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really home on the range
FYI: Bison and Buffalo are used interchangeably in the USA. True buffalo are Cape/Water Buffalo of Africa/Asia. Bison's scientific name is 'Bison bison', while buffalo are in the 'Bubulus' genus. All are related in the cow family but they have some physical differences, including horn shape and type of fur. Bison's heavy coats protect them from both summer sun and winter winds. Their coat is so well insulated that snow can lay on their backs WITHOUT melting. They can run as fast as a horse. Bison bulls weigh around 2000 pounds. The hump of muscle behind their head supports the enormous head and thick skull. Bison cows weigh 1/2 of the bulls. Their horns are more narrow, have a smaller hump and smoother summer coat.
When you first arrive, you need to go into the Visitors Center to pay a fee ( your National Park card will get you in ) and get a map as this is a self-guided Scenic Drive. Here is a link to the Scenic Drive map.
There are some interpretive signs and a big pile of antler rack in the parking lot as you head out and on toward Red Sleep Mountain Drive (one way), a gravel road. It almost immediately takes you up the hill giving you a view toward the west and of Flathead River below which flows from Flathead Lake and eventually intersects with Clark Fork. You can also see far to the north of the expansive Flathead Valley.
You drive around Headquarters Ridge, cross perennial Pauline Creek that has lots of berry and cherry bushes like Chokecherry. You drive alongside the creek, be on the lookout for wildlife, and work your way up to some switchbacks thru a forested area. Just before reaching this area, look to the north at Elk Lane. It's like a large barbed wire corral that goes up thru a pass in the mountain and to the other side for the purpose of fall bison roundup.
At the end of this forested area (Ponderosa and Douglas Fir) alongside Red Sleep Mountain is a quick trail option before you work your way up to the top of the hill. Here there are restrooms and another little trail. It is worth it to stop at this high point because the views are stupendous to the east of the Mission Mountains and of course the Mission Valley. Here you are at 4700 feet.
There is an interpretive sign that describes historic Glacial Lake Missoula which helped to form this huge valley. (Author sidenote: I was raised in Montana 1955-1973 and come back often but had never heard of this Glacial Lake until this year. I asked my fellow Montanans if we missed this in school or if it's a recent discovery; we came to the consensus it is a recent discovery within the last 20 years maybe).
And then it's downhill alongside Telephone Mountain. The gravel grade is steep (10%) and switches back and forth. The views are stunning as you make your way back to the grasslands. FYI Grasses grow from the base of the stem so they can still continue to grow after grazing. As you come out of the straight a way, you will pass by Antelope Ridge and Alexander Basin where you will see bison wallows; dry dust beds. Obviously the bison roll here to get insects off their coats. Also, if you look up at the ridge, you will see the old beach lines of Glacial Lake Missoula (see how high they are!). As you continue you will see Mission Creek to your right. Once again, keep your eye out for wildlife. These river woodland bottoms have cottonwood and juniper.
And then the stars of the show will start appearing, guaranteed by the folks at the Visitors Center... at least for summer time. Here is where the bison have gathered. After observing these magnificent beasts, the drive takes you back to the Visitors Center. The Visitors Center has some great displays including how the Indians used all parts of the bison. There are also picnic tables along with a Day Use area and Nature Trail. There are other shorter optional drives to take as well but why, if you're in the area, would you not do the almost 19 mile drive.
Check out the Official Route and Triplog.