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Round trip drive Billings - Great Falls

Durham, North...
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Round trip drive Billings - Great Falls

I am a bit pressed for time to get from Billings to GF but have all day for the return trip. Suggestions, please, for fastest route up, scenic/birdwatching on the return. Is a stop at Smith River Park doable on that trip? Time is mid-August; bear time?

Thanks,

Mac2310

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Great Falls, Montana
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1. Re: Round trip drive Billings - Great Falls

I made that drive every other week for a couple of years. There is no reliably fast way up--it is nearly all two lane and subject to delays when you get stuck behind a slow land yacht or delayed by construction. I've tried pretty much every alternate route, and the one given by all the online mapping sites is your best bet: highway 3 to 12 to 191 to 87. If you get lucky it is an easy 2 hour trip, but I've had it take twice that on a couple occasions.

For the return trip, I suggest you stop and take in Giant Springs before leaving. Once you are heading back toward Billings, go past Belt then turn right (South) onto highway 89 at Armington Junction, and take the scenic drive through Monarch and Neihart. Shortly past Neihart, on the left, is Memorial Falls. It is a good place to take a break and stretch your legs. The falls is a 15 minute hike from the parking lot, and is a great place to cool off and refresh--it is shaded and the water is cold even on the hottest days.

Continue south on highway 89, possibly stopping for lunch in White Sulphur Springs. If you have time, you could head West, then Northwest for 20 minutes or so and visit Fort Logan--it is an interesting historical site.

After that, you have a few options. None are particularly scenic, but all are pretty drives through typical central Montana valleys with mountains in the distance. You can head east on Hwy 12 until you meet up with your original route at Harlowtown and continue back to Billings. This will take you past Two Dot. There is absolutely no reason to go there, other than to be able to say you've actually been to Two Dot, Montana when people are talking about being in the back end of nowhere. Oh, and the burgers at the Two Dot Bar and Grill were great, but I don't know if it is still in operation. An alternate route is to go south from Harlowtown on hwy 191 . A third option when leaving White Sulphur is to go south on hwy 89 rather than east on hwy 12. Either of the last two routes will put you on interstate 90, which you can follow East back to Billings.

Edit: Forgot to mention, the Smith River State Park is probably not doable. It isn't a normal state park, in that there is no access to the park other than by floating the Smith River, and you have to get permits for that. I understand the float trip also takes more than a day.

Edited: 30 July 2014, 05:00
Durham, North...
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2. Re: Round trip drive Billings - Great Falls

Thank you for the detailed reply. Guess I'd better have a snack in the car for "just-in-cases" on the way up. Is there much chance in mid-Aug of meeting livestock on the road?

For the return, I will go by Ft Logan. It would appear that the only road access, paved, is from Hwy 360. I did not see Memorial Falls on the state hwy map; my delorme is not handy at the moment but will check it later. It would appear that this route follows the Smith R. for a bit; are there any pullouts for viewing?

Is this bear country? I do plan purchasing a can of that bear spray elixir for those close encounters and hope to bring it back to NC as a souvenir unused. (We have bears here too!)

Is there a tee shirt for Two Dot? That sounds too precious for there not to be!

Don't know how much of MT you've driven but advice on other routes are appreciated. What do you think of the drive from Billings to Red Lodge via Absarokee, maybe the spur over to Nye, down to Roscoe and on to Red Lodge? I will be in a rental so will be avoiding gravel roads.

Thank you again.

Great Falls, Montana
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3. Re: Round trip drive Billings - Great Falls

Livestock on the road--mostly no chance. Deer though, oh heck yes--especially if you are driving around dusk. In all the times I made that trip, I've only hit one deer, but I had several close calls. The stretch between Harlowtown and Lavina seems like suicide alley for deer at dusk some days.

Memorial Falls is less than 5 minutes from Neihart, there are signs, difficult to miss.

Yes, it is bear country, but your chance of encountering one is very very slim. The only encounters I've heard of in this area involve campers leaving their food/garbage out, or hikers way off the beaten path. The Memorial Falls path gets more than enough human traffic to keep bears far away from it. Of course don't take this as me saying don't bother with bear spray; my wife and I always carry anti-bear devices when we're in the area just in case even if we've never need it and probably never will.

While the road technically runs along the Smith River, and there are plenty of places to stop and look, it would better be described as "Smith Creek" or even "Smith Ditch" in that area. It doesn't really pick up enough water to become scenic for quite a ways past there.

T-shirts in Two Dot. There were some, but I haven't stopped in there for several years...5 or so, maybe more, I don't recall.

Going back to Billings via Absarokee to Red Lodge. I drove that route a couple of times about 15 years ago, and I recall it being mostly rolling hills and rather boring. The spur over to Nye is better, with the mountains more visible and closer feeling, but still the same valley bottom along fields type of scenery you'll encounter in your trip from Billings to Great Falls.

If you're going to Red Lodge, however, keep going south for a few more miles at least. The Bear Tooth highway is consistently mentioned when people are putting together lists of the best drives in America. When I lived closer, I used to take the drive to the top of the beartooth pass every year, just to sit and take in the views. You can follow the road (hwy 212) all the way to Silver Gate, and see some very pretty country, without having to pay the park fee.

If you want to make a day trip of it, the Yellowstone Park northern loop is an option (South from White Sulphur to Livingston, South to Gardiner, then through the park to Cook City, Red Lodge, and back to Billings), the trip takes longer than it looks on the map, and the park fee was $25 per vehicle the last time I went. Most of Yellowstone's attractions are further into the park though, so if you were considering it, I'd suggest going for the dawn-to-dusk option of going to Bozeman, south to West Yellowstone, through the park to Cook City, and then back to Billings. The drive through the canyon from West Yellowstone to Bozeman is beautiful, and you'll get to take in a few more of Yellowstone's features than if you just stuck to the northern Yellowstone route.

Billings, Montana
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4. Re: Round trip drive Billings - Great Falls

It is a little over 200 miles from Billings to Great Falls....you must have really been flying if it only took you 2 hours!

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