Picture of the sun setting on a deer skull in a Montana prairie

During springtime, locals and visitors can find fallen antlers from deer and elk in their wintering grounds across Montana.

Photograph by Tony Bynum

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

Go Shed Hunting

In the window between the snowmelt and summer, “hunters” hike to deer and elk wintering grounds to look for fallen antlers, or “sheds.” These natural crowns are a renewable resource, dropped and regrown each year by bucks and bulls, and coveted by collectors, artists, and antler brokers. Most Montana public lands open for shed hunting in mid-May or early June. Rules vary, however, so check with local authorities before hunting. Three Forks resident Jim “Antler Man” Phillips, who has amassed a collection of more than 15,000 antlers, says hunting on foot (instead of by four-wheeler or on horseback) and being persistent can increase your odds of spotting antlers. “You have to cover a lot of miles and prepare to be disappointed,” he explains. “I walked around for ten hours one day and didn’t find one shed. A week later, I went to a different area and found 31.” Although Phillips has been hunting for more than 50 years, he says each shed discovery is as sweet as his first find at age ten. He adds: “It’s like an Easter egg hunt. Every shed—whether a small two-point deer antler or a huge six-point elk antler—is a prize.”

Hike a Prairie

Picture of a warm sunset on a prairie in Valley County, Montana
Photograph by Tony Bynum

 

Some of Montana’s best spring hikes aren’t on mountain trails. Instead, head to the short- and mixed-grass prairie lands in the southwestern, central, and eastern part of the state to hear songbirds, see wildflowers, and take in wide vistas. “Montana’s prairies cover a big chunk of the state, offer relatively easy access, and help visitors truly understand why we call this Big Sky Country,” says Livingston outdoor enthusiast Melynda Coble Harrison, who chronicles her family’s adventures at TravelingMel.com. One of Harrison’s favorite prairie hikes is just outside Billings at the Four Dances Natural Area. Here, it’s only a half-mile walk through native sagebrush and grassland to a rocky river-cliff overlook providing expansive views of Billings, the Yellowstone River, and the Pryor Mountains. Whatever prairie you choose (pick up a Bureau of Land Management map to find the closest public lands), Harrison suggests packing binoculars, bird and wildflower identification guides, plenty of water and food, and—in any kind of weather—rain gear. “Montanans know how fast a sunny day can turn into a storm, especially in spring,” she says.

Cross the Kootenai Falls Swinging Bridge

Picture of a man standing near Kootenai Falls
Photograph by Jonathan Irish

 

Kootenai Falls, the state’s largest undammed falls, hit the big screen in 1994, when several scenes from the Meryl Streep-Kevin Bacon crime thriller The River Wild were filmed here. The churning white water is at its wildest in early June, when the spring runoff swells into the Kootenai River. Since Highway 2 north of Libby basically parallels the Kootenai, getting to the falls doesn’t require any hard-core hiking. Pull off the highway at the milepost 21 picnic area, follow a short trail through the forest and across an enclosed pedestrian bridge, then hike down to the Swinging Bridge suspended just below the falls. The falls and the surrounding area are considered sacred spaces by the Kootenai tribe, whose ancestors may have traveled the river by canoe. “Crossing the Kootenai on the Swinging Bridge is definitely something to experience,” says Libby city council member Peggy Williams. “After you see the falls, be sure to visit us down the road in Libby to eat, shop, or spend the night.”

Rock Out at the Ringing Rocks

Picture of a man hammering rocks at Ringing Rocks in Montana
Photograph by Jonathan Irish

 

A granite boulder pile located between Butte and Whitehall is a Stone Age xylophone of sorts. Known as the Ringing Rocks, some of these iron-red boulders clang or chime like tinny church bells when struck lightly with a hammer. Since the geologic formation is on public land, anyone with a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle (the three-mile access road is rocky) and a hammer can come out and “play.” Scientists believe the composition and positioning of the boulders produces the ringing tones both here and at a similar pile located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. No definitive explanation or geology background is needed, however, to carefully clamber over the boulders with a hammer and rock out.

Take a Medicine Rocks Photo Safari

Picture of a weathered sandstone configuration in Medicine Rocks State Park
Photograph by Alan Majchrowicz, Getty Images

 

You don’t need mad photo skills to capture some spectacular images at remote Medicine Rocks State Park, located in the state’s extreme southeastern corner. In spring (particularly when storm clouds roll in), the 330-acre park’s weathered sandstone configurations give the landscape a mystical, prehistoric look. “This is a great place to take photos because the scenery is amazing,” says Billings resident Shoots Veis, who suggests stocking up on picnic supplies and gas in Miles City before driving two hours east to the primitive park. “The spire rocks were created from sand pillars that were part of the ancient sea. You can’t help but gaze and wonder when you’re among rocks that have been carved by the wind for millions of years.” Unless you happen to be heading to Ekalaka on Highway 7, Medicine Rocks is well off the beaten path, which increases the likelihood you’ll have the place to yourself. Plan on spending a couple of hours to hike, picnic, and take photos, suggests Veis, before driving about 70 miles north to the Beaver Creek Brewery in Wibaux for a mug of Rusty Beaver Wheat or a Lotsa Root Beer float.

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