Pryor Mountain Road
CLICK for UPDATE (July 2015): New Road Signs and Legal Access Issue.
(This update is not in the download and print version of the Pryor Mountain Road driving directions.)
A Driving Tour
Revised August 2014
This is the primary motorized access into the north Pryor Mountains. It is a scenic drive providing great views, opportunities for bird and wildflower watching and a review of 400 million years of geologic history. Sage Creek Campground and Big Ice Cave picnic area are the only developed areas. The Crater Ice Cave / Big Pryor Mountain Trail begins from Tie Flat on this road. The Roberts Bench Hike begins near Crooked Creek Junction. The Cave Ridge hike begins from the Big Ice Cave picnic area.
Pryor Mountain Road is not well signed, but these directions should help first time visitors. It is also called route #2308, and there are a few signs with that number.
Pryor Mountain Road is NOT an all weather road. The majority of the road is good gravel, but some sections are rough and rocky, or muddy when wet. When it is dry some standard highway vehicles can make it if driven carefully, but higher clearance vehicles like most SUVs are preferable. Four wheel drive is not needed in dry conditions. But when it is wet there are sections which are often impassable even with 4WD.
If there have been recent rains, consider going to the south Pryors instead. (See the new Pryor Mountain Map Set below.) If you are looking for a hike consider the Bear Canyon hike or the Hikers’ Haven Area Trails. Those hikes may be OK even when Pryor Mountain Road is impassable.
Pryor Mountain Road Driving Directions:
Take Hghway 310 south from Bridger MT. Pryor Mountain Road turns left (east) 2.5 miles south of Bridger and 0.5 mile south of the bridge over the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. (This junction is 1.4 miles south of the junction of Highways 310 and 72 from Belfry and Red Lodge.)
Turn just north of the house on the east side of the highway. All mileages below are measured from the beginning of Pryor Mountain Road.A. 0.0 miles: Pryor Mountain Road. Turn east on Pryor Mountain Road. Just after the turn, on the right, a sign says “National Forest Boundary 24, Big Ice Cave 36.” The road is paved for 2.0 miles to where it crosses a railroad track. The road has a good gravel surface for the next 13 miles.
B. 9.5 miles: Bowler Flats. The road climbs to Bowler Flats and a big view of Big Pryor Mountain. Pryor Mountain Road from Highway 310 into the Pryor Mountains is a drive back through 400 million years of geologic history.
C. 12.2 miles: Bowler Junction. Turn left (north). There is no sign at this junction (August 2014) and nothing is left of the old Bowler Post Office, but there are several power poles and transformers inside a chain link fence on the right just before the junction. Remember this junction for the return trip. From this junction Pryor Mountain Road follows section lines for a mile north, then a mile east, another mile north then turns east again. The Bowler post office used to be at this junction. Click for history of Bowler.
15.0 miles: Enter Crow Indian Reservation. Sometimes there is a sign. Avoid trespassing off the road. The gravel road surface deteriorates between here and the old RR crossing, but is usually OK. D. 16.5 miles: Old railroad crossing. Go straight across the four way junction. (It is actually a slight left turn, but do not turn 90 degrees onto the railroad bed.) The old railroad through Pryor Gap is long gone and replaced with a road. But the raised railroad bed is obvious. After this crossing the road surface is more dirt than gravel. The five miles from here to the Forest boundary can be very muddy when wet, and impassible even with a 4WD.
E. 21.5 miles: Junction. Take right fork. Left fork has large blue sign: “No Trespassing: Crow Tribal Members Only”
F. 22.0 miles: National Forest Boundary. Cattle guard. The next eight miles is high quality gravel road.
G. 22.6 miles: Junction. Follow Pryor Mountain Road straight ahead. Left turn goes to Sage Creek Campground in about a half mile.
29.7 miles: Route #2104 turns right to Tie Flat and the Crater Ice Cave / Big Pryor Mountain Trail. There is no sign at the trailhead (August 2014).
Go straight ahead toward Dry Head Vista. A couple hundred feet later take the right fork, 2308, toward Big Ice Cave. Pryor Mountain Road, 2308, is the road to both Big Ice Cave and Dry Head although neither sign says both. (The left fork, 2097, is for 4WD even when dry.)
The Roberts Bench Hike begins near Crooked Creek Junction.
The good gravel road surface ends at Crooked Creek junction. The next four miles to Big Ice Cave includes rough and rocky sections. Careful driving is required. 4WD is not needed when the road is dry. Custer National Forest regulations do not permit motorized use on this route until late May. There may be no sign; it is your responsibility to know. Get the latest Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) at the Custer National Forest Office in Billings or Red Lodge. For the latest road information phone the Custer National Forest Red Lodge office at (406) 446-2103.
I. 34.4 miles: Junction. Go straight ahead a couple hundred yards to Big Ice Cave, the picnic area, and the Cave Ridge hike. The left turn goes about four more miles to Dry Head Vista. The rocky road is becoming more challenging for all but high clearance vehicles. 4WD is not needed when dry. This road climbs to nearly 8800 ft elevation. Snow and mud can make it impassible even after the late May opening. Do not drive off road to go around snow drifts or mud holes. Turn around and come back another day.
J. 38.7 miles: Dry Head Vista.
The last several hundred yards to Dry Head Vista is now closed to motor vehicles to allow recovery of the fragile vegetation and to respect an area important to Native Americans. The short and easy walk to the Vista is grandly rewarded with panoramic views of the Montana plains to the north and east, and down into the Punch Bowl Creek and Dryhead Creek drainages.
The road beyond Dry Head Vista is not recommended without high clearance 4WD vehicles. When dry 4WD is not needed for several miles, but beyond that the roads become extremely rough and challenging.
There is a new sign at Bowler Junction (Point C, 12.2 miles). It says “National Forest Access” with an arrow to the right (south). It is shorter to follow our directions and turn left (north). But read below about “Legal Easement.”
If you follow the new sign and turn right: In a bit over a mile the road turns left (east). At a T junction after another mile there is another “National Forest Access” sign with an arrow pointing left (north). This is the “Rail Bed” or “Pryor Gap Road.” After another couple miles, just before going under the powerline, there is a sign indicating a right turn onto a 4×4 only Forest Road. This is “Powerline Road” shown as #2500 on the Pryor Mountain Map Set. It does provide slow and rough access to the Forest and the Pryors.
If you do not turn on the 4WD “Powerline” route and continue north on the Rail Bed / Pryor Gap Road, it is another approximately 2.5 miles to point D on the Pryor Mountain Road directions. But now you must turn right to continue to the Pryors across the Crow Reservation. It is about 2.5 miles shorter to follow the Pryor Mountain Rd. directions.
The Pryor Mountain Map Set (2nd map, “Big Pryor Mountain”) should help understand this update.
No Legal Easement
The reason for this complex situation is that there is no legal easement for the public to drive Pryor Mountain Road across the Crow Reservation – despite the fact that the public has been driving this route for over 50 years. On rare occasions the Crow tribe has briefly exercised their legal right to close the road. If that happens the best option would be to go to Warren on Highway 310 and enter the Pryors via Helt Road, Gyp Springs Road and Crooked Creek Road. Sometimes (e.g. when Pryor Mountain Road is wet) this is the best route anyway.
Access to the Pryors via Warren, Helt Road, Gyp Springs, Crooked Creek Road
This route takes perhaps ½ hour longer than the Pryor Mountain Road route to get to the junction of Crooked Creek Road and Pryor Mountain Road. Most of the extra distance is on highway 310. The distance on gravel is about the same. See the Pryor Mountain Map Set including the notes on page 4. Follow (in reverse) the Gyp Springs and Crooked Creek Road directions at the end of the Pryor Mountain Road Driving Directions.
Crooked Creek Road #2085 is a scenic side trip, or a route to Cowley WY or Warren MT. There are views of the spectacular Crooked Creek Canyon. Get out and walk a short way for better views or a picnic. This route had a major reconstruction during summer 2011.
The first 9 miles to the south boundary of Custer National Forest is now a good gravel road suitable for most vehicles. It is a one lane road, but has frequent turnouts for passing. It is not passable in the winter. Snow is late melting from this sheltered canyon road. After the 9 miles of newly reconstructed FS road, the next 6 miles of BLM road is rougher and rocky in places. It was passable by some highway vehicles if driven very carefully as of September 2011. A high clearance vehicle is best, but 4WD is not necessary when the road is dry.
Beyond the 6 miles of rougher BLM road it is possible to continue to Cowley WY on a good gravel road, or turn toward Warren MT on either Helt Road (rougher and longer, but more scenic) or Gyp Springs Road (2 miles shorter and better gravel).
0.0 miles: North end of Crooked Creek Road (#2085) at junction with Pryor Mountain Road.
9.2 miles: Leave Custer National Forest and improved gravel road. Enter Bureau of Land Management area. Road becomes rougher and sometimes rocky for about 6 miles.
15.4 miles: Junction. Helt Road turns to right (west) and skirts the southern edge of the Pryors. It is a scenic 16.4 miles of gravel road to Hwy. 310 at Warren MT. The first half is somewhat rocky (but no worse than the BLM part of Crooked Creek Rd.) After that it is good gravel.
Continuing on Crooked Creek Road (not on Helt Road):
15.6 miles: Junction. Gyp Springs Road turns to the right (west) toward Hwy 310 at Warren MT. Gyp Springs Road joins Helt Road at a “Y” in 7.0 miles. The Gyp Springs Rd. is better gravel, and less winding than Helt Rd. and is 2 miles shorter (14.3 miles to Warren MT).
To Cowley WY (10.0 miles from Helt Rd. junction): Don’t turn right toward Warren MT on either Helt or Gyp Springs Rds.
Continue south for about 1.7 miles. Just past a sharp left turn and crossing a deep gulley is a “T” junction.
17.3 miles: “T” Junction. Turn right on County Rd. 7 ½ (the left turn is onto Gypsum Creek Rd.). Continue mostly south ignoring several prominent bentonite mining roads to the left and right.. (Some of these junctions had no road signs in Feb. 2012) At 5.4 miles south of the “T”, County Rd. 7 ½ changes from dirt/gravel to pavement as the road from the county airport joins from the left (east). It is 2.7 miles of paved road from the airport junction to Cowley Wyoming and Highway 310.