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The American Prairie, Montana

The American Prairie, previously known as the American Prarier Resrve is located across the expansive Northern Great Plains of Montana.  The untouched, shortgrass prairie landscape spreads out in both northern and southern directions from the Missouri River. Unlike the state’s famous developed national parks the entire area is both privately-funded and owned.

So what you get in the reserve is something altogether more unspoiled and rugged than you would likely encounter in a national park geared towards tourism. The reserve is closer to a safari park than a theme park.

That means stunning landscapes and topography that are something of an open playground in terms of recreation. With peaceful trails and remote, never-ending land, the prairie landscapes hold something of interest for a variety of visitors whether they are hiking, driving, biking, or horseback riding in the reserve.

Established in 2004, American Prairie is a non-profit project with the aim of establishing the largest wildlife reserve in the continental United States.

There are further and continuous plans to expand and connect over 3 million acres of public and private land.

The purpose of the completed reserve is to provide critical habitat for a range of endangered species and those with rapidly-declining populations. At the same time, it offers the opportunity for visitors to experience a unique angle of the wildlife and natural terrain of Montana.

american bison

American Prairie Stats

  • Approximately 450,000 acres with the goal of expanding to 3.2 million acres
  • Accessible year-round
  • Multiple campgrounds

Main Areas and Attractions

american prairie

The main visitor areas usually fall within the various zones known as the PN, Mars Vista, and Sun Prairie properties. These areas include the campgrounds and the hut system as well.

You can get to the Mars Vista property off a paved road. Of all the spots to visit this is the one that likely remains most accessible in all types of weather, and with all types of vehicles. 

The PN and Sun Prairie properties are something of a different matter when it comes to access. You are basically looking at a dirt road for about 50 miles which wouldn’t be an option without a 4WD vehicle.

Anyone intent on getting to these regions of the reserve off their own back might want to keep in mind that the area may not always be accessible in harsh weather conditions.

Recreational Activities in the American Prairie

american prairie, montana

Anyone venturing out to the American Prairie Reserve in Montana can expect to be able to indulge in a spot of hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, photography, hunting, and a few other things as you can see from the official MAP

The APR has a variety of accommodations including huts/yurts, safari-style lodging, and RV sites aside from the campgrounds and dispersed camping. The campgrounds and huts are reasonably-inexpensive and popular accommodation options that function as ideal basecamps. 

These facilities are open to the public and recreation seekers of all varieties, including hikers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, hunters and anglers, and paddlers.

Biking

What better way to explore the American Prairie Reserve than by bicycle? Some of the better-known and thus more well-worn trails can be found in the PN and the Sun Prairie units. Both of these hard-to-get-to spots unsurprisingly have plenty of dirt roads and two-track trails just made for mountain bikes.

Anyone can enjoy the long, long stretches of blissfully traffic-free cycling in the reserve. The more hardcore off-roaders might be inclined towards organizing multi-day trips, often including the adjacent Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge.

This is actually a really great and popular way for anyone with a love of both cycling and birds to use their time incredibly well.

Riders actually get to see more wildlife and birds than anyone from a vehicle, and mountain bikes are definitely the best choice for the terrain.

Bikers can expect steep hills, soft sand, and ruts—and they should keep it in mind to bring along plenty of spare tubes, patch kits, and repair kits, for obvious reasons.

Camping in American Prairie Reserve

Here are campgrounds from two of the areas to give you some idea of what to expect:

Antelope Creek Campground, Mars Vista

The Antelope Creek Campground can be reached off US 191, just north of the Missouri River. The facility has 12 sites for RVs with 30 and 50A power.

There are also five drive-in and three walk-in tent platforms, along with an additional four small rental cabins, each of which sleeps 4.

Amenities at this campground include potable water, a bathhouse with showers, and direct access to a 2-mile interpretive hiking trail. Reservations are available online.

Buffalo Camp, Sun Prairie

Within the region of the Sun Prairie Unit, Buffalo Camp is located right on the home range of a bison herd.

The primitive, 13-site campground has seven RV sites with electric hookups and six tent platforms, a supply of non-potable water, vault toilets, fire rings, an amphitheater, covered picnic areas, and group pavilions.

Tent sites include large, low-impact platforms with tie-down cleats. In addition to an informational kiosk, you will also find a 1-mile hiking trail, prairie dog town, and geocaches adjacent to the facility.

Buffalo Camp is open year-round and costs $11/night for tent sites and $16/night for RV sites (30A & 50A hook-ups included).

The sites are right next to a range of possible hiking and biking options.

Reservations ARE required for huts and campgrounds and can be made online. More information can be found here.

Wildlife

The American Prairie Reserve is incredibly-rich in various wildlife in their native habitats.

Large populations of bison, elk, deer, and pronghorn wandered these grasslands in the past, and now one of the reserve’s main aims is doing something to restore that balance through the surviving grasslands.

You might get to catch some prairie dogs throughout the Reserve, but you should certainly keep your eyes peeled for deer, elk, and pronghorn as you travel through the landscape. You may even notice some hawks and eagles overhead.

There are plenty of other animals but what you get to see if you spend any time at the Reserve depends on when you come and where you stay, not to mention the time of day.

Game Hunting

Some sections of land within the Reserve are kept for Mule and White-Tailed Deer hunting. There are strict limits in place though—only archery is allowed with the exception of a youth rifle hunting period.

Reservations are necessary for anyone wishing to hunt on deeded land, although the public is allowed to cross APR private land to access public lands.

Trail Routes in the American Prairie Reserve

For starters, you could check out the 1-mile Interpretive Trail Loop—the one that starts out at Buffalo Camp. Walkers will encounter a few opportunities for geocaching, as the signs encourage visitors to follow game trails or let their senses guide them.  

For something looking a little more like an actual hike, there’s the 5.8-mile Box Elder Crossing. This distance and route are only one-way so this one is a bit more for seasoned hikers. The diversity of the terrain keeps it challenging while offering some amazing views.

Anyone looking for a still longer adventure might consider the 12-mile Ridge Road. This route runs along the border between the Reserve and the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, in an area of terrain that is pretty wild and remote.

Planning and Directions

farmland in american prairie

Making a trip to an area like the American Prairie Refuge does require some careful planning—keeping in mind a higher level of self-sufficiency is necessary than in National Parks or even less remote public lands.

Visitors need to bear in mind how remote the Reserve is, and that services are either extremely limited or non-existent for the most part.

Many roads are unmarked, so drivers may need to consider employing such tools as mileage trackers, keeping in mind limited cell phone coverage is common.

Most government sites recommend only four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles with full tanks of fuel and enough potable water supplies for the stay.

A lot of visitors come into the PN, Mars Vista, and Sun Prairie properties via Lewistown in the south and Malta in the north.

Travel times and distances are long, and visitors must do their best to plan fuel stops in advance, as none is available on American Prairie. Card-operated, 24-hour fuel pumps can be found in Lewistown, Malta, and Lodgepole.

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