Missouri River Explorations, First People’s Buffalo Jump, and Some Great Falls

One of our first day trips after arriving in Helena was spent driving north, through the canyons in the Big Belt Mountains, and then into the plains en route to Great Falls. Like many western mountains ranges the Big Belt Mountains rise from grasslands, first a bump on the horizon, then a seeming wall of mounded earth, and finally an encompassing entity as you pass through the canyons, walls looming above you. The route along I-15 north from Helena is more dramatic than most however, and provides numerous access points to the Missouri River (as well as the dammed Lake Holter). We thus stopped multiple times on our drive, walking a mile or two here and there and sometimes just taking pictures a hundred yards from the truck. Without any real agenda we followed our whims and ended up having a lovely few hours of adventure.

Once the canyon retreated however we sped on to First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park, one of the largest identifiable jumps on the continent. Here pre-historic Native Americans drove thousands of animals over the sandstone cliffs; after falling up to 50 feet, bison could be butchered for food, hides, and bones without the larger risk of hunters being maimed (this became less common once horses were introduced and bison were able to be more safely hunted from horseback). The bison drive activity was highly fraught with risks however, especially for the decoy disguised in animal robes who placed himself between the herd and the cliffs. As hunters began chasing the bison along drive lines from the back, this lure would run ahead, leading the herd crashing over the cliffs. The tricky part was making the jump to an accessible ledge below the cliff before thousands of pounds of bison crashed over the rim.

As the afternoon wore on we made one last push north to the town of Great Falls. We had hoped to see many of the waterfalls along the Missouri River here, but our late arrival and long distance drives down dirt roads along the river canyon muted our ambition: we settled for a few quick stops and short walks along the river course. It had been a long day with quite a lot of mileage covered for a day trip, but we still found what we saw to be enjoyable.