Head west from Billings on Highway 3 and beyond and you might not notice much at first.
A handful of small towns dotting the greens and dusty browns of the fields and pastures on either side of the road. The occasional grain elevator or rocky sandstone outcropping rising out of the landscape. Lots of open space.
But glance up and out farther toward the horizon and you can spot the Crazy Mountains jutting out above the hills and fields. Altogether what you’re seeing is more than just a broad swath of south-central Montana.
This — the friendly towns along two-lane highways, the agriculture, the mountains and the wide-open ranges — is iconic Montana.
And from Billings, it’s all ready and easy to explore on a single tank of gas.
A 250-or-so-mile loop that runs from Billings to Harlowton to Big Timber before heading back along Interstate 90 includes everything from out-of-the-way fishing spots to homestyle cooking, from Montana history on display to hikes showcasing the state’s mountains, waterfalls and forests.
Hitting the road
The loop starts by driving west along Highway 3 from Billings Logan International Airport along the Rimrocks. After a few miles of curves and rolling hills, the road straightens out to the northwest into mostly farm and ranch land, with the Crazies’ outline just beginning to form in the distance.
Not too long after starting provides the first chance to stretch and warrants a quick couple of casts of the fishing pole at the Broadview Pond. Pass through the communities of Acton and Commanche and, about 30 miles after leaving Billings and just a hair past the town of Broadview, follow the fishing access signs on the west side of the highway to the pond.
The 21-acre lake, surrounded by a small patch of wetlands, is stocked
with several fish species, including bigmouth bass and cutthroat and rainbow trout.
Keep heading north on Highway 3 and you’ll soon arrive at Lavina. On the left side while passing through town sits the historic Adams Hotel, a huge, two-story colonial revival-style former luxury hotel built in 1908 that is on the National Register of Historic Places but was little used after closing in the 1920s until it was bought in 2000, when new renovations began.
Once through town, turn west on Highway 12. After about 20 miles, you’ll come across the small town of Ryegate, population 250, give or take, on the north bank of the Musselshell River.
Originally purchased as a townsite from the Sims-Garfield Ranch to make way for railroad construction, Rygate was founded in 1910 and is named for the rye field that stood where it now sits, according to Musselshell County records.
Ryegate provides the first chance on the loop to fuel up, for both people and their vehicles.
On the north side of the highway on First Street North, right in the middle of town, sits the Ryegate Cafe and Bar. Open seven days a week, the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
New owner Sherry McAndrews, who bought the place last year, said the fare is “a lot of home cooking” and ranges from eggs to burgers, from french fries to steaks, and that the Wednesday spaghetti lunch is especially popular with the locals.
“We’re a pretty quiet little town,” she said. “We get some traffic through here, and we’ll keep you fed here. We’ll stay open for you.”
Once you’re fueled and full, keep to the west on Highway 12. About seven miles down the road, follow the signs to Deadman’s Basin Resevoir off the right side of the highway.
This man-made, 101-acre reservoir is plopped right in the middle of a wide prairie and helps farmers irrigate their fields, but also features another great fishing opportunity — especially if you struck out at or skipped Broadview Pond — as its well-stocked with rainbow trout, tiger muskie and kokanee.
But it’s not just for fishing. The basin has easy boat access, so canoers, stand-up paddleboarders, water skiers and the like can, weather permitting, spend a little time on the water.
Highway 12 continues to wind west and north past the basin along the Musselshell River, the landscape dotted with farms, lush stands of trees and small bunches of beige rocky outcroppings not unlike miniature versions of Billings’ Rimrocks.
History on display
Thirty miles west of Ryegate, or 23 from the basin, sits the town of Harlowton, or simply Harlo to the locals. Depending on your tastes and the season, spending a pretty good chunk of the day exploring the historic railroad town wouldn’t be a stretch.
A town of about 1,000 people, Harlowton is a popular stop for hunters, fishermen, hikers, history buffs and weary travelers alike that, like scores of other central Montana towns, popped up thanks to railroad expansion in the early 1900s.
“Harlo has a lot of potential,” said Gayla McDonald, assistant manager of the historic and recently reopened Graves Hotel in the middle of town. “For a little town, we have a lot going on.”
Founded right at the turn of the century as a station stop on what would become the Milwaukee Road’s railroad expansion into the Pacific Northwest, Harlowton’s development from the railroad is evident throughout town.
Along the highway as it passes through town, one of the Milwaukee Road old electric engines sits at an intersection. Nearby sit several museums — the Upper Musselshell Museum and the Milwaukee Depot Museum, as well as the Bair Family Museum in nearby Martinsdale — that feature plenty of the area’s railroad and agricultural history alongside Native American and military artifacts, as well as the full-sized replica skeleton of an intact Avaceratops.
Also in the heart of Harlowton sits the Graves Hotel, a three-story hotel built in 1907 overlooking the Musselshell Valley. Now under new ownership, the building is undergoing significant renovations. Its cafe serves homemade breakfasts, baked goods and lunches. The new owners plan to finish renovating, open a new dining room for dinner and rent out the rooms, hopefully for destination groups such as hunters or for quilting retreats, McDonald said.
“Our goal is to be friendly, serve good food and be a place you feel right at home,” she said. “I think that, like Harlowton, this has a lot of potential.”
From Harlowton, the loop cuts to the south on Highway 191 toward Big Timber. After crossing the Musselshell River, travelers are treated to a grand mix of prairie and classic Montana mountain scenery. Bifurcated by the highway, the land features the quick rise of the Crazy Mountains to the west and range land stretching into the horizon to the east.
To get a firsthand look at the mountains that have been lurking on the western horizon for the entire trip, follow the highway for about 32 miles after leaving Harlowton, turn west onto Wormser road, and west again onto Big Timber Canyon Road until it stops at the Halfmoon Campground and the Big Timber Creek trailhead.
This 15-mile detour from the highway goes through private property — officials said to stay on the road and close any gates after passing through — and ends at the foot of the Crazies, opening up a number of hikes that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several days.
Mariah Leuschen, spokeswoman for the Custer and Gallatin national forests, said the quickest hike is the half-hour trek to the impressive Big Timber Creek Falls.
“It’s short and really family friendly and this time of year, you might be able to catch some fall color with the leaves turning,” she said.
For the more adventurous types, the 4.5-mile hike to Upper Twin Lakes features a trail that winds steadily uphill with gorgeous views of the mountains before opening up to the basin containing the two lakes with the Crazies rising overhead.
Leuschen noted that campfires are banned within a quarter mile of the lakes in the area and advised anybody coming in even for a day hike to bring backpacking essentials and be prepared for adverse weather.
“In the Crazies and coming into fall throughout Montana, I would plan on cold weather in the evenings and mornings,” she said.
Back on Highway 191, keep heading south until you reach Big Timber, population 1,600.
Sitting on Interstate 90, Big Timber provides another place to unwind for a bit and maybe grab a quick bite to eat before the final leg of the loop back to Billings.
As one of the largest towns on the loop outside of Billings and thanks to its location on the interstate, Big Timber offers plenty of services and food options, from fine dining at The Grand Hotel to a quick, tasty burger and fries at Frosty Freez.
Hop onto Interstate 90 and head east back toward Billings, with a final stop to visit the critters at Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park. To get there, take exit 377 from I-90 and follow the signs.
This 98-acre protected state park is home to a large community of black-tailed prairie dogs.
Shaped a bit like small, furry bowling pins with legs, the rodents have black-tipped tails and live in networks of tunnels in the area. Easily spotted as they scurry about the park, the prairie dogs quickly freeze when threatened, flicking their tails and letting out a series of high-pitched barks to warn others.
Once back onto I-90 it’s less than 70 miles back to Billings, wrapping up a wide 250-mile circle that takes travelers from the plains to the mountains, along rivers and roads, through some of Montana’s heartland and history.