The Pryor Mountains are a mountain range located in south-central Montana, and they are somewhat less known than many of the others in the state.
This might be due to the fact that they are remote and isolated, but they are actually one of the most unique stretches of the state’s mountain country 50 miles either way from both Red Lodge and Billings.
Probably best-known for the wild horses that still roam the lands, the Pryors are primarily composed of two high ridges.
Each of these ridges has a width of about 20 miles across, and the northern reaches run into the Crow Reservation.
Some of the highest peaks are in these regions, ranging somewhere between 7,000 feet and 8,500 feet over on the range’s western shoulder with its high peaks with sharp edges. This kind of terrain comes to an end as it approaches the sheer drops of the nearby Big Horn Canyon.
The Pryor Mountains were named after Nathaniel Pryor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and have always been an important area to the Native Peoples as they extend from the heart of traditional Crow Country.
The mountains are in fact still considered a sacred place and are used for vision quests and such like as they have been for aeons.
This stretch of land is revered and is home to various sacred sights and ancestral burial grounds, which the Indians are thankfully able to maintain and safeguard what they consider as an important cultural and spiritual place as the section of the mountains located in the reservation is closed to non-tribal members.
The mountains contain a fair few ice caves, and important and revealing archaeological evidence has also been unearthed in the region, helping to pinpoint the dates of the first human activity in the area as long as 10,000 years ago.
The Pryor Range is about 40 miles south of Billings and the mountains are also near the border with Wyoming.
Getting there involves two primary access roads—from the west by way of Pryor Mountain Road and Crooked Creek Road from the south. Pryor Mountain Road is via Forest Road 2308 provides access to the Wild Horse Range.
Pryor Mountains Stats
- Approximately 38,000 acres
- Highest Peak—approximately 8,500 feet (East Pryor Mountain)
- Accessible year-round
Things to Do in the Pryor Mountain Regions
Wild Horse Range
The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is one of the reasons more people have heard of the Pryor Mountains.
There are now just four designated wild horse ranges in the country, and this one came about by order of the Secretary of the Interior in 1968.
At that time, what is now the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range covered 33,600 acres of both BLM and National Park Service-managed Montana land, although over the years an additional 5,000 acres or more have been added. This land also extends across the Wyoming state boundary.
The Wild Horse Range is in the south-eastern stretch of Carbon County, Montana, as well as in Big Horn County, near Lovell in Wyoming.
Many visitors come to these public lands annually to observe the wild horses from safe distances.
Pryor Mountain Road is the main means of motorized access into the northern regions of the Pryor Mountains.
This road is also a scenic drive with some excellent scenery while cruising through terrain related to 400 million years of geologic history. Sage Creek Campground and the Big Ice Cave picnic area are the only developed areas you are likely to encounter along this route, and some of the available hiking routes begin from sections on this road.
Pryor Mountain Road is not that well signed–it is highlighted as route #2308 in fact. If you take Highway 310 south from Bridger, Pryor Mountain Road turns eastward.
Recreation in the Pryor Mountains
Sage Creek Campground is a 12-site facility and is the only developed campground in the entire range.
It is located along the banks of Sage Creek and the amenities are limited here although they do extend to vault toilets. Stays are limited to 16 days and there are no reservations at this campground.
The best way to access the campground is to check out the Pryor Mountain Road Driving Tour directions and Map from Bridger. You’ll take a left onto the road containing the facility half a mile after entering Custer National Forest at the cattle guard, and you’ll reach the campsite after another half mile.
There are of course many great spots to camp in the Pryors outside the developed campground, bearing in mind you need to carefully follow no-trace camping techniques. In the USFS and BLM land dispersed camping is permitted pretty much anywhere.
And you’ll also find developed campgrounds in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. These are to the east of the Pryor Mountains but are generally considered part of the same area and often visited by those making their way to the Pryors.
Hiking Trails in the Pryor Mountains
There are some great hikes in the Pryors that are not always that obvious, especially to anyone unfamiliar with the range. Some of these routes are ideal for early spring and late fall hikes.
Currently, neither the Custer National Forest nor the Bureau of Land Management provides much information on mountain hikes in the area. This means there is little along the lines of signed trailheads or marked foot trails–aside from just one designated hiking route with no motorized vehicle use.
They do have over 100 miles of designated land for motorized use though, which includes ATV and 4-wheel drive routes. The Bureau of Land Management has slightly more, with around 11 miles of designated hiking that is free of motorized vehicles.
The Hikers’ Haven Area
This stretch of the mountains is considered by many to be one of the best to escape any vehicles–east of Bear Canyon and north of Horse Haven Road is basically a Haven for Hikers.
The four trails all interconnect with each other which makes for some great loop hikes. The landscapes are diverse and include open grasslands with stunning scenery as well as rugged and craggy hills, and even secluded Douglas fir forests.
The Bear Canyon Trail features canyon bottomland, and some of the longer hikes reach the Pryors sub-alpine high altitudes with over 8,000 feet of elevation.
These south Pryors hikes are ideal in early spring and late fall, and the best times for hiking in this area are somewhere between March through May or June, and September through November.
Bear Canyon Trail
Bear Canyon covers terrain which is among some of the most arid in the southern Pryors. Bear Creek runs in spring and early summer but can turn into a much more powerful flow in the event of an upstream cloudburst.
This trail is popular with bird watchers, and the first three miles of the route are even within the Audubon Society’s designated Important Bird Area (IBA).
Similar to Hikers’ Haven, Bear Canyon is a good option for a spring hike, and fall is good when many other Montana trails may still be under snow.
These two hikes are easily accessed by driving four miles along unpaved roads which are passable most of the year. It takes about 1.5 hours to drive from Billings to the mouth of Bear Canyon.
Crater Ice Cave Trail
This is a short trail that is nevertheless steep, and it runs from the northern end of Crooked Creek Road to Crater Ice Cave as well as up to the peak of Big Pryor Mountain.
This is almost a 3.5-mile round trip that climbs 1,600 feet up Big Pryor Mountain. If that sounds daunting, it needn’t do—as the climb is predominantly through a cool and somewhat secluded Douglas fir forest where squirrels run freely and abundantly, and a few black bears have been reported along this trail.
Viewpoints are few and far between in the lower regions but some of the higher switchbacks fare a bit better.
The huge views from the highest point in the Pryors–East Pryor Mountain—takes in the Bighorn Mountains, the Beartooth Range, the northern plains of Montana, and quite a bit of Wyoming. Quite a view—and apparently once listed as one of the top ten biggest views of all time.
Wildflowers are in no short supply on these subalpine plateaus around Big Pryor, especially around late June or early July.
This also happens to be the only Custer-Gallatin National Forest designated trail in the Pryors solely for the purpose of motor-free hiking.
You can get there by driving 2.5 miles south of Bridger MT on Highway 310, then taking Pryor Mountain Road east before turning right in a southern direction 30 miles from Highway 310 and half a mile before the Crooked Creek Road junction.