Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument


James Kipp Recreation Area in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
The James Kipp Recreation Area in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
at the eastern edge of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is about 375,000 acres in central Montana preserving and protecting an incredible assortment of wildlife, plant life, unique geological features and significant historic and cultural sites. This rugged landscape is almost unspoiled by man and offers great opportunity for near-wilderness solitude and recreation. One thing to be aware of: the BLM land is intermixed with State of Montana land and with private properties. While the BLM land is wide open, you'll need permission from private landowners before doing anything on their property, and the State of Montana requires a permit before you enter their property.

The centerpiece of the National Monument is the 149-mile-long Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River that flows through. The Wild and Scenic River designation applies to the Upper Missouri between Fort Benton and the James Kipp Recreation Area. The surrounding rugged uplands were (and still are) near and dear to the hearts of several nations of the Native American Northern Plains Tribes. This was their homeland and sanctuary for many, many years. The Missouri itself was the path for Lewis and Clark when they came though in the early 1800's. Later on it was the pathway of choice for trappers and fur traders, then for steamboats carrying homesteaders and mineral prospectors. For a number of years the Missouri Breaks were also a much-used hideout for outlaws and desperadoes.

These days, the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument sees a lot of rafting and boating traffic on the river itself. You can access the western portion of the National Monument near Fort Benton, which is also the location of the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center. The eastern side of Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument can be accessed via US 191 while the center of the National Monument can be reached via Montana SR 236 between Lewistown, Winifred and Big Sandy. In between these sites you'll find various graveled and unimproved dirt roads. Many of these roads require high-clearance vehicles, and in places they cross gumbo-type soils where even 4WD will not help, especially when the road is wet. There are no services whatsoever within the boundaries of the National Monument. Before you go here you'll want plenty of supplies, good gear, a good map and a good, long-term weather report.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is only one part of a larger network of federal and state protected properties of historic, scenic and cultural value in this area. In addition to the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River you'll find the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway, the Cow Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and 6 BLM Wilderness Study Areas.

Missouri Breaks Backcountry Byway: Designated in 1993, this backcountry byway traverses more than 75 miles of gravel and unimproved dirt roads, many of which lead to scenic overlooks above the Missouri River.

Cow Creek Wilderness Study Area: While the Cow Creek Wilderness Study Area covers some 34,050 acres on the north side of the Missouri River, only 21,590 acres were found suitable for the full Wilderness designation. Part of what goes into that designation are the opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation plus the scenic attractiveness of the area. A 4-mile-long sheer sandstone wall on this property offered significant help in the "scenic attractiveness" category.

Cow Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern: This 19,746-acre property includes portions of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the Cow Island Trail and parts of the Cow Creek Wilderness Study Area.

Stafford Wilderness Study Area: This is a Wilderness Study Area that was not recommended for the full Wilderness designation. Of the 10,200 acres in the WSA on the north side of the Missouri River, some 5,060 acres were already included within Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River corridor. In spite of the scenic and rugged steep slopes and ridges in the area, the concerns over manageability, resource conflicts and the high potential for future natural gas development weighed too heavily against getting that Wilderness designation.

Woodhawk Wilderness Study Area: Of the 4,800 acres of this Wilderness Study Area, more than 90% are already contained within the Wild and Scenic River corridor. This is a very rugged portion of the Missouri River Breaks but the small size, area configuration and high potential for future natural gas development kept this area from earning the full Wilderness designation. While there are areas that offer real wilderness solitude, there are no areas that offer the necessary outstanding primitive recreation opportunities.

Ervin Ridge Wilderness Study Area: A bit more than 3,900 acres of this 5,150-acre WSA are already within the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River corridor. On the south side of the Missouri, the small size of the area, its lack of scenic quality and primitive recreation opportunities, coupled with wilderness management conflicts and the high potential for future natural gas development prevented this WSA from attaining the full Wilderness designation. It didn't help any, either, that there are some major off-site influences just beyond the area's boundaries that detract considerably from its value as a wilderness area.

Antelope Creek Wilderness Study Area: On the north side of the Missouri, 9,600 acres of this 12,350-acre WSA were recommended for full Wilderness designation. The area is rich with opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation such as hiking, hunting, rock climbing and photography. The presence of Kid Curry's outlaw hideaway also adds to the area's historical significance.

Dog Creek Wilderness Study Area: None of this 8,100-acre property on the south side of the Missouri River was recommended for full Wilderness designation. It does have some colorful, broken topography and several prehistoric occupation sites but comes up a bit short on the scenery and the unconfined primitive recreation opportunities. With a "tunneled" road running right across the middle of the area and a high potential for future natural gas production with its related resource conflicts, the Dog Creek Wilderness Study Area never really had a chance...

Missouri River
A limestone formation on the shore of the Missouri River
Missouri River near Coal Banks Landing
The Upper Missouri near Coal Banks Landing
Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
The Upper Missouri River Breaks
Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument
Canoes floating the Missouri Wild and Scenic River
Canoes floating the Missouri Wild and Scenic River