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Montana Off Road Adventure - The Musselshell River Route

Posted in Events on November 1, 2008 Comment (0)
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Montana Off Road Adventure - The Musselshell River Route
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During the 1800s, the Missouri River ran wild and free through Montana. Fort Peck was thriving at the eastern edge of the breaks, but the Fort Peck Dam was not built until the 1930s. Water in the river rose and fell naturally with the seasons and was deep enough in the spring to be navigated by steamboats.

Also during the 1930s, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge was established. Russell was known as the cowboy who painted some nice pictures and had the ability to tell whopping good stories. Russell had moved to Montana from St. Louis when he was 16 years old. He had a romantic vision about the cowboy way of life and wanted to experience it firsthand. He became a wrangler and lived his dreams of being a real cowboy. Even so, his flare for art was more natural to him, and he was best known as the cowboy artist.

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In 1896, Russell married a young woman who had her own dreams about the cowboy artist. She recognized his talent as something that should be shared and lived as a way of life. She had the business sense and drive to turn her husband's talent into profit. With her to lead the way, Charles Russell became a renowned cowboy artist. To do that, he had to leave his beloved Western way of life and move to New York. From there, he rose in popularity as far away as London. Recognition for his accomplishments lives on in the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge.

The Musselshell River begins and ends in Montana. Its water flows from south to north, travels 500 miles, and empties into the Missouri River within the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. So much water is now pulled from it for irrigations, that the state classifies it as chronically dewatered.

During the 1800s, the last of the great northern buffalo herds lived in the drainage of the Musselshell River. Claims of up to 100,000 head were made, but that is probably exaggerated. Although many were lost to blizzards, wolves, and other natural causes, the greatest impact on the buffalo herds were hunters who sold their hides for no more than $2.50 each.

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Although time has changed the river and wildlife, the scenic beauty carved into the hills by the Musselshell River is there for all to enjoy. Lone Writer began his trip with a stop at the Kipp Recreation Area near the Fred Robinson Bridge. That location is used for camping, picnicking, and a lot of boat launching. There are pit toilets and some information boards with area history. Prior to the building of the bridge, the only way to cross the river without getting wet was on a ferry.

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A short distance south of the recreation area is the ranger headquarters. The road beside it provides access into the wildlife refuge. Scenic views from hilltops high above the waters in the reservoir begin quickly and last for miles as the road meanders through the hills. Some of the crossings in the bottoms of the valleys can be soft and slippery. If a rainstorm catches a traveler in the refuge, the journey through may require waiting for the road to dry out.

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Many days could be spent boating, fishing, camping, and exploring the roads within the refuge. Most of the roads are two-track and not heavily used. The route designated in this story does not include any of the side trips. There are recreation areas, boat ramps, and campgrounds at the ends of those roads.

Lone Writer followed the Missouri River going east across the refuge and reached the confluence for the Musselshell River. He then turned south to follow its path upstream. The route left the refuge and entered ranch lands with a mix of privately owned property and public lands. Be sure you know which is which if you decide to explore beyond the roads.

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Topo USA is very helpful when connected to a GPS. Even so, finding the right road is sometimes tricky. Although most roads outside the refuge are graded, they are not heavily used and sometimes require some thought in deciding which is the right way to continue through.

The road descends into the river valley and follows the riverbanks for several miles. In doing so, it passes through ranches where the driveways are difficult to distinguish from the road. In some places, the heaviest-used path is nothing more than a driveway.

Lone Writer arrived in the town of Melstone, Montana, early the second day. The Musselshell River takes a sharp turn at that point. Following it upstream would require going west along Highway 12 toward the town of Roundup. Lone Writer continued south on the Melstone-Custer Road. It continues south across open ranch land and then crosses the Yellowstone River where it connects to Interstate 94.

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Odometer Latitude Longitude Comments
0 N47 34.6753 W108 43.7464 Begin at the ranger station between mileposts 84 and 83 on Highway 191. This is Road 210. Stay on it all the way through the wildlife refuge for 16 miles.
16.0
0 N47 33.6696 W108 28.2894 Left on Road 220. Reset trip meter.
1.7 N47 34.2289 W108 26.5051 Take the right fork. This reenters the refuge.
5.8 N47 34.4428 W108 22.5801 Boat ramp with outhouse. Stay on 220.
11.8 N47 30.8763 W108 19.8083 Right at sign for Skyline.
12.2 N47 30.6674 W108 20.0026 Left on Horse Camp Trail.
22.7 N47 25.5443 W108 12.1092 Right. Carl's Camp Trail is left.
23.3 N47 25.0756 W108 12.3182 Right turn. Crooked Creek Recreation Area is left.
29.7
0 N47 21.5095 W108 16.4101 Left on 79 Trail. Reset meter.
25.6 N47 13.3245 W107 59.5541 Left fork. This section is difficult to follow. You should not attempt it without a GPS tracking device that displays the roads. The road will go through homesteads. Respect private land.
30.8
0 N47 11.3705 W107 56.4963 When you reach a point where the river is directly outside your driver-side window with a slanting steel bridge in the distance, you will see this fork in the road. Take the right fork and follow the main road. Reset trip meter.
3.4 N47 9.5257 W107 {{{57}}}.7472 This is Tin Can Hill Road. Continue straight, which is the left fork.
11.6 N47 3.7668 W107 57.2619 Right. Dutton Ranch is left.
14.4 N47 3.8239 W108 0.3384 Left.
18.7 N47 0.5025 W108 0.6373 Highway {{{200}}} intersection. This is between the 152 and 153 mileposts. (Right goes to Winnett with gas and supplies.) To continue the route, turn left and drive approximately 24 miles to the next waypoint.
0 N46 59.6563 W107 54.1514 Between milepost 158 and 159, turn right on Road 500. Reset your trip meter at this point. (This is before the bridge. A rest area is 1 mile past the bridge with modern rest rooms.)
23.3 N46 43.0308 W107 50.0740 Pavement begins.
31.4 N46 36.5655 W107 50.6244 Highway 12 intersection. This is between the 205 and 206 mileposts. Turn right to Melstone. Gas and supplies available.
0 N46 35.6439 W107 52.4010 At the 204 milepost, turn left onto the Melstone-Custer Road.
1.4 N46 34.9133 W107 51.4857 This bridge crosses the Musselshell River. The river goes west from here toward Roundup. The Custer Road goes south to Custer and crosses the Yellowstone River.
18.1
0 N46 21.5932 W107 49.3045 Left toward Custer. Reset trip meter.
22.1 N46 8.5869 W107 32.8998 Yellowstone River bridge.
23.1 N46 7.8678 W107 33.2531 Interstate 94 ramps.

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 www.lone-writer.com. 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 larry@lone-writer.com or call (303) 349-9937.

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