Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway
Not far from Clark Canyon Reservoir is the Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway, a gravel and dirt road that winds it way through BLM and private land for 50 miles. Any time I see scenic and back country in the same sentence, I am in. And so we went.
We stopped first in Dell, where the road starts, at Dell Mercantile, a small side of the road store that sells one of everything. And gas. We grabbed a giant cinnamon bun for a sugar rush later and headed west.
The Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway starts out following Big Sheep Creek back into a canyon.
The road here is pretty easy – wide gravel with only a few potholes and an occasional washboard area. The area is teeming with wildflowers, prickly pear cacti, and sagebrush.
A couple of miles down the road is Deadwood Gulch Campground. The campground is on the creek and, with only six sites, would be a great place to get away from the crowds. In this area of Montana though, there really aren’t many crowds. One note about the campground and Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway: there are many small bridges to cross and they all have weight limits. The one into the campground is seven tons (too low for the short bus). Others on the road are five tons. There is boondocking all over the place along the byway but it is best done with a small trailer or class B and we saw a few of both.
The road continues following the creek into a small canyon.
Further upstream, the creek is wide and slow – it might be an enjoyable area to kayak, provided the water level is high enough.
The road then turns away from the creek and heads into a completely different landscape.
The changed once again and we were in rolling hills and grassland.
We came to a fork in the road, and we took it.
Actually, we first went left. There was a giant hill with a road running up it beside the left fork. We just had to look.
We continued along the back country byway.
We started to get hungry so we looked for a place to stop. Mike saw a road going up toward the right so he took it. From the bottom, it didn’t look too steep. By the time we got halfway up, we realized our mistake. The road was so steep that, when we stopped, I didn’t want to sit in the jeep for fear it would slide down the hill.
My camera cannot adequately capture the steepness of the hill – two dimensions just don’t convey it very well, especially using a wide angle lens. But, as usual, the jeep was more capable than we were and five minutes later, after picking our way back down through ruts and rocks, we were safely back on the ‘real’ road. (See that thin scratch of white just right of center? that is the road.) I will admit, the view is spectacular up there. And we ‘could’ have gone higher. But, without climbing it first on foot to see what was coming, I wasn’t ready to continue up. We hadn’t had enough sugar for that.
We continued on the Byway through a huge unpopulated valley. The only traffic we saw was six bicyclists, going the other way.
And then the terrain, and the road changed again. I had read somewhere that, after rain, some of the road may be impassible due to deep mud. It had rained yesterday, and rain was threatening today, but so far, the main road had been easy.
The gathering clouds gave us pause but, like most times, we didn’t want to go back the way we came. The dirt got softer and softer until the ruts were too deep to fight against. It was obvious that a truck had recently passed, when the ground was REALLY wet, and the truck had a wider wheelbase than we did. We popped the jeep into four wheel drive and went for it. I would have pictures of the road but it was too bumpy to capture anything usable (try snapping while hitting your head on the roof) and if we stopped, we weren’t going to move for a very long time – it was starting to rain which would only make the road worse.
The clay mud mire only lasted a couple of miles and we were free, though we picked up a few more pounds of mud to add to our collection under the jeep (chunks of it would fall off over the next few days) and the road changed again. We were in a ranching area – mot of it owned by one family. It was huge and went on for miles. We dodged cows now instead of rocks and potholes.
At the end of the road, we took a right, and headed a few miles back to Clark Canyon Reservoir. All things considered, it was a beautiful drive. We got to see more of the Montana back country with its huge variety of terrain. We spent a few wonderful hours off the beaten path testing ourselves and testing the jeep.
When we travel these roads, which we do often, we are fully prepared. We go with food, water, a full gas tank, paper maps, a car GPS, a handheld GPS, and a DeLorme Inreach. If we can’t see the road ahead, or we question its condition, we scout ahead on foot (we can get miles of hiking in just by scouting roads). While we have run into problems (high centering the jeep in a creek and being trapped in a pasture with an angry bull are two of the most memorable), we have gotten pretty good at avoiding them or being prepared when we don’t. This particular road is pretty benign and can *usually* be traveled by a two wheel drive passenger car; we try to make the most of it and add side roads for a little fun.