With 105 miles of adventure at your feet, the Big Sky Backcountry Byway out of Terry, MT is one of our favorite ways to travel within eastern Montana.
Although interstates are convenient and quick, this moseying road winds through sections of the historic Regina-Yellowstone Trail, while connecting the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers and blasting into badland terrains, peaceful grasslands, and more.
And of course, we wouldn’t be Discovering Montana without our great love of Montana history and paleontology – something this byway has in spades.
Read on for more on one of the most unique and scenic drives in the state, from our favorite historic and wilderness attractions to the best fishing, camping, toe-dipping, hunting, and eating this eastern Montana highlight has to offer.
Big Sky Backcountry Byway, Terry, MT – A Complete Guide
Big Sky Backcountry Byway connects the Yellowstone River in the south to the Missouri River in the north.
The route travels along highways 253, 200, and 13, open in all weather conditions, connecting Terry to Wolf Point
Numerous points along the drive point to Montana history, paleontology, and geology. Locals and travelers alike come to wilderness areas for hunting, fishing, and swimming
Scenic Drive Stats
- Length: Approximately 105 miles in length
- Time: This scenic drive takes around two hours to complete one-way, not including stops
- Highlights Include: the Terry badlands, game hunting, fossil excavation, camping, wildlife viewing, river floating
History Along the Big Sky Backcountry Byway
Prior to becoming the Big Sky Backcountry Byway, this route was originally the Regina-Yellowstone Trail, connecting Canadian tourists from northern prairie lands to Yellowstone National Park. Otherwise known as the R-Y route, this international drive opened in 1924 but came with an accompanying brochure in 1926, highlighting towns and camping sites with select photographs.
As more cars entered the roadways of America, this highway was a natural and innovative movement forward, particularly to our once cut-off neighbors to the North. And just as Terry was once highlighted as a clean, reliable auto camp area, the badlands area remains a highlight of any overnight adventurer’s camping trip – so some similarities remain.
Over time, the Regina-Yellowstone route faded into the past, making way for more efficient routes within the state and beyond.
Before the settlement of Europeans, the land surrounding Terry was also prime hunting grounds for the Crow, Sioux, and Cheyenne indigenous tribes, while 1806 saw Lewis and Clark traveling through the area close to the Yellowstone River.
Moving up towards Circle sees a proliferation of paleontological research and historical play, from the neighboring Glendive to Makoshika State Park to the east.
Much like other Montana regions, Wolf Point also saw the presence of Lewis and Clark in 1805, fighting bears and taking names.
The Wolf Point area was substantially utilized by Assiniboine, Crow, Sioux, and more, although the town is now mainly centered within the Fort Peck Indian Reservation – created in 1886 after indigenous tribes ceded millions of acres of land to start a new life they didn’t ask for.
Where to Start?
What’s the best way to travel along this scenic byway connecting north and south? From the south, access the byway via Interstate 94, and then take the Terry exit, #176, to Highway 253 – keep your eyes peeled for an information kiosk on the left side of the road.
From there, take note of the gorgeous Terry badlands and head up to Circle via Highway 200, one of Montana’s premier spots for game hunting and paleontology. Then, head along Highway 13 to Vida and Wolf Point, right along the Missouri River, popular for fishing, swimming, and relaxation. Heading south from Wolf Point?
Turn south onto Highway 13 and look for a similar information kiosk before heading south through plains, buttes, and badlands, echoing the drive tourists once took to head to Yellowstone National Park.
One thing of note here: this byway glides along continuous paved roads – something you won’t find on other Montana byways – making this the perfect all-season route for hunting, camping, and exploration.
Main Attractions along the Big Sky Backcountry Byway
Terry Badlands Wilderness Area
Montana is so much more than its mountains, rivers, and big skies, and one of our favorite places to put that to the test is the Terry Badlands Wilderness Area.
Fervently populated with warm-toned sandstone structures, banded cliffs, and flat buttes, this 44,000-acre wilderness area is an exercise in movement and color, especially during the golden light hour or sunrise.
And while there are no designated parking areas, we like pulling over to the side of the road for a quick watercolor or picnic in solitude or quiet company.
Check out the 3.6-mile-long Natural Bridges Trail, or camp at one of the many dispersed Bureau of Land Management sites along the Yellowstone River – a major highlight to any eastern Montana trip!
Lewis and Clark Bridge
All the way up in Wolf Point, the Lewis and Clark Bridge was the first of its kind across the Missouri River, and it’s both a source of pride for locals and a highlight for travelers passing through.
Lewis and Clark camped here in 1805, pushing this area top of mind to those tasked with its construction prior to its 1930 opening.
At the 1945 140th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, locals named the nearest park after the explorers, now a popular site for disc golfers.
We love that natural spaces blend so seamlessly here with innovative minds and intrepid exploration.
Recreational Activities along the Drive
Although the Big Sky Backcountry highway was made to be a straight shot north to south – widening into badlands, prairies, cattle towns, and community-rich county fairs – there’s plenty to do along the route if you’re a fan of hiking, hunting, swimming, and camping.
Hiking, Biking, & Skiing
The Terry Badlands are a great start for a traveler looking to stretch their legs, especially on the Natural Bridges Trail.
We recommend it as a fantastic day hike via the Calypso Trail, but there are numerous places within the badlands to run at warp speed or walk at a leisurely pace.
Along the Yellowstone River, you’ll find more trails to explore, or to spend an hour or two searching for moss agate.
The Milk River Overlook Trailhead is another beautiful spot near Wolf Point, stretching out near Fort Peck and offering a play-as-you-go trail route.
Swimming & Fishing
While anywhere along the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers are fantastic spots to put in a line, we’re partial to the Lewis & Clark Fishing Access Site in Wolf Point.
Open all season with a boat ramp, this 40-acre site is ideal for ice-fishing or catching delicious summertime rainbow trout for dinner. Nearby is the Poplar River, just 21 miles from Wolf Point, and a great destination for a fishing day with friends.
A side note on Poplar: we recommend taking the byway during the Labor Day weekend, as Poplar Indian Days are one of the most highly anticipated attractions come September. Don’t miss it!
Looking to swim around the byway? You won’t find many large lakes or waterways along the path, beyond the delightful creeks surrounding Circle, but the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers provide plenty of water play at the start and stop of the route.
We especially love floating down the Yellowstone with friends, making memories one ride at a time. Take advantage of these natural beauties!
Further west of Wolf Point, the Fort Peck Dam is a highly popular destination for fishing, swimming, boating, kayaking – all kinds of water activities. Likewise, hunting in and around McCone County – near Circle – is plentiful all the way to the mouth of the Milk River, as well as closer to Terry down south.
Camping & Lodging
While the Terry Badlands don’t have specifically allocated camping sites, adventurous hikers have been known to drop their tents along the path, making for gorgeous morning coffee views.
If you’re able to turn right from Circle for a detour, we highly recommend camping at Makoshika State Park, a rich paleontology haven that offers 28 spacious sites to roast marshmallows.
But if staying in Circle is more your speed, Horse Creek RV Park offers both tent and RV camping, as well as clean showers and a full laundry service.
Heading west from Wolf Point, we love to steer visitors towards Fort Peck Dam, particularly the Downstream Campground close to the confluence of the Missouri and Milk Rivers. While you’re there, be sure to visit the Lewis and Clark Observation Point and their accompanying interpretive signs!
Looking for a hotel? We’re fans of the friendly folks and comfortable rooms at the Sherman Inn in Wolf Point, which has a fantastic attached down-home restaurant. Otherwise, the historic Kempton Hotel down in Terry is charming and warm, albeit noticeably old (We’ll let it slide – it was built in 1902!).
They can also answer any hunting questions you have about the area – score!
Terry Badlands Scenic View Road to Badlands Overlook
A fantastic route for both hiking and mountain biking, the hike to Badlands Overlook is the start of a great adventure north.
The hike in and of itself warbles around sandstone, rock, and natural history, but it’s the panoramic shot at the end that makes this over 5-hour hike worth it.
Keep watch of your surroundings, though, namely because vehicles may be joining you for the view. The good news, though, is that this is a relatively easy hike and you’re not likely to meet many hikers, bikers, or cars along the way. Ah, solitude.
Downstream Recreation Area
Bring your pup along for this one, as long as you’ve got a leash and extra water during the hotter months!
Just west of Wolf Point, we love stopping at this Nashua trail to stretch our legs before climbing off into the distance or heading to the reservation for the Badlands Celebration.
While the hike in and of itself lasts under 30 minutes, you can stretch it out to 2.5 hours for an even more scenic hike. If you run into some deer, wave from a distance, as they may also be enjoying this area’s marshlands and water dips.
With over 100 miles and natural wonders in every direction, the Big Sky Backcountry Byway is an easy yes when traveling south to Terry or closer to the Fort Peck Reservation for an annual cultural event.
Do you have a favorite spot along the byway? Let us know, and enjoy the ride!