This summer, skip the hours of highway travel and stay close to home by heading west on I-90 to Three Forks. In half an hour, you’ll find a new landscape and a host of fun activities to engage in. Here’s a sampling.
History & Culture
Just a few miles from downtown Three Forks, you’ll find the headwaters of the Missouri River. The Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin rivers (hence the town’s name) meet at Headwaters State Park to form the beginning of the longest river system on the continent. This spot is not only the birthplace of a major river, but also the cradle of some of the richest and most colorful history in the American West. The park is also a great place to fish, camp, view wildlife, or take a canoe trip and do all three.
Headwaters is just one of three state parks in the area. The others are the Madison Buffalo Jump, south of Logan on Buffalo Jump Rd., and Lewis & Clark Caverns, southwest of Three Forks on Hwy. 2. All three highlight some of the fascinating anthropological, natural, and geological history of the area.
For a little indoor-education time, check out the Headwaters Heritage Museum. The Headwaters area played a major role in Montana’s—and America’s—history, and the museum walks visitors through the importance of this place and some of the fantastic adventures that started or ended here. The museum is on the corner of Main and Cedar in downtown Three Forks.
All three forks of the Missouri offer great fishing, with plenty of access points and put-ins within a half-hour of town. If you happen to travel with younger or impatient fisher-folk, however, the Three Forks Ponds may be a great stop. Stocked over the years with carp, bass, and panfish, these ponds are a fantastic place to land a few fish. Although the bass are a bit more of a challenge, the little perch and bluegill are aggressive and provide beginning anglers with steady action and a lot of positive reinforcement.
Set in a cottonwood forest along the Jefferson off Hwy. 287, the archery course at the Canoeing House—dubbed by locals “The Challenge of the Hunt”—may be the most fun you can have with a bow. Make adjustments at the tune-in station, then set off into the woods to test your skills at over two dozen stations, most of them 3-D, from 20 to 80 yards. The targets alone will keep your interest—expect a wide range of game animals, including deer, elk, antelope, bears, coyotes, even a turkey. If you’re lucky, proprietor Al Anderson will join you, regaling you with stories of his intriguing and unorthodox approach to life in small-town Montana. A self-service sign-in box means no reservations are required.
Some folks prefer their outdoor experiences on groomed grass, chasing little white balls with heavy-headed sticks—also known as golf. If golf is your game, then check out the nine-hole beauty known as Headwaters Golf Course. The course rests on the banks of the Three Forks Ponds, so golfers can keep and eye on the fishing conditions while playing a round.
For those seeking a little more excitement, there’s a new outfit in Three Forks that offers tandem skydiving—which means you can experience the thrill and freedom of freefall without risking your life (too much) in the process. For 80 bucks and a couple hours’ time, the instructors at DZONE Skydiving will strap you in tight, and together you’ll leap out of a perfectly good airplane. The best part—after you stop screaming—may be the view: 10,000 feet above the headwaters of the Mighty Mo, with rivers and mountains all around.
Mid-summer is a spectacular time to be on the water, with tranquil flows, resplendent foliage, and the easy tempo of mid-summer solitude. With three rivers in close proximity, you can pick your pleasure. The Jefferson offers a unique float, with its serpentine path through the Headwaters area and a paved bike path back to the put-in. Launch your canoe at Drouillard, just north of the Hwy. 287 exit, and meander through cottonwood forests and brush-choked backwaters while keeping an eye peeled for mink, muskrat, beaver, deer, waterfowl, and birds of prey. Pull into the big eddy across from the park's main picnic area and go for a swim, then proceed to the take-out and burn off the beer by biking back to Drouillard. At only 3-5 hours roundtrip, depending on how fast you paddle, this float is a good one any time of day.
Three Forks is also home to the historic Sacajawea Hotel, named after Lewis & Clark’s famous Native American guide. This restored turn-of-the-century hotel also offers great meals and libations as well as one of the best front porches around.