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National Bison Range, MT

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Guide 1 Triplog  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List MT > Western
4 of 5 by 1
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Distance One Way 19 miles
Trailhead Elevation 3,322 feet
Avg Time One Way 2 hours
Interest Seasonal Creek
Backpack No
varies or not certain dogs are allowed
editedit > ops > dogs to adjust
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
42  2014-07-27 tibber
Author tibber
author avatar Guides 21
Routes 574
Photos 25,551
Trips 838 map ( 10,398 miles )
Age 63 Female Gender
Location Phoenix, AZ
Historical Weather
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Preferred   Sep, Jun, May, Jul
Seasons   ALL
Sun  6:23am - 6:35pm
Official Route
0 Alternative
Fauna Nearby
Flora Nearby
Named place Nearby
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really home on the range
by tibber

Likely In-Season!
The 18,766 acre range was established in 1908 by Pres Theodore Roosevelt with the first Congressional appropriations ever made for the purchase of lands for a national wildlife refuge. The Range hosts 350-500 bison. Here you have opportunities to see various wildlife and bison. Much of the range was once under Glacial Lake Missoula which was formed by a glacial ice dam on the Clark Fork River to its west. The Range is one of the last intact publicly-owned intermountain native grasslands in the U.S.

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.

Leave No Trace and +Add a Triplog after your scenic drive to support this local community.

2014-08-12 tibber
  • Scenic Drive map
    guide related
    Scenic Drive map
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

Most recent Triplog Review
National Bison Range
rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
On our Saturday drive from Priest Lake, ID via Hwy 200 we had hoped to overnite in one of the small towns along the way and near the Bison Range. Well that didn't quite work out as there really isn't a place to stay in any of these small towns and Polson, at the south end of Flathead Lake was booked up per the 3 places we found on my cousin's car GPS. So we ended up driving to Missoula for the night. We had to make several phone calls as it seemed Missoula hotels were pretty booked. We thot we would make it our base of operation to do touristy things for a couple nites but the hotel we stayed at warranted a plan B. So we found a reasonably priced room in Polson for Saturday nite not listed on the car's GPS system.

The day started out with a visit to old Fort Missoula, neither of us Montana natives had ever been and I had lived there for semester of grad school. It really is a great place and we only got thru 1/2 of it before needing to get on the road and head north retracing some of the ground we had driven on the day before. We decided we both had also never been to St Ignatius Mission (it is quite something for the time and day it was created). On our 2008 road trip we had been to the Old Cataldo Mission outside of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho founded by the same Jesuits.

Well at the junction of 93 and 200, I turned west thinking we would head north out of a place called Dixon but as I was driving, I wasn't sure and after reviewing the map, we turned around and went up the 93. Turns out you can get to the range from either direction but this way, we would get to see the mission. So we did our tour of the mission; it is as beautiful :DANCE: on the inside as the pictures I've seen.

Next we take the turn off the 93 to the 212 where you drive around the edge of the Ninepipe NWR. From here there are quite a few bends on this stretch of the road as you head SW and thru the itsy bitsy town of Charlo. Finally we arrived at the Visitors Center where we ate the last part of our sandwich from Clark Fork Pantry, ID. It was one of the best sandwiches I have ever had. Oh, at the Pantry, we also got huck shakes, YUM! We went in and toured the VC. They've done a nice job of that place showing you the bison and how the Indians used all parts of it

With our map in hand and a promise from the caretakers of the VC that we would see bison toward the end of our drive, we headed out passing by this enormous stack of antlers. We gradually make our way up a gravel one way road (Red Sleep Mountain Dr) to great views of the Flathead River and the valley to the north. It really was quite the view :) so we pulled over to get a few shots. Then we headed down into a valley and by a dry creek before turning east. The map you get is interpretive so cousin Connie would read about the points of interest. She is a chokecherry lover and immediately noticed that that bushes along the creek were loaded with chokecherries so we had to stop and grab a couple.

We did spot some Pronghorns and I grabbed a couple pics. We wound our way up now on Summit Rd into the forested area passing by the ELK LANE which is used for roundup/herding purposes. It is a wide barbed wire grassy lane on the side of the hill. Once we got to the top it was stunning. Here there were interpretive signs so we got out to read them and soak in the incredible views of the valley and the tall Mission Mountains :y: . Once again Glacial Lake Missoula was the cause of some of this beauty The Ice Age Floods story continued to be a part of the geological portion of my trip to Montana/Idaho this summer.
The Cordilleran ice sheet advanced into the Idaho Panhandle to the area that is now occupied by Lake Pend Oreille (we were by there yesterday), thus blocking the Clark Fork River (we had also driven alongside that for a good part of our trip yesterday) drainage and causing Glacial Lake Missoula (held as much water at Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined, 2000 feet deep :o ) to form.

The downhill portion of this trip on Summit Rd was pretty darn steep and switched back and forth before finally getting back to prairie level. Off to our left we could see the rock shelves coming out of the high side of the mountain; well come to find out, that's the old beach line :o of Glacial Lake Missoula (If back in the day we would seriously be under some very deep water at this point). We passed by the bison wallows (big dirt areas) where we saw about a dozen antelope hanging out.

As we now headed west on Winter Dr, you are alongside Mission Creek. Here, wait for it, I spotted some e l k. How 'bout that! My elk jinx might be over. After taking a few pictures, continuing the drive the stars of the show would start appearing, the BISON! They are magnificent beasts to be sure. They were quite active too between the kicking up dirt and little fights and such :) . We probably saw 50 bison or more close by. I did get one excellent zoom shot, because of the backdrop. I got other photos too but this one turned out really good.

It was a great drive. I highly recommend it. One of the people we talked to at the summit even got a nice photo of a couple bears. This is magnificent country in western Montana. I grew up in the Plains and appreciate that too but the west, well those mountains and huge lakes and valleys are really spectacular.

We finished our driving for the day heading back on the 212 to the 93. Neither of us had been on this portion of the 93. We got a great room with a nice view in Polson and ate at the recommended eatery, the bowling alley. The bartender couldn't make martinis but heh, you can't have everything.

Video 1 the start to the summit:
Video 2 from the summit to where the bison and antelope roam:

Permit $$
Information is listed below

Map Drive
Paved - Car Okay

To scenic drive
From Missoula (37 miles), take Highway 93 north to Ravalli, turning west on Highway 200 to Highway 212. Travel north on Highway 212 for 5 miles to the entrance.
From Polson, take Highway 93 for 18 miles to State Highway 212; travel 12 miles to the entrance.
From I-90 turn north off Interstate 90 onto Highway 135 at St. Regis. Turn east at Highway 200 to Highway 212 just east of Dixon. Travel north on Highway 212 for 5 miles.

Day Passes to the Bison Range:
Private vehicle - $5.00
Commercial van - 5 or less people - $5.00
Commercial van - 6-10 people - $10.00
Commercial van - over 10 people - $12.00
Bus and Tour Groups - $25.00
page created by tibber on Aug 12 2014 1:55 pm
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