How to View Dark Skies and Wildlife in Montana
Venture into a pristine world where wildlife roams by day and the cosmos comes completely alive by night
Studies have linked the feeling of awe with myriad psychological and physiological benefits, and nothing is more awesome than the natural world. So it’s no wonder that a trip through Eastern Montana—where the night sky is impossibly dark, offering some of the best stargazing in the country, and where megafauna like bison and elk roam immense landscapes—can leave you feeling changed. That’s what this trip is all about. Slow down and revel in the sense of wonder as you traverse some of the state’s most breathtaking country, experiencing a secluded dark-sky sanctuary and vast wildlife refuges along the way.
Medicine Rocks State Park
In 2020, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) designated this 330-acre state park in Southeast Montana a Dark Sky Sanctuary, defined as “the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile.” Translation: Medicine Rocks State Park is a stargazing haven. The best way to experience the park’s superb night skies is to snag one of its 12 first-come, first-serve primitive campsites on a clear, moonless night. Better yet, time your visit to coincide with a free dark-sky event at the park. Organized by the Carter County Museum, in nearby Ekalaka, these gatherings are great opportunities to learn about astronomy and the region’s natural and cultural history and to connect with the local community. The allure of Medicine Rocks State Park isn’t limited to the hours between sunset and sunrise—the park’s iconic rock formations are a marvel to behold during daylight hours, too, so allow enough time during your visit for a hike, ride, or run. (See Badlands and Battlefields trip, for more.)
Eat & Stay: Before heading out for a night of stargazing, grab a bite at one of three Southeast Montana Burger Trail stops in Baker: Heiser’s Bar & Casino, Corner Bar, and Big Game Casino Tavern & Steakhouse.
Hell Creek Recreation Area
The drive to Hell Creek Recreation Area, your next stop, takes you through some of Southeast Montana’s most scenic country and coolest small towns. Your first stop is Baker, just 30 minutes north of Medicine Rocks. Stretch your legs on the paved path at the south end of Baker Lake before popping into Compass Coffee for an espresso drink and a pastry. En route to Miles City, 80 miles west, keep your eyes peeled for pronghorn antelope as you traverse rolling agricultural land, wooded hill country, and sculpted badlands. In town, swing by the Range Rider’s Museum for a trip into Miles City’s western heritage. Resupply before heading north toward Hell Creek Recreation Area.
If you look at a dark-sky map of Montana, the shading around Hell Creek Recreation Area indicates excellent conditions for stargazing. That’s because it’s a long way from pretty much everywhere—Jordan, the closest town, 25 miles to the south, has a population of less than 500. And just like at Medicine Rocks, jaw-dropping views of the Milky Way’s galactic center are just one part of the experience at Hell Creek. The recreation area campground and boat launch are located on the scenic south shore of Fort Peck Lake, an immense reservoir of the Missouri River, and are managed by the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Launch a canoe, kayak, or SUP to explore the many secluded coves nearby. Or link up with a local fishing guide for an excursion on the lake in search of walleye, lake trout, Chinook salmon, or northern pike, depending on the season. Pick up bait, tackle, a fishing license, and camp essentials at the marina’s general store. Reserve your campsite in advance; both RV and tent sites are available.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
It’s hard to grasp the sheer size of the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which protects more than a million acres of critical animal habitat surrounding the Missouri River and Fort Peck Lake. Snag a campsite at James Kipp Recreation Area, then head across the river to the Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area an hour before sunset. (From Highway 191, follow the CMR Auto Tour Route for 3.5 miles.) Herds of elk come here each year in late August and early September during the rut (mating season), and the spectacle is unlike anything else on earth. Find a turnout, set up your camp chairs, and enjoy. Remember to keep at least 75 feet between you and the elk, and never approach wildlife. In the morning, consider completing the Auto Tour Route (19 miles total) en route to Malta.
Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge
If your timing was right at C.M. Russell, you will by now have spied some charismatic megafauna. At Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, birds are the name of the game—hundreds of avian species flock to the refuge’s wetlands and lake, once an oxbow of the Missouri River during the pre-glacial period. In spring, catch the northbound migration of Canada geese and mallards. During summer months, grassland songbirds fill the air with musical calls as they establish mating territories. Come fall, sandhill cranes can be spotted as they fly south for winter.
Eat & Stay: On your way from James Kipp, grab breakfast at Crossroads Coffee & Bistro in Malta. If you have time, check out one or both of the town’s Dinosaur Trail facilities: the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station, and Phillips County Museum. After exploring Bowdoin, head to Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs to unwind. Spend the night in a cabin or suite onsite, or head back to Malta to stay at Great Northern Hotel.