Glistening, glaciated, and grand, the Absarokas, Crazies, Gallatins, and other mountains send cooling summer winds to roil among the grasslands and forests of southwest Montana. This is a wild place inhabited by hundreds of animal species.
Abundant wildlife is a daily sight, from the pronghorn sprinting across grasslands to the 17,000-strong northern elk herd in and north of Yellowstone National Park. Bald eagles and ospreys perch in tall snags along the rivers, watching for fish. White-tailed and mule deer spring over fences (and across roads, so watch out when driving). Golden eagles hunt above hay fields. Riparian areas come alive in spring with ducks, geese, pelicans, and great blue herons. The south-central area known as Yellowstone Country shares the topography, wildlife, rivers, and recreational opportunities of its namesake national park.
Critters outnumber people in southwest Montana, which should come as no surprise when you consider that some counties have fewer than one person per square mile. The region’s ranches are measured in the thousands of acres, though they are bordered by ranchettes of fewer than 20 acres around the towns of Bozeman and Red Lodge. But even the most densely populated area, Yellowstone County, has only about 34 people per square mile. That leaves thousands of square miles in the region wide open for exploration. Hiking, fishing, mountain biking, and rock climbing are popular outdoor activities in summer, and in winter the thick pillows of snow make skiing and snowmobiling conditions near perfect.
Southwest Montana’s human history reaches back only about 12,000 years, and the non–Native American presence dates back only 200 years. Yet this place is full of exciting tales and trails, from the path followed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Bozeman and Nez Perce trails. To the west, in Montana’s southwesternmost corner, is Gold West Country, which includes the gold-rush town of Helena. Roadside signs along various routes in the region indicate the sites of battles, travels, and travails.