What a great idea. We have the maps and a free day, so leaving at 5am we journey three hours east to the unique Pryor Mountains. They are very different from what we expect in Montana that boasts of the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Great Plains in the east. Rather than the glacier-carved granite of the Rockies, such as the Beartooth range only 40 miles west, here we have an island of sandstone and shale mountains reaching up from the prairie high enough to including spectacular limestone canyons. The Pryors are not only geologically unique, but culturally, ecologically, and meteorologically as well. What an unexpected and beautiful landscape!
As we travel up to Big Pryor Mountain, we are driving through 400 million years of geological history. I’m always fascinated by such landscapes, but reading through millions of years of geology usually results in my eyes glazing over. All the layers, tilting, eroding, uplifting, faults, folds, and then comes all the words I don’t know, some I cannot pronounce, and time frames I cannot fathom. However, here is a mountain view with many layers, formations, and colors that can help us begin to understand. Sandstone, shale, limestone and fossils, all pressed and molded by water over eons. However, there is one thing I have no problem identifying and am totally sure of and that’s the wild sunflowers along the edge of the road.
We will pass through Crow Tribal land, Custer National Forest, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, state land, and some private land as we explore the Pryors. The US Forest Service oversees the national forests and is an agency of the Department of Agriculture. BLM is an agency of the Interior Department, as are national parks. The mission of both the US Forest Service and BLM is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” However, the devil is in the details and how that mission is interpreted continues to result in lawsuits and arguments between businesses, conservationists, and others, but we won’t dwell on politics. This ride is too beautiful to get upset over such things today.
As we reach flat prairies again, just higher in the hills, we stop to consider homesteaders that couldn’t make their dream come true.
One 90° turn on the road and we enter the Crow reservation. The Apsáalooke (Crow) consider the Pryor Mountains sacred lands and ask that we also journey here with reverence and respect. On the prairie, though, they make a living as do many people in Montana–farming.
The seven miles of road we will travel on Crow lands slows our journey with deep ruts that look like tire tracks made in spring mud and hardened by summer sun. There are also cattle on and around the road. One bull decided to challenge my small SUV to a duel. With his snorting and posturing we just sat quietly in the idling vehicle hoping he would not charge. After quite a while he turned his back and stepped off the road. Driving past him, I was very happy to have no new dents on my little buggy.
These fellas acknowledged us and walked right to the fence, but preferred not to be touched.
We thought we heard a creek but didn’t see one, although we did see willows. Sometimes the wind sounds like running water, and it did get very windy for quite a while. We finally found this one place where we could see the creek. This is Sage Creek, life-giving water in this arid, windy terrain.
We now enter Custer National Forest and begin our journey up once again. See Sage Creek Road at the base of the mountain over there? Look at the amazing colors in the dirt and rock. The red is hematite (iron oxide). The green is glauconite, an iron potassium phyllosilicate (mica group) mineral that is not very weather resistant and crumbles easily. Doesn’t look very crumbly from here, just a red and green mountain that’s beautiful in the morning sun.
Suddenly we spot “wildlife” related to the mission of the Forest Service. They are charged with managing the valuable resources of the forest which includes grazing, timber, mining, recreation and more. As you can imagine, all the parties involved pushing for their rights to access that tend to clash makes for a very tough mission indeed.
There’s Big Pryor Mountain with an elevation of 8,786 feet, the second tallest mountain in the range. East Prior Mountain, which is further up the road, is 40 feet higher.
Now here is a wonderful sight. As we turned a sharp switchback, there was a grouse in the road so we stopped. Sure enough momma stepped out onto the road between us and her youngster.
These Dusky Grouse make a sweet cooing sound, but you have to be very quiet to hear them. She walked up the hill on the side of the road and called to the remaining young one on the other side of the road, but it did not emerge. What a treat to see them so close. Many times on the trail you will not see them, but when you get within a foot or so they fly up right near you flapping like crazy and making a lot of noise. The usual result is that they nearly scare you to death! This was much nicer. They sure do blend into the landscape.
We’ll be heading south and here’s our turn–Crooked Creek Road. Driving just a short distance we realize that Crooked Creek is deep in a canyon and we will be driving along the rim for quite a while. We can’t see the creek at all, we think we hear it (or is it wind?), but the canyon is spectacular. See the road twisting along the rim?
We drive switchbacks up and down along the canyon rim.
As we turn the corner on this switchback, the dead trees on the mountainside dominant the view. This is all fire damage. It is so interesting to see how the fire killed many trees but did not touch other islands of trees. Movement of fire is unpredictable and affected by so many natural events. We all know wind, rain, and snow play a big role, but so does heat. Fire can spread simply because the temperature climbs into the 90s and higher.
Now we begin six miles of gravel road classified as marginal gravel, were the definition of gravel becomes anything from small stones to stones I’d rather get out of the car and roll off the road than drive over, not to mention the gullies and water-flow ruts on a steep enough grade where I could not stop to take a pic. When two miles per hour is too fast to drive, you are tackling a challenging road!
This area is just amazing. In the spring this gorge must be a raging river carving out the sandstone as it races down to Bighorn Lake, which we can see looking east all along this road.
Bighorn Lake is part of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, a trip we must make another day for sure! Plus, on the way we might see the Pryor Mustangs which live in the southern Pryors. These wild horses are believed to be descendants of the Colonial Spanish Horse or Spanish Mustang, which is considered a rare and endangered breed.
Well, we made it! From this perspective the road doesn’t look all that bad, but glad to be back on somewhat smaller gravel, not rocks and ruts.
The land is turning very red as we continue on. There’s Vermillion Valley. It is a Chugwater Formation and it is red due to oxidation of iron minerals in the rocks. I’ve heard people say the mountains are rusting and that’s why they are red. Well, in a way they are right.
As I walked up this hill it was a surprise that what I thought would be red sand was just very hard ground. The views in every direction are just beautiful with this dark red dominating the landscape.
It is always a good idea to turn around to see what you are missing in the other direction, or see what is coming up behind you. In this case we see the road we will be following a few more miles to our turn west. See the white on the hilltops to the right? That is gypsum, usually soft and fine grained. Gypsum is relatively water soluble so ordinarily would not last long on surface rocks, however, this areas is so arid that we see it on ridge lines and on those small hills.
All these shrubs are junipers. Fascinating that they survive in this bone-dry environment while the sage, which loves this environment, is stunted. Perhaps it is the type of soil.
Well, at the end of this fence is our turn west onto Gyp Springs Road which heads back to civilization. We’ve traveled about 45 miles, taking over six hours, in the Pryor Mountains. We have passed three pickup trucks, one Forest Ranger’s SUV, and two ATVs. Now that’s my kind of traffic jam!
Over about the last 15 miles we’ve seen short sections of fence every now and then. We finally found a sign that said no ATVs or walking past the fence for vegetation restoration. That makes sense. It is hard enough for plants to survive in this harsh, arid environment without ATVs digging in and people trampling the poor plants. On our side of the fence this rabbitbush gives us a splash of yellow amid all the red.
As we continue on toward paved roads, we can see the Beartooth Mountains about 40 miles west. There is still snow on the highest peaks which reach between 11,500 and 12,500 feet.
What a great day! There’s only one thing left to do. Eat lunch in farm country. It’s already the middle of the afternoon and the storms from the southwest are heading our way. We have been watching some serious lightning strikes in the mountains to the south over the last 45 minutes and hope no new fires have been started. Lucky for us we have a roof as it begins to gently rain. We also have a view of hay bales to enjoy, so let’s relax over lunch.
Until next time, find a new road in your neck of the woods, drive slow, and relish the beauty of the journey!