Weekender: Break Away

A weekend in Lewistown. 

The first time I drove through Lewistown, I immediately decided it would be the last place in Montana to elude the long arm of development. That’s why I moved here 40 years ago, and nothing that has happened since has made me regret the decision. The area’s natural beauty, outdoor recreational opportunities, and friendly farm-and-ranch-based populace came at a price, however. There were reasons why Lewistown lay off the beaten path and, in some ways, still does.

In contrast to Bozeman and Missoula, Lewistown lacks a university and the opportunities to learn, teach, and enjoy cultural events that such an institution provides. There’s no destination ski resort nearby, and the state’s most famous trout streams are far away. Commercial air service is sketchy, and for years, those whose taste in food ran beyond steak had to plan on cooking for themselves. The local economy depended on beef and grain prices, and good jobs were at a premium.

Now, thanks to demographics, growing awareness of the area’s natural assets, an increasingly imaginative and energetic local business community, and other factors I don’t completely understand, the town is changing. With a daughter and many old friends in Bozeman, I hear more and more from people who would like to come to my hometown, to visit or perhaps even stay. While limited employment opportunities still make the second option a stretch for most people, as a weekend getaway from Bozeman, Lewistown would be hard to beat.

The three-hour drive (a little less if you’re in a hurry) follows the Yellowstone River east from Livingston before a turn north on Hwy. 191 in Big Timber bends around the Crazy Mountains. From Harlowton to the intersection with Hwy. 87 at Eddie’s Corner, the road shoots the gap between the Little Belt Mountains to the west and the Big Snowies to the east. Half an hour to the east on Hwy. 87 and you’re in Lewistown looking north at the Judiths and Moccasins after enjoying a tour of Montana’s often overlooked “island” mountain ranges. Here’s a menu of possibilities to sample once you arrive.

The island ranges around Lewistown are a lot wilder and more complicated than they seem from the road. They offer good hiking in fall and cross-country skiing in winter. Unfortunately, compared to southwestern Montana, access is limited. A trail beginning at the end of Lime Kiln Road provides a nice tour of the Judiths and a great view of Lewistown. Beginning at the end of Crystal Lake Road, the Crystal Lake Shoreline trail leads to a series of ice caves and, for the ambitious, a trail through open alpine that traverses the entire length of the Snowies. (Plan carefully for this one, as there is no water on top.) 

Breaks & Prairies
One appealing aspect of Lewistown’s geography is its proximity to both of the state’s major ecosystems: mountains and prairies. Don’t overlook the latter. An hour’s drive north on Hwy. 191 through Hilger and Roy leads to the spectacular Missouri River Breaks and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest. (Its headquarters are in Lewistown.) Although you’ll need more than a weekend to do it, a canoe trip through the Wild and Scenic section of the Missouri, between Coal Banks Landing and the PN Bridge north of Winifred, will show you country that has scarcely changed since Lewis and Clark passed through. The American Prairie Reserve offers camping and a wide range of natural-history activities in and adjacent to the Missouri Breaks. 

One of the world’s longest limestone spring creeks, Big Spring Creek, rises in the foothills of the Snowies and flows right through Lewistown on its way north to meet the Judith River. Public access sites lie both above town and below. 

Lewistown is rapidly progressing beyond its steak-and-potatoes culinary roots. Consider these options for weekend drinks and dining.

Central Feed Grill. The recent opening of Lewistown’s first craft brewery represents a cultural landmark of sorts, as well as offering excellent locally sourced beer and a limited but appetizing food menu due to expand soon. The remodeled space retains the original name of the old feed store, a perfect touch given the town’s farm-and-ranch ambience. (cfgrillco.com)
The Mint. This local favorite offers a short but consistently well-prepared menu that includes fresh seafood specials, once all but impossible to find locally. (406-535-9925)
Judith Mountain Lodge. Nestled in the foothills of the Judith Mountains at the end of Lime Kiln Road, this newer facility offers good beef and seafood in a scenic setting. (406-538-7063)  

Lewistown Chamber of Commerce: Information about dining, lodging, and events. lewistownchamber.com

Charles M. Russell NWR: Refuge maps and information. [email protected]
Bureau of Land Management, Lewistown Office: Maps of local public lands. (406) 538-1900
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Lewistown Field Office: Current regulations and maps of public fishing access sites. fwp.mt.gov
American Prairie Reserve: A unique vision of one of the country’s most overlooked and important ecosystems. americanprairiereserve.org