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Aug 05 2015

The Pryors in a Day

Explore southeast Montana with MWA's upcoming geotourism map as your guide

Exploring Montana, Featured

On September 1, Montana Wilderness Association will release Buttes, Breaks and Badlands: Off the Beaten Path in Southeast Montana, a geotourism map of everything that makes this part of the state special, including its wildlands, museums, and eateries. MWA's AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Forrest Theisen, who helped create the map, describes one of the many adventures you can have with the map serving as your guide through this largely undiscovered part of Montana.

The Pryor Mountains are home to towering spires, deep limestone canyons, ice caves, and one of the biggest wild horse ranges in the United States. Located just an hour-and-a-half south of Billings, you’d expect the Pryors to draw crowds, yet their flora, fauna, and beauty don’t draw the attention you might expect. This lack of crowds, however, might just be the Pryor’s best quality.

Forty miles south of Billings, the town of Bridger is the gateway to this incredible landscape. Be sure to fill up on gas, snacks, and water before taking off down Pryor Mountain Road or heading south through Warren. Once you leave town, you’re definitely off the beaten path.

The approach to the Pryor Mountains is a slow climb from the arid prairie to pine-covered slopes, alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers, and rocky ridgelines. Spectacular views of the valley between the Pryors and Bighorn Mountains accompany the drive. Wild horses roam the arid prairie just west of the meandering Bighorn Canyon.

The Pryors possess a certain mystical quality, even to those who have explored its nooks and crannies for a lifetime. Hidden caves along the mountaintops await discovery. Fossils from the cretaceous, when an inland sea covered most of Montana, speckle the caves’ ceilings and floors, offering a millennial perspective of this landscape. Heavy, cold air gets trapped in these caves, keeping ice sheets around all year.

Crow stories recount the Little People who, to this day, live off the land as the Crow have for generations. They hide in caves and canyons, the relentless wardens of the Pryors. Crow elders continue to leave offerings of tobacco upon entrance to this sacred landscape as a sign of respect for these neighbors. Tipi rings and Native American artifacts continue to remind us that we are not the first to explore these mountain slopes.

The Pryors in a Day

The majority of the Pryor Mountains is accessible from the north via Pryor Mountain Road outside of Bridger. After fueling up, prepare for a beautiful drive through Montana’s short grass prairie. Keep an eye out along the road for the red rock of the Chugwater formation before entering the Custer National Forest. Start your day early with a hike to the top of Big Pryor Mountain. The hike follows switchbacks into a dense ponderosa pine forest and onto the alpine plateau that marks the peak of Big Pryor. Keep an eye out for deer, pronghorn, and even elk, whose populations are beginning to remerge in eastern Montana. Always be prepared and carry bear spray, as black bears and the occasional grizzly and mountain lion roam the breaks and canyons of the Pryors.

Once on top, walk the peak edges along huge cliffs overlooking the forested slopes of East Pryor Mountain to the east and the expansive valley between the Pryor and the Beartooth Mountains to the west. Keep an eye out for caves. To truly “bag” this peak, be sure to hike up to the summit marker and snap a photo.

After moseying back down the trail, hop back in your car and head for Crooked Creek Canyon, a shallow valley that soon narrows between deep canyon walls. The heart-stopping Crooked Creek Road winds along the canyon rim. Limestone spires rise on the hillsides to the west. Take the beautiful drive with your binoculars at the ready, as this canyon provides great habitat for deer, black bear, and mountain lions. For an extended trip in the Pryors, consider exploring the secluded Crooked Creek Canyon with a backpack and tent.

If by now the day has not already passed you by, consider a detour to Big Ice Cave and Dry Head Vista. This road can be rough, so a high clearance vehicle is recommended. Head all the way out to Dry Head Vista to find expansive views of the Bighorn Canyon, prairies, and the Bighorn Mountains. On the way back, stop at Big Ice Cave for a picnic dinner. Be sure to bring a headlamp and a jacket, because it stays cold in these ice caves year-round. Scan the cave walls and ceilings to find crystals and ancient fossil remains.

If a steak and a beer are more your style, head back through Bridger and stop by the Garage Steakhouse. Housed in an old auto garage, this family restaurant and bar serves up sandwiches, burgers, steaks, and salads as well as ice cream and milkshakes for dessert.

One day is certainly not enough to experience all that the Pryors have to offer, but this will be a good start.

For more information about the Pryor Mountains, including specifics about the Crooked Creek Canyon and the Crater Ice Cave hike, visit pryormountains.org.

- Forrest Theisen, MWA's AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer