Photograph by Donnie Sexton
Drive to the Top of the World, Beartooth Highway (U.S. Highway 212)
Plenty of tourists drive the Beartooth Highway, a spectacularly scenic 68-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 212 beginning and ending in Montana (open seasonally). The views from the Montana section (which, with portions at 10,200 feet, is the highest elevation highway in the state) are amazing, yet locals know that’s only the beginning. If you’re driving a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, the Beartooth offers access to the aptly named, and mostly unmaintained, Hellroaring Road, in addition to the paved highway. Take it slow and you’ll hit the alpine scenery jackpot: immense, windswept tundra and a top-of-the-world vantage point. “The drive is totally worth it,” says Billings web content developer Scott Sery, who enjoys fishing in the mountain lakes accessible via the 4.2-mile Hellroaring Plateau Trail. “There are stops where you picnic by a mountain lake-fed stream, and from the trailhead, a short hike gets you to a great view of the valley below.” To reach Hellroaring Road from the Beartooth, turn right on Rock Creek Road 11 miles southwest of Red Lodge. In less than a mile, cross the bridge at the Limber Pine Campground entrance and continue to the fork in the road. Turn right at the fork onto Hellroaring Road. From here, it’s six rugged miles up to the parking lot at the end of the road.
Self-Guided Auto Tour, Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
At 1.1 million acres, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) is bigger than Rhode Island. Fortunately, there’s a self-guided auto tour to make exploring the massive preserve a bit more manageable. The route leads through the western part of the refuge and is a great way to see the Missouri Breaks, says CMR deputy project leader Matt DeRosier. "You slowly descend from sagebrush grassland, through a rugged river corridor, to the river bottom. It’s a nice sample of what the national refuge is all about.” The 19-mile drive on a gravel road takes about two to three hours if you stop and read the 13 interpretative plaques, including some about the Lewis and Clark expedition. “You can get a sense of what the Missouri River corridor was like when they made the trip up the river because the landscape is relatively unchanged since they were there,” DeRosier adds. Another auto tour bonus: wildlife viewing. Make the drive early or late in the day and you’re more likely to spot white-tailed deer, mule deer, sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, and a variety of grassland birds.
Take a Mountain Butterfly Hot Air Balloon Flight, Stevensville
“We don’t offer rides, we provide flights,” says Michael Rees, owner and pilot of Mountain Butterfly hot air balloons. Rees’ specialty is long-distance, high-altitude flights over mountain ranges—not common fare in Montana. All flights (except in winter) launch at dawn, when the air mass is most stable. To move in a particular direction, balloon pilots rely solely on the available winds at different altitudes, and the skills to use them. "It's like a sailboat, except we tack in three dimensions,” Rees explains. Safety always comes first, so Rees will scrub flights or land early at any hint of danger. On a typical trip, which may reach 10,000 feet or more in altitude, passengers can see as far as 200 miles away—to Glacier National Park, Butte, the Flint Creek Range, the Pintlars, the Bitterroot Range, the Selway Wilderness, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The open-air flight literally puts passengers in touch with nature when the basket skirts the crowns of ponderosa pines, skims over a rolling river, or lightly touches the rippling surface of a lake.
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