My husband Dan and I got a wild hair while visiting my parents in Denton last August to return to Livingston over the Belt Mountains. This would involve traveling roughly three hours on gravel roads past the headwaters of the Judith River, up a narrow, winding pass and down onto Highway 12 just east of Checkerboard. We’d then head home on asphalt through White Sulpher Springs. I had last done this trip in about 1985 with my parents and the Snooks Family. I remember when we went I had an asymmetrical haircut AND had just bought Prince’s latest album Around the World in a Day on cassette. Much to our parents’ dismay, we kids cranked His Royal Badness the whole way—and it’s a long way. To this day, whenever I hear the song Raspberry Beret, I think of this trip.
Because my parents hadn’t done the drive for about 25 years, they agreed to come along—as long as I promised not to play any Prince. My mom hopped in with the kids and me. My dad went with Dan, and we headed west on Highway 81 W bound for Denton. I absolutely love this wide open country with the Highwoods and Square Butte anchoring a giant blue sky.
We passed through downtown Denton—which has a gas station, grocery store, the excellent Backroads Café (burgers to die for and hand-cut fries), a bank, a bar, a hardware store—and turned north by the elevators onto Benchland Road.
Ya gotta love rural Montana intersections where 4H Clubs have put signs listing the surnames of families who dwell down that road and the distances to their homes. This one was put up by the Denton’s “Sunnyside Shiners”.
We cranked the air conditioning and told the three hungry (& slightly cranky) pre-schoolers in back to put a cork in it, because we’d be eating soon enough. None of the starving passengers’ was thrilled when I stopped to take a shot of a unique street sign (they didn’t mark rural roads with street signs til the 1990s’) or a roadside patch of hollyhocks.
In about forty-five minutes we pulled up to the Oxen Yoke Inn in Utica and immediately ordered cheese sticks. (Nothing like a little deep-fried goodness to keep hunger meltdowns at bay!) Dan kept the kids occupied with a video game (I don’t think he ever put quarters in) and my parents and I sat in barrel-shaped chairs and drank pop while waiting for a bevy of big burgers to be delivered to our table.
After paying the bill we jumped back in our trucks and headed north on Pig Eye Road past the Utica Museum and the Utica Rod and Gun Club. The road becomes gravel on the edge of town winds through the foothills of the Little Belts along the Judith River, which originates here. You pass through Sapphire Village (famous cornflower blue Yogo sapphires are mined nearby up Yogo Gulch) before zooming past the Circle Bar Guest Ranch.
Roughly thirteen miles outside of Utica, we decided to take a detour and visit a historic Forest Service cabin. At some mysterious (and utterly undefined!) point, Pig Eye Road becomes “Southfork Road” (?!?!)
So at the “Y’ of Southfork Road and Yogo Creek, we took a right and drove another mile to the Judith Guard Ranger Station, a beautiful two-story log cabin built by a ranger in the early 1900’s which sleeps up to eight adults and can be rented for $60/night. No one was renting it, so we peeked in the windows. It’s on the National Historic Register and is decorated with historically accurate furniture and wallpaper. There’s a vault toilet adjacent to it and a campground down the hill. We made a mental note to come rent it for a long weekend.
We backtracked to South Fork Road and drove into the Little Belts. I just love this part of the drive. The road winds through ponderosa pines past numerous caves and campsites, passing the turn to Hay Canyon.
The occasional limestone outcropping or 1950’s-style family cabin can be glimpsed through the timber. The road follows the south fork of the Judith for most of the way then veers upward toward the South Fork of the Judith Trailhead, where the road splits again. We stopped to survey our map and were pretty sure we should continue straight.
(Not much could be confirmed by our map, so we trusted our guts and proceeded straight.) Eventually, we reached the pinnacle then began a curvy descent.
At another magical—yet to our eyes, utterly undefined—point the road becomes Spring Creek Road. The drive was just as stunning as I’d remembered it. But what had I been thinking (both in my choice of music and that asymmetrical haircut)? Ennio Morricone’s dramatic compositions would’ve much better accompanied these sweeping vistas.
NUTS & BOLTS
Our map was a Rand McNally Road Atlas from 2007. I highly recommend using the Montana Atlas & Gazetteer: Topo Maps of the Entire State. Visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/lcnf/ for up-to-date road information or call (406) 566-2292.
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