Hurrying north out of Idaho, Montana state Highway 93 gallops through the Bitterroot Valley to Missoula, then accelerates past Arlee, Ravali, St. Ignatius, Ronan and around Flathead Lake to Kalispell and on to Glacier National Park. Over the hot tourist months it is two-lane mayhem at its worst…sweeping curves, deceptive stretches of straightaway, and too many people in their hurry to see America.
Change your pace and exit this stampede at Ravali, about 50 miles north of Missoula. Turn west onto Highway 200; you’ll immediately cross a bridge over the Flathead River, and although you won’t suspect it, the hills bunching up on the passenger’s side are part of the National Bison Range. Motoring south from Glacier, angle west onto Highway 212 a short ways after Ronan and follow the signs.
A variety of habitats comprise the NBR’s 18,500 acres, from prairie land to forest, and you can experience most of these closely. A self-guiding one-way loop road traverses the hills before topping out at Red Sleep Mountain (on clear days, that’s Flathead Lake in the distance). Viewing the animals, especially the bison, should be done from your vehicle, for your safety and theirs. Walking is encouraged at the small ponds located near the Range’s entrance. Don’t underestimate the photographic potential there; the photo above was taken one evening as I drove out from the Visitor’s Center. Wildlife are often concealed in the tall reeds and cattails (whitetailed deer mostly), but I’ve encountered mink, muskrats, geese, ducks, and an unforgettable and inquisitive weasel on this short trail. (The latter answered the question “Why is a fish flopping in the middle of the path?”)
I was introduced to the NBR nearly 40 years ago; yet while the small communities around it are noticeably busier now, and yard lights speckle the Mission Valley nights, the bison herds still lumber up from Mission Creek in clouds of dust as they’ve always done, and the sun arcs slowly across The Big Sky, and if you forget you have to be somewhere else…your eyes may widen even as your heart rate goes down.