The National Bison Range is located in western Montana, just an hour northwest of Missoula, Montana.
Established in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt, this refuge is designated as a safe region for the maintenance of a herd of bison (currently numbering about 350 animals!). And while the refuge is maintained for the preservation of bison, many other wild animals have found this to be a safe haven also. During a visit, you are very likely to encounter antelope, coyote, and deer, as well as numerous smaller animals. You may even spy an occasional wolf! The refuge is a great birding destination with over 200 varieties recorded.
There are multiple areas of the park to explore and discover; we started out with the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center has limited hours, but other areas of the park are open expanded hours. If you can make it while the v.c. is open, be sure to stop by, but if the building is closed, still drive up to the parking lot, where you will find an informational flyer, including a map, on this kiosk outside…
Inside the visitor’s center, there are lots of local wildlife to check out…
as well as some fun and educational activities. The ranger pulled out some elk antlers for the littles to hold and asked them if they would like to carry two of those heavy antlers around all day, every day!
Did you know that bison have hair, not fur?
And do you know the difference between antlers and horns?
If not, you can learn both here, via fun hands-on activities!
After picking up a wildlife guide, we headed out to the parking lot to take the obligatory photo by the pile of antlers in the corner of the parking lot. Then we were off to the scenic drive.
Visiting the visitor’s center, taking the shorter drive through the valley where the bison congregate, and the day use/picnic areas are free to the public in this park. The only thing that the park charges for is the Red Sleep Mountain Drive. This is only a $5 per vehicle charge, but it is free if you have an Interagency National Parks Pass (America the Beautiful, Senior, or Access passes)! This did not seem real obvious from the signage, so be sure to just show them at the visitor’s center!
The Red Sleep Mountain Drive is a 12 mile, one-way, mountainous drive that starts in the valley, where you will see antelope, smaller varmints, and birds. We even saw a coyote crossing the grasslands.
The drive is over 2 mountains, has some steep grades, and is gravel. No trailers of any sort are allowed, and it’s not rv friendly at all. Leave your rig in the parking lot and unhook!
While it might not be big rig friendly (tho the v.c. parking lot is!), the drive is a lovely one. This is looking back on the road…
You climb nearly 2 thousand feet from the valley to the mountain top.
Which makes for some gorgeous views…
All seasons have some benefit to visiting during that time. For our fall visit, we were privy to watching some bucks spar on the mountainside right next to the road.
There are a couple of places where you can park your vehicle and take a walk, and there are vault toilets at the top of High Point. While the drive is only 12 miles, give 2 hours for it if you enjoy a leisurely drive with stops to watch the wildlife.
After coming down off the mountain, you drive through the valley were the bison like to hang out. This part of the drive is free, and is much more trailer and rv friendly. The last couple miles of the drive are 2-way, and it is the free drive that all visitor’s can take (there is a turn around area at the end).
You will drive near Mission Creek for a short ways – this is a great area to spot Bald Eagles.
Want to visit The National Bison Range? Keep these rules and tips in mind:
*The park is closed from dusk to dawn, with no overnight activities, including no camping.
*No vehicles over 30 feet are allowed on either drive. For your safety, no bicycles or motorcycles are allowed on the scenic drives.
*This is a refuge – a safe place for animals, not for protecting people. These wild animals are not pets. Please stay with your car, and on the road unless on one of the 2 designated trails. Keep pets in vehicles or on leashes at all times.
*There are no services in the park except for restrooms in the visitor’s center, and vault toilets at the top of High Point on the Red Sleep Mountain Drive. (mom tip: make sure the littles go potty at the visitor’s center – it’s only about 6 miles to the toilets on the drive, but that is at least a 30 minute drive)
*All passengers must remain seated, or inside the bed of your pickup truck (yay for riding in the back of a truck! Our kids LOVE this!)
*Be sure to check out the day use area that is to the left as you drive into the park. It’s a lovely area that is great for relaxing, getting out to let the kids run, and having a picnic lunch!
The National Bison Range is a little off the beaten path (unless you are traveling between Glacier and Yellowstone, then it’s right on the way!), but it is in a beautiful location, and is a great destination for learning about our northwestern wildlife! If you would like to learn more about the refuge, you can find their webpage here. And don’t forget the camera as you are sure to see some beautiful creatures!