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C.M. Russell Auto Tour Scenic Drive

The stretch of Montana’s Highway 87 running between Great Falls and Lewistown was designated as the ‘Charles M. Russell Trail‘ in 1993. The highway serves as the route for the C.M. Russell Auto-Tour.

The C.M. Russell Auto Tour follows some of the points and places highlighted in the artist’s work and its illustrations of the history and heritage of the Judith Basin region. Some of the places in stories told within Russell’s artwork can be experienced where they occurred.

Many of these scenarios were out on the range and in the mountains, and the trail even includes some landmarks featured in the illustrations.

A Guide to C.M. Russell Auto Tour

The C.M. Russell Auto Tour starts along Highway 87 (or Lewistown if you are at the other end) and look out for the various stops with their accompanying interpretive information. There are a total of 25 sites along the designated trail in Judith Basin Country.

c m russell road trip
Image: Kevin Dooley

Scenic Drive Stats

  • Length: Approximately 100 miles long
  • Time: Around 3 hours of continuous driving
  • Highlights: interpretive signs, small towns, and landmarks from Russell’s work

Charles Marion Russell

When you put the words Montana and Cowboy Artist in the same sentence, for most people one name in particular springs to mind. The imagination and spirit of the artist Charlie Russell or Charles Marion were largely inspired by the Montana scenery over a century ago, just as visitors and locals alike continue to be inspired today.

Charlie Russell was from Missouri originally. He first found himself in the region of the scenic Judith Basin around 1880. He stayed there for a decade, living and working, capturing many classic if not epic Western scenarios in his canvas paintings.

Charlie’s art is often seen as prime historic documentation of some of the scenarios that may have been witnessed around that time. Many of the artist’s paintings tell stories related to American Indians, and thus included everything from cowboys and the open rangelands, buffalo and wolves, mountain men, and miners.

Much of this also occurs at a time when the inevitable progression of the state was taking hold properly which was evident from the growing numbers of homesteaders, railroads, and highways.

Starting Out and the Main Attractions

Great Falls and the C.M. Russell Museum

great falls and the c.m. russell museum
Image: Ted McGrath

Great Falls is at the start of one end of the auto tour where you’ll find some of the best works of this iconic Montana artist.

Many of Russell’s original paintings and sculptures are featured within this facility, which also includes the artist’s original log cabin studio. He actually kept much of his work here along with what are now considered other valuable items and artifacts.

Russell stayed in Montana until the end of his life in 1926. One of the main features of the museum is the artist’s “illustrated letters, which were written in his later years.

The museum is one of the main locations in the state dedicated to the artist and his work. This is just one example of a museum or other kind of facility dedicated to the artist. You’ll also find a few other charming little museums along the way in Stanford, Utica, and Hobson off a wing of the main tour route.

The auto tour can be broken down into various 25-mile stretches, although the US 87 out of Great Falls all the way to Lewistown spans 100 miles or so.

Anyone starting out from the Great Falls end should pick up Highway 87 just north of the town and head in the direction of the historic Fort Benton.

Fort Benton, Geraldine, and Square Butte

fort benton, geraldine and square butte
Image: Kevin Dooley

This historic spot is often termed the birthplace of Montana, and it was once the world’s most inland port leading up to the Missouri River. You might want to stop and examine some of the many historical pointers dotted pretty much everywhere in Fort Benton.

If you plan your drive to allow stop-offs at the points you are most interested in you’ll be able to stay on track easily enough. Next, you have to cross the Missouri River on US 80, which takes you past the small towns of Geraldine and Square Butte.

Square Butte is where you can find the Square Butte “Country Club” and its various attractions including great food, some unique art, and possibly someone to explain a little background of the area. The original, stone, Square Butte jail can be seen if you take this route.

After that, it’s Highway 81 at the junction which will lead all the way into Lewistown, unless you decide to take one of the offshoots or side loops off the main trail.

There’s a great add-on 25-mile side loop that is all paved and runs from Hobson to Windham. You come off the main trail at Windham and onto Route 541 heading south towards Utica In the middle of this loop.

Utica and Russell Point

utica and russell point
Image: Ariel van Spronsen

Utica is an old town from the late 19th century that inspired Russell’s painting ‘Quiet Day in Utica’ and its scenes depicting the somewhat rough behavior in the area.

Heading along the route in a southern direction you’ll notice it eventually transforms into a single-lane gravel road with pull-outs. Along this route, you’ll see a few interpretive signs with yellow and brown bison skulls.

About 20 miles later, you might notice Russell Point as it starts to jut the landscape from the limestone bluffs.

Belt and the Highwood Mountains

Russell’s painting, Romance Makers features scenery looking strikingly similar to that over in the north-eastward direction of the Highwood Mountains.

Soon after the landscape has passed from your view you may find yourself in the small hamlet of Belt, which is scenic enough and has enough of its own character to warrant a stop-off.

Stanford and the Basin Trading Post

stanford and the basin trading post
Image: Jimmy Emerson, DVM

One of Russell’s most acclaimed works-In without Knocking-depicts the somewhat rough & tumble scenarios unfolding in the town.

Stanford is quite a bit more civilized these days as you will find out for yourself if you stop off at this small town along the trail. Be sure to stop in at the Basin Trading Post as well.

This is where you get to see the famous White Wolf that resembles the one in Russell’s Lone Wolf painting. Judith Basin was apparently home to a healthy wolf population at one point.

The packs were attracted by the increasing numbers of game and livestock in the region. The white wolf lived into its teens before finally being caught by a local in 1930.

An interpretive booklet for the C.M. Russell Auto Tour is available from the U.S. Forest Service Office located in Stanford as is a Byway Map.

Hobson

hobson
Image: Chris06

Continuing on you should be heading away from the vicinity of the Little Belt Mountains and back to Highway 87 along Route 239. This will take you through another small town by way of Hobson.

Once known as a “paradise of free grass,” the area was a bison gathering spot for a long time, although by 1883, the cattlemen had moved in.

This is depicted rather nicely in Russell’s painting, the Toll Collectors, which shows how early stockman negotiations might have looked for this rolling rangeland region.

Recreational Activities along the Drive

There are four notable campgrounds along the trail, namely: Dry Wolf Campground, Hay Canyon Campground, Indian Hill Campground, and Judith Station Campground.

Trail Routes near the Scenic Drive

There are various trails off and around the main road along the route. A great example is the Dry Wolf Trail which can be accessed at Stanford and starts off from the campground of the same name.

This is an easy-going, 5.2-mile trail through meadows and forest and across a few bridges. The trail winds up at Jefferson Divide where hikers are treated to some amazing and expansively panoramic views. You can get to the campground from Dry Wolf Road 251.

If you find yourself in need of some hiking once you arrive at the other end of the trail in Lewistown, you could consider the Grandview Trail #403. This is an 8-mile, out-and-back route that gradually inclines up the ridge over Crystal Lake. Amazing views of the lake and its adjacent canyons are possible from this spot.

The trail is approximately 4 miles one way, starting out at the north end of Crystal Lake. There is a boat launching facility at this spot, and the trail ascends over 1,300 feet in elevation from the trailhead to Grandview Point.

This trail is rated as easy, and is well-marked, and mostly well-maintained. There is a short stretch with a crossing over a rocky talus slope, but aside from that, it should prove easygoing for most walkers. The hike is uphill the whole way but the gradients are not that difficult to manage and are fairly gentle.

If you take Highway 87 toward Great Falls there is a sign for Crystal Lake Road approximately 8.7 miles out of town. You should take a left on Crystal Lake Road, which is unpaved, and continue until you reach the Lewis and Clark National Forest boundary. The road becomes paved again here and you will see the signs for Crystal Lake.

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