What is it that makes a road the "best", or your favorite to drive? Surely beauty is a criterion. Thoroughfares like the Going to the Sun Road, or the Beartooth Highway, are breathtakingly awesome. They are the postcard material of Montana. For me though beauty is only one aspect I desire. Another criterion would be "relaxability". The Going the the Sun Road is amazing, but it's too damn crowded. I spend way too much time trying to not run over bicyclists or rear end the white knuckled motorist in front of me, instead of taking in the grandeur. My most important criterion though, is solitude. To me, the value of a road increases exponentially the more I feel I am the only soul on it. And that is why the Best F%&#ing Road in Montana is the Gravelly Range Road.
The Gravelly Range Road rides the crest of the great Gravelly Mountains of southwest Montana for nearly 70 miles. This isn't just a pass between drainages, or a cut in the earth offering the enclosure of canyon walls. It's everything. Offering commanding views of nearly all of southwest Montana's mountain ranges, this road is the high trail of southwest Montana.
The Gravelly Range is located south of Virginia City. The eastern flank of the range is marked by the long and beautiful Madison Valley. The southern fringes of the range end at the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge that sits sandwiched between the Gravellys and the Centennial Range. The west face of the Gravellys drop down into the Ruby River, above which the mighty and underappreciated summits of the Snowcrest Range shoot to the sky just a little further west. The North is marked by the Greenhorn Range, a subrange of the Gravellys, as well as the Tobacco Root Mountains. These mountains are unique. They are shaped like rolling hills, with grassy windswept summits, and dark forested canyons. Make no mistake though, these are mountains not hills. They rise over 5,000 feet from the valley floors around them to elevations well over 10,000 feet. Spring comes late, usually after the 4th of July, and just last week much of the Mountains still felt fresh and new, with green grass and beautiful wildflowers prospering in the high meadows. Meanwhile, the rest of the state is as dry as dirt.
Cruisin the Crest
The Gravelly Range is named because of the course pebble conglomerate that exists throughout the range and especially along its crest. It is similar in nature to the Sphinx Conglomerate of the Madison Range and the Beaverhead Conglomerate south of Dillon. Basement Rock in the lower reaches of the Range has in some places gone from Marble that has through millions of years, been altered to Talc. This Talc is unique to the world because it contains no Asbestos, and therefore poses no threat of cancer as opposed to other Talcs of the world. Few people know that Southwest Montana is one of, if not the, largest Talc producing districts in the world.
The Gravellys could be a national park. They contain all of Montana's big, seldom seen, and endangered critters. I have seen Grizzly, Wolves, Antelope, Elk, and Deer in my drives across the range. Not only are they a safe place for the big animals. I have never seen so many predatory birds in one place as I have seen in the Gravelly Mountains. Hawks, Falcons and Eagles seem to fly like drones above your vehicle as you traverse the high meadows. Maybe they are looking for movement in the grass caused by your gas powered chariot, or maybe it is just fun to fly above a car.
A shady basin
The way I usually access the road is south of Ennis. A few miles south of the wonderful town of Ennis, the Gravelly Range Road leaves Highway 287 to the west. You cross the plain of the Madison Valley until you arrive at the base of the Gravelly Mountains. From here, you begin to go up, and you will be doing so for a while. Once you are on the top, you cruise south. Staying above 8,000 feet for nearly the entire length of the range, you can see the whole of the Snowcrest Range to the west. To the east, the Madison Range towers above the valley. And in all directions, you see mountains and their ranges- nearly every range in Southwest Montana could be listed. You skip between high meadows along the crest, peaking over the west and east flanks as the road meanders, looking down into dark forested basins, that give way to deep lonely gulches. Flowers are everywhere. Much of this range is leased by ranchers, and there are herds of cows and sheep along the way, but the range is plenty big enough for both of you. Towards the southern end of the range you begin to see a giant bump in the rolling crest the road stays on. As you get closer it only becomes more beautiful and intimidating. Black Butte, the10,546 ft highpoint of the Gravelly Mountains, is a dark steep mass of rock and ice rising out of green and rolling meadows. The road cuts just to the east of it, and I highly recommend getting out and playing here. Numerous ponds dot the locations where snowdrifts last well into August, and climbing Black Butte will offer the traveler one of the finest views in Montana. From here you can head east, down Standard Creek to the West Fork of the Madison River and back to highway 287. If you want to keep on going, you can stay on the crests for another 15 or 20 miles, until you finally drop down into the the southern foothills of the range, coming out in the beautiful Red Rock Valley. A two wheel drive vehicle is sufficient for the entire length of the road, given there is no snow, and you have good tires.
Looking south to Black Butte
This road has the beauty of any of the great roads in Montana -mountains, meadows, wildlife, water, and snow. It also is a very relaxing drive. The road is good, there are no narrow cliffs or traffic. Once you're on the crest you just cruise and take it in. Lastly, this road has solitude. On a beautiful August Saturday, just last weekend, I drove the length of the road for 70 miles. I met one family four-wheeling, two trucks, and government rig. If you are in Montana, or are a Montanan, or want a cool road to drive, drive this one. It's become a yearly thing for our family. I can't stress it enough. A road like this and the experience it offers could only exist in Montana. Drive this one now, before the snow flies, and the grass begins to brown.