Montana’s northern prairies are full of diversity; the landscape varies from wide sage plains to the corrugated country of the Missouri Breaks and the inland sea of the Fort Peck Reservoir. The wildlife includes shorebirds that have migrated from the Gulf of Mexico and mountain lions hunting on the slopes of the island mountain ranges.
This diversity applies to unpaved roads in the region too, and new visitors will benefit from learning to identify a few of the common byways. While all roads become muddy in wet weather (see this post on gumbo mud), some become impassable and it’s important to know which type of roads you’ll be using in case the weather changes.
County or State Roads (Gravel Roads)
County and state roads are roads that have been topped with gravel and are generally passable even in wet weather. State Route 236 from Winifred to Judith Landing is an example of a road with added gravel. They are generally wide enough to allow two vehicles to pass. The American Prairie Antelope Creek Campground loop roads are all graveled and accessible in wet weather. Motorized use is allowed on these routes, and while a 4WD/AWD vehicle is still recommended, a 2WD vehicle can travel these roads in dry weather.
A county gravel road leading to the American Prairie PN property.
Unimproved roads are dirt roads with no added gravel and become impassable when wet. The last five miles of road to reach the American Prairie Buffalo Camp Campground and the roads to the Myers Family Huts on the PN are all unimproved roads. They are generally narrower and may only allow one vehicle at a time to pass, requiring slower speeds and longer travel times. A 4WD/AWD vehicle with at least 8 inches of clearance is recommended for travel. Please follow on-the-ground signs and map designations for motorized and non-motorized use of these roads.
A rutted unimproved road leading to the American Prairie Sun Prairie property. Unimproved roads are prone to gumbo mud, which can become impassible when wet. When unimproved roads are driven on in muddy conditions, ruts are created as seen in this image, often requiring vehicle clearance for safe travel.
Two-tracks are just what they sound like, and the oldest examples follow the wheel ruts left by ox-drawn wagon trains. These backcountry roads become impassable when wet and their deep ruts sit in shade and can be slow to dry after storms. Following two-tracks requires a 4WD/AWD vehicle with at least 8” of clearance. Please follow on-the-ground signs and map designations for motorized and non-motorized use of these roads.
A two-track on the prairie.
Though you may be in a vehicle as you explore the back roads of the region, you should consider yourself in the backcountry. In most cases, emergency services are more than an hour away, cell phone service is spotty, and on some roads it could be days, even weeks, before another vehicle travels the road. There are no ranger-type staff on duty in the region as you might be familiar with in National Parks. Before leaving pavement make sure you complete the following steps to ensure a safe adventure on the prairie:
- Check the weather forecast. Our Road and Weather Conditions page has helpful resources for conditions on the prairie.
- Make someone aware of where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
- Travel with a reliable map (note that cellular-dependent resources like Google Maps may not work in many parts of the prairie that have poor cell service). Visit our Maps page for helpful resources to navigate the prairie.
- Make sure you have a full-size spare tire in good repair (no donut spares or run-flat tires).
- Pack extra food, water, and clothing for the season.