. Undisturbed areas show signs of travois tracks, wagon wheel ruts and teepee rings.

Evidence of the era of the first homesteaders is plentiful. Old buildings that once housed these settlers, their families and their dreams still stand, only to serve as refuges for small animals and birds.

Although the drought and economic conditions ended their hopes, some hearty pioneer families persisted, stayed on and today are the backbone of the Montana prairie country. 

Descendants of early-day sodbusters and products of cattle outfits that have been in the same family for generations provide the area with a sense of permanency and independence – a strong profile dictated by rural life and past experiences that characterize this corner of the Great Plains.

Towns are the essence of this territory. Social and commercial activities interact within them in a way that is all but disappearing across America. Cafes, hardware and grocery stores are where stockmen, farmers, implement dealers and bankers meet to discuss ag-economics, their families and the weather. You’ll still find drug stores with soda fountains, and chances are that you can walk in the door of any business and shake the hand of the owner. A genuine welcoming atmosphere prevails.

In a state with so much natural beauty, those of us who call this home need to invest the time by pointing our iron chariots in every direction to investigate what we have, but we especially urge you to venture to the far-flung corners of the uncommon topography of Montana East of the Mountains!

Rick and Susie Graetz | University of Montana | Department of Geography