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The Missouri Breaks - Montana's Missouri Breaks

Posted in Events on November 1, 2009
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The road to the ferry from Winifred is graded and offers beautiful scenery as it descends into the river valley.

In 1976, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson starred in a movie about cattle thieves and a gunman hired to put them out of business. Much of it was filmed on location in Montana's Missouri Breaks. The location was well suited to host a story about outlaws. The infamous Kid Curry, a high-ranking member of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch, owned a ranch on the north side of the Missouri River. It was located near the town of Landusky. After the train holdup at Exeter Creek, Curry hid out in Hideaway Coulee and Grand Island waiting for things to cool off.

The Missouri Breaks is wild country, where winters can be ferocious and settlements are sparsely scattered. The first mapping of the area was done by Lewis and Clark in 1805. They were searching for a river route to the Pacific Ocean. All they found were Indians and a few fur trappers.

The Missouri River's water flow is controlled by dams in this century but there was a time when it ran wild and free. During the spring, when water levels were high, steam boats ran upstream to Fort Benton. The first one to complete the journey was the Chippewa in 1860. The area around Cow Island was always a problem. Sand bars caused the boats to come to a halt and winches had to be used to get them going. Quite often, Cow Island was the end of the trip for the boat. Its cargo would be loaded onto wagons and the trip would be finished to Fort Benton by way of the Cow Island Trail.

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.

The Missouri Breaks is still wild and remote with a variety of wildlife. The view of the river from the high valley rims is spectacular and the variety of colors across the landscape comes to life on a bright sunny day. On the other hand, if rain begins to fall, the roads become impassable. The vehicle will move in whatever direction gravity dictates taking the driver along for the ride. The mud builds up around the wheels and fenders packing in so tight the drive train can no longer function and the front wheels cannot turn. If not removed quickly, the mud will dry like concrete and is very difficult to remove.

Gasoline availability can also become a problem if the driver has done a poor job of planning. Towns are few and far between. Some have gas and some do not. If the needle is on empty with 60 miles to the next town, there can be some tense moments. The author fueled in Winifred, Grass Range, and Roy during his visit. He also carried a 5-gallon supply on the luggage rack.

PhotosView Slideshow

From Winifred, a narrow one lane graded road descends into the river valley and meets the Missouri River at the crossing for the McClelland/Stafford Ferry. Somewhere near the middle of the river, the ferry changes names. On the south side, it's called the Stafford Ferry and on the north side it's called the McClelland Ferry. The Blaine County Commissioners office manages its operation. The current ferry boat is only 5 years old. The original was made of wood while the new one is made of steel. It weighs 60,000 pounds and measures 22 feet wide and 50 feet long.

There are two ferry boat 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 ferry boat is then powered up and driven to the south side where the traveler and vehicle is loaded. If honking the horn does not 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.

There are only three ferry boats still in operation within the Missouri Breaks. The use of ferry boats on the Missouri River began in the 1860s. The McClelland/Stafford Ferry began operating in 1915. Some sources claim more than two dozen ferry boats 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 ferry-boat history.

After leaving the ferry on the north side, the road connects to the Cow Island Trail. When steamboats were taking supplies to Fort Benton, they frequently could not get past Cow Island. If that was the case, the cargo was loaded on wagons and taken to the fort using Cow Island Trail.

Eventually, the Cow Island Trail turns away from the road and becomes a horse path. The road continues east and intersects with the paved road north of Landusky. From there, another graded road turns west and accesses another ferry crossing that was abandoned years ago. 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 that location ran on coal, which produced steam to power the generators. The power was also used to operate a mine and mill. The ferry was in operation from 1916 to 1923 when the mill burned down.

Another dirt road leads to the Cow Island crossing. During the 1800s, cattlemen used the shallow waters at Cow Island as a way to get their herds from one side of the river to another. The road to Cow Island offers the most beautiful scenic drive in the Missouri Breaks. It is washed out, steep, and would be a challenge to anything less than a 4x4.

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.

PhotosView Slideshow

Past the homestead, the road eventually reaches the river banks. 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 can not be seen from the road.

For those who would like to get up close and personal with the river, rafting may be the right choice. A long time 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. It took all day and was a lot of fun.


Miles - Latitude - Longitude - Comments

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.

0.0 - 47 44.2860 - 109 23.5681 - Ferry is on north side with outhouse and ferry boat captain quarters.
20.0 - 47 55.7253 - 109 23.6667 - Turn right on Cow Island Road.
27.4 - 47 57.6462 - 109 15.8006 - Stay on Cow Island Road. Middle fork.

0.0 - 47 58.3473 - 109 1.8113 - Right fork.
1.2 - 47 57.9568 - 109 0.5594 - Left toward Highway 376.
4.8 - 47 58.3142 - 108 56.5002 - Right turn after gate. Beware of wire gate. Hard to see until you get close.

0.0 - 47 57.0242 - 108 43.1329 - Right on paved Highway 66.

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 one and two. It is 1.4 miles from the intersection of Highway 66 and Highway 191 where the historic markers are located.

0.0 - 47 48.9830 - 108 38.2304 - Turn right off Highway 66 onto a gravel road. At the first intersection, take the left fork onto the dirt road.

0.0 - 47 46.4074 - 108 52.1957 - From this intersection, the Power Plant Trail is left. Bull Creek to Cow Island is right.
6.9 - 47 43.8076 - 108 56.2081 - Power House Ferry ramp.
4.7 - 47 46.3507 - 108 56.4281 - Cow Island Road.

Another day can easily be spent following the trails on the south side of the river.

The tires on Lone Writer's vehicle are provided by BF Goodrich. GPS mapping is provided by DeLorme. For more information about Larry E. Heck and his back country adventures, check out

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