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Roaming The Country - The Missouri Breaks

Posted in Events on January 1, 2008
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When most people first hear of the Missouri Breaks, they wonder, "Where in Missouri?" Actually, you must follow the Missouri River upstream all the way into Montana to reach these scenic and historic lands.

American Indians were the first to call the Missouri Breaks home. Fur trappers and traders were the first white men to move in. In 1805, Lewis and Clark passed through the Missouri Breaks during their 8,000-mile journey in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean. They mostly pulled their boats upstream by hand.

In 1860, the first steamboat, the Chippewa, navigated the river upstream to Fort Benton. They could only make the journey in the spring during high water, and even then the boat had to be winched through the more shallow sections. Improvements were made to the steamboats and freight was hauled in both directions through the Missouri Breaks during the ensuing 30 years.

In 1901, Kid Curry, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid robbed a train at the Exeter Creek crossing near Malta, Montana. The hideout they used was in Hideaway Coulee located in the Missouri Breaks. Much of their time was spent on Grand Island at the mouth of that coulee.

(In 1976, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson starred in a movie called The Missouri Breaks. The story is about cattle thieves and a gunman hired by a rancher to track them down.)

In 2001, most of the Missouri Breaks was gobbled up by the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. This was one of many monuments established by presidential proclamation during the Clinton years. It was the last of such proclamations and was signed into law just hours before Clinton's term as president ended. The monument includes all of the Missouri River from Fort Benton to the boundary for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The monument is managed by the BLM through the Lewistown office.

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Very little has changed in the Missouri Breaks during the last century. It is wild and remote with a variety of wildlife. Visitors to the area should take extra gas since it is not readily available without driving a long distance. Lewistown to the south and Malta to the north are the only major cities in the area. A few small towns such as Winifred and Grass Range have gas available during normal business hours. A small store at the corner of Highway 19 and Highway 191 east of the town of Roy is the closest gas for those using the Kipp Recreation Area as a basecamp.

Lone Writer began his trip in Lewistown with a stop at the BLM headquarters. He expected to pick up a road map of the monument but found no such map exists. The office could only provide a brochure for the backcountry byway that runs along the south side of the Missouri River, and its quality was very poor. The BLM also had some USGS quadrant maps and lots of information for anyone traveling the river in a boat. After looking over the options, Lone Writer decided to rely on his DeLorme Topo USA mapping program and trusty laptop.

From Lewistown, Lone Writer continued to the town of Winifred. He topped off the gas tank and purchased a hamburger at the local caf then proceeded down the winding ferryboat road. That narrow, one-lane, graded dirt road turned out to be a pleasant drive. It descended gradually into the breaks and soon arrived at the south dock for the McClelland/Stafford Ferry.

Crossing on the ferryboat is free to travelers and managed by the Blaine County Commissioner's Office. The current ferryboat is only 3 years old. The original was made of wood, whereas the new one is made of steel. It weighs 60,000 pounds and measures 22 feet wide and 50 feet long.

There are two ferryboat captains who alternate days of operation. They live in the ferry quarters on the north side of the river. Travelers going north drive up to the dock on the south side of the river and honk the horn. Hopefully, the captain will hear the horn and begin the short hike from the quarters to the dock on the north side of the river. The ferryboat is then powered up and driven to the south side where the traveler and vehicle are loaded on board. If honking the horn doesn't work, the second option is a mailbox with a small two-way radio. The instructions are to turn the radio on, call the captain, and turn the radio off. On that day, honking the horn was the only thing needed.

There are only three ferry boats still in operation within the Missouri Breaks. The use of ferryboats on the Missouri River began in the 1860s. The McClelland/Stafford Ferry began operating in 1915. Some sources claim more than two dozen ferryboats were in operation before bridges began replacing them. Fortunately, the three remaining boats have been kept in operation in an effort to retain some of Montana's ferryboat history.

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A video can be purchased from the ferryboat captain that details much of the ferryboat history on the Missouri River in Montana. Lone Writer was taken across the river by Susan Sanford. There are plenty of stories about her on the Internet. Her family has been in charge of ferry operations for nearly three decades. Her mother, Grace Sanford, was quoted as saying running the ferry was the best job she ever had. One writer proclaimed Susan to be the "Ferry Princess." Another writer tells how the previous ferryboat used to stall in the middle of the river and Susan would swim out to repair it. Still another tells how she shot a rattlesnake that attempted to board the ferry. She is a friendly lady with plenty of local stories to tell.

Lone Writer left the ferry landing and continued north. As with the south side, the road provided a narrow, winding, and very scenic drive from the river bottom to the top of the level plains.

Once on top of the plains, the road continues north to the intersection for Cow Island Trail. Although it still retains the name "trail," it is actually a graded county road. In the early years, steamboats frequently could not get any farther upriver than Cow Island due to shallow water over the Dauphine Rapids north of the island. Shipments were transferred from the boats to wagons at that point and taken on to Fort Benton using the Cow Island Trail.

Lone Writer drove east along the Cow Island Trail until it reached Cow Creek. The original trail following the creek to Cow Island is for hikers and horseback riders only. The county road continues east along a road noted in TopoUSA as Timber Ridge. Signs on the road did not confirm that name; however, they did provide mileage distance to many designations. Eventually, the road connected to paved Highway 66 north of Landusky.

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The road passes Thornhill Peak where Jim Thornhill's ranch once stood. Thornhill was Kid Curry's best friend in Montana. He provided horses and other supplies for the outlaws after the Exeter Creek train robbery and kept watch over the ranch where the Curry brothers lived prior to Kid Curry's gunfight with Pike Landusky. That story was detailed in last month's issue (Dec. '07) of Off-Road.

Lone Writer drove into Landusky and stopped at the Montana Gulch Campground. He decided the best campsites were already taken, so he went back out to Highway 66 and continued south to the first major gravel road going west. There was no street sign, but the road is called Bull Creek. It also accesses the abandoned Power Plant Ferry location. For anyone wishing to hike into Hideaway Coulee to search for the remains of Kid Curry's hideout cabin, Bull Creek Road is the way to go.

At about 11.5 miles into the road, a two-track with a designated BLM trail number branches off to the left. Taking that road passes the remains of an old log cabin. Across the track from that cabin is a hilltop with a faint trail downhill to a branch off Hideaway Coulee. If you find the cabin, you will be doing better than Lone Writer did. Please send photos and GPS positions.

Lone Writer continued past the turnoff for Hideaway Coulee and turned left at the sign for Power Plant Trail. He found a nice hilltop campsite and set the tent up just as the sun dropped below the horizon.

The road drops into the breaks and stops on the banks of the Missouri River. The poles that once kept the ferry from floating downstream are still in place but barely standing. There are several buildings including one with a grass rooftop. The smaller, one-room buildings would have made good living quarters for workers or even to rent out to travelers.

The original power plant built at this location ran on coal, which produced steam to power the generators. The power was used to operate a mine and mill. The ferry was in operation from 1916 to 1923 when the mill burned down.

Lone Writer left the ferry landing and went back to the intersection at the top of the breaks. He then took the other fork in the road going down to Cow Island. This is the most scenic and absolutely the most beautiful drive in the Missouri Breaks. The colors in the landscape jump out at every turn, and the views into the river bottoms are unequalled. The road itself is washed out, narrow, and steep. When coming out, please use 4-Lo to prevent wheelspin that could cause more damage and erosion.

There is a homestead and pieces and parts of abandoned machinery near the banks of the river. One structure is built into a hillside with dirt covering everything except the front entrance and windows. An old well is still open, so watch your step. Previous travelers have thrown lumber across the opening, but those are not permanent covers.

Past the homestead, the road eventually reaches the riverbanks. Cow Island and some smaller islands can be seen in the river. The island is very large. The river flows on both sides of it even though the other fork of the river is hidden by the island and cannot be seen from the road.

Lone Writer spent several hours in the area. The road continues on but is washed out and too narrow for anything wider than an ATV. Hiking the road provides an easy way to step a little deeper into a wilderness experience. For most visitors, the wilderness experience within the river basin accessible by the road will be enough.

For those who would like to get up-close and personal with the river, rafting may be the right choice. A couple of years back, Lone Writer and his friend, Caveman, put a raft in at the Power Plant Ferry location and floated to the Kipp Recreation Area. They had a vehicle parked at the exit point so they could drive back to get the vehicle left at the ferry landing.

There are also tour companies in Fort Benton that provide a river experience. Lone Writer did not make it there to check them out, but several references on the Internet point in that direction.

Larry E. Heck has been writing backcountry adventure stories since 1985. Some of the newer e-book products in the Campfire Tales series can be found at his website, The site also contains Campfire Tales written decades ago. If you have an idea for a historic backcountry trail that you think Larry should consider, write to or call (303) 349-9937.

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Trip Meter Latitude Longitude Notes
0.0 47 33.5647 109 22.4714 Leave Winifred on gravel road.
2.0 47 34.1774 109 20.6888 Left fork goes to ferry dock.
11.3 47 41.4007 109 20.9918 Right fork.
16.6/0.0 47 44.2860 109 23.5681 Ferry is on north side with outhouse and ferryboat
captain's quarters. Reset trip meter.
20.0 47 55.7253 109 23.6667 Turn right on Cow Island Rd.
27.4 47 {{{57}}}.6462 109 15.8006 Stay on Cow Island Rd. Middle fork.
40.9/0.0 47 58.3473 109 1.8113 Right fork. Reset trip meter.
1.2 47 57.9568 109 0.5594 Left toward Hwy. 376.
4.8 47 58.3142 108 56.5002 Right turn after gate. Beware of wire gate: hard to seeuntil you get close.
17.1/0 47 57.0242 108 43.1329 Right on paved Hwy. 66. Reset trip meter.

Go past the intersection for Landusky. Continue south to the first major gravel road going right. Mailboxes are on the corner. This road is between Mile Posts 1 and 2. It is 1.4 miles from the intersection of Hwy. 66 and Hwy. 191 where the historic markers are located.

0 47 48.9830 108 38.2304 Turn right off Hwy. 66 onto gravel road.
2.2 47 48.7570 108 40.7887 Straight on dirt road.
11.4/0.0 47 46.3040 108 50.8270 Left on two-track will take you to trailhead for Hideaway
Coulee. There is one fork in the road that is hard to see.
Location is listed below. Reset trip meter.
1.0 47 45.6246 108 50.4084 Trailhead into Hideaway Coulee.

Go back to the dirt road when leaving Hideaway Coulee. The rest of the road is easy. A sign marks the intersection for the Power Plant Trail going left and Bull Creek going right. Both are dead ends.

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