Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 101 – Ackley Lake – Big Timber: More big miles and smiles

Thursday August 28, 2014, 94 miles (151 km) – Total so far: 4,533 miles (7,295 km)

The water from the tap at the Hobson pool does not seem to have produced any ill effects. So far. I decide to use the rest of the water to fill my Camelbak. This negates the need to double back to Hobson then catch the highway east of there. Instead, I can take gravel roads to meet up with Fed Hwy 191 further south. My map doesn’t show specifics or mileage, so I could end up riding more miles than doubling back to Hobson. But, it does mean all the scenery will be new and there should be less traffic for a bit. Let’s go for it!

The decision seems to work out okay. The gravel is in good condition for most of the approximately 30 miles we ride on it. Only in the last few miles close to the highway does it become rutted, corrugated and rough with big stones. Interestingly, this is where I meet about seven cars – the same amount that I’d met in the previous 26 miles. In those 26 miles, the road passed scattered farm buildings and through fields of pasture and cropland. The end of the Little Belt Mountains rose before us, a dark green ridge that kept forcing the road to jog left each time we got a bit too close. There was more climbing than I had expected – a bunch of short steep descents and climbs out of narrow drainages flowing out from the range. The steepest dip came where the road turned a big ‘C’ shape coming down one side and then climbing back out the other. With the speed I picked up heading down the hill and into the centre of the “C”, before pedalling like mad up the other side, I felt all the old BMX skills get excited. Woo-hoo!

We head out of Ackley Lake the ‘back’ way to 191. Consequently, we have about 30 miles of up and down on gravel to start the morning. None of it is in too bad of condition except the last 3-4 miles to the highway.

The climb to the main road deposits us on Fed Hwy 191. There is a shoulder; it isn’t all that wide, but it is sufficient for the early morning traffic levels. We climb a gentle grade up the benches of sandstone that form long grassy steps between the Little Belt range to the right and the Big Snowy Mountains to the left. The pines stick to the ranges. There is little but long stalks of grass gently bending to the northeast down here. The route over this gap has been used for thousands of years, first by Native Americans following the massive herds of bison that roamed the grasslands on either side. They were followed by fur traders, freighters, cowboys and homesteaders. The path through here was also a crossroads for two stagecoach and wagon roads – the Carroll Trail which ran between the Missouri River and Helena and the trail that connected Fort Benton and Great Falls with Billings. I love imagining ghostly images of all those people in their various modes of dress and transport climbing the hills before me.

The climb gains a bit of steepness as we approach Judith Gap. The road seems to disappear at the top of the crest, but once we get there, we can see the road dip just after it passes the communication towers, then climb again. The ‘gap’ is more of a broad swale of grassland with numerous dips and lumps than a narrow pass between ranges.

The town of Judith Gap is strung out along the highway like it is afraid to cluster elsewhere and lose the attention of passing motorists. It was founded in 1908 as a division point for a branch line of the Great Northern Railway. It has the look of ‘not what it once was, but stubbornly hanging on’. I stop to get fresh water for my Camelbak and a Gatorade for my water bottle holder. The gas station attendant looks at me and says, “Do you like wind”?

I reply, “Depends on which way it’s coming from”.

He smiles, “You’re going to get a crosswind between here and Harlowton. Be prepared”. He says it like I’m about to face cyclonic winds. But Judith Gap, apparently, is world-famous for its wind-farm south of town. I’d never heard of it before.

Judith Gap wind farm. It is famous apparently. It is a bit windy – a strengthening crosswind that gets considerably stronger AFTER the wind farm.

Indeed, as we climb and descend rolling hills under a sky that stretches to infinity, or just a bit short of there, rows of turbines line each side of the road. And yes, the wind does pick up. It is a bit of a nuisance, but it’s really not too bad. The road shoulder has substantially increased in size, so I’m not worried about being blown around if the wind picks up further.

“We grow wheat and energy.”

The wind farm started producing power in 2005 from 90, 1.5MW towers. It was later expanded to 135 towers in total. The average wind speed through here is 15.7 to 17.9 mph at a height of 162 feet (height of the turbines). The turbines start spinning with winds of six mph, run at a maximum capacity with winds of 33.5 mph and shut down when winds hit 56 mph. The wind farm produces enough power for 300 homes annually. I think about the statistics as I ride. In some ways I think it seems like a whole lot of land and visual interruption in the landscape for only 300 homes. I also know we need to move away from coal and gas. I would prefer the landscape without them, but I don’t know the answer on balancing energy production and other quality of life measures. I sure wouldn’t want to live near a wind farm, though. They are noisy!

Yep – helmet streamers indicate the crosswind is getting to be a nuisance about 15 miles north of Harlowton.

I do get a good laugh that it is not until AFTER I get through the wind farm that the wind really picks up! It does become a real nuisance as it blows through the flats in an area called the Wheatland Syncline. I also lose my nice shoulder. The road becomes narrow with absolutely nothing but a drop into the ditch on the side. The traffic is sufficient enough to need a shoulder, so not only am I fighting the wind, but I’m also really needing to keep an eye on traffic through here. However, they are working on this section, and widening it as we speak. Just after I climb a small ridge that curves to send me into a headwind, I get to the flagger who says to me, “Hurry up. Catch up to the line”.

Pffft. I’m going uphill on dirt into the wind. This is my speed. I take off after the pilot car, and soon I get to the downhill and come close to catching the slow-moving line by the end of it. As I ride through, the frequency of whistles and a man calling out “hot mama” is a little sickening, not least because I am definitely no mamma!

The rest area at the junction with Highway 12 is new and clean. A woman comes up to me inside and says, “What do your parents think about what you are doing”?

I reply, “Um, I think they are proud. Of course they worry, but I’ve done a lot of miles at this point, so I think they have confidence in me.”

She says, “Oh, I saw you back in that narrow section where you had to get off the road. Then I saw the construction section, and I worried about you all the way through. I’m so glad you’re not my kid.”

Harlowton is actually a pretty neat little town. It has a considerable amount of history to consider for a town that’s been around less than 125 years. I enjoy a meander along the main street and a look at one of the museums. For a town sitting on a river bench in the middle of prairie, which expands in all directions to distant low mountain ranges, it’s quite an interesting place. The park also has a really nice and uncrowded camping area. After lunch, though, it is time to move on.

The Graves Hotel – one of the first buildings built on the ‘new’ main street near the depot for the railroad being built into town. It was the first building to use the local sandstone.


Harlowton. I liked the feel here. It is an old railroad town. A fire that wiped out 24 businesses resulted in a city ordinance requiring fire-proof building materials. Consequently, many post-fire buildings were constructed with sandstone.
Box-electric locomotive from the Milwaukee Railroad. It was founded at the turn of the century and the last trains ran through here in the 1980s. It was in Harlowton that the railroad switched from steam power to electric power on the westward line. In 1916, the Milwaukee completed 438 miles of electrification from Harlowton to Avery, Idaho. It was North America’s longest electrified line.

Highway 191 south of Harlowton drives straight down through vast expanses of prairie east of the Crazy Mountains. But don’t be fooled by the relatively soft sandstones and shales of the late Cretaceous (65 mya) just south of town. The gentle riding with super long views to the horizon are about to be interrupted by a whole bunch of climbing through the sandstones of the early Tertiary (50 mya).

See ya later, Harlowton, you were an interesting little town set out in the middle of nowhere!
Ah, the relative flatness of the easily eroded late Cretaceous sandstones and shales. Don’t you worry, though, there is plenty of climbing to come on early Tertiary strata.

The Cayuse Hills are resistant ridges of the Fort Union formation. They create a whole lot of climbing through scenic hills, some clad with pines that stick their roots right down into that porous rock.

View of the northern Crazy Mountains off to the west. Note the pines growing on the ridge – they like the porous sandstones of the Fort Union formation.

Up and down, up and down. There is no shoulder, but the road doesn’t really need one. The Crazy Mountains to the west escort us down the road, and the hills provide the topographical relief to make the day interesting and challenging. It is good and feels me full of joy. I love days and roads like this!

The road has a heck of a lot of climbing and descending, but you head generally up from Harlowton for half the distance to Big Timber, then there is more downhill than up for the second half.
Once you see this butte, the climbing is almost over. You are about to start heading generally downhill from here.

The road generally climbs for about the first half of the miles out of Harlowtown, then generally descends to Big Timber for the second half. As we come out of the Cayuse Hills, wetlands and small lakes create blue dots of shimmering surface water in the distance. Cottonwoods grow tall and break the prairie skyline. We cross Sweetgrass Creek, where indeed, the grass looks lush and sweet. The traffic starts to increase here but we gain a bit of a shoulder. The Crazy Mountains seem taller and closer and grander.

Bison farm. The grasslands in this area would have supported huge herds before the Europeans came.
Grassland and Crazy Mountains.

The road curves and climbs through the trees and relative lushness. We weave around outcrops of the Livingston volcanic rocks and pedal down into a narrower valley. Here we meet with road construction and about a million side-dump gravel trucks. The flagger makes me wait for the pilot car. I sit there and shoot the breeze with him for the next 20 minutes. He is in his early 50s. He’s got long black hair, a long black beard with the beginnings of grey streaks within it, a beer belly and short stout legs that end in black work boots. He works all summer and drinks all winter. There is not a lot of winter seasonal work to be had in Montana. He thinks Billings is ‘as good a place as any’ to live.

Cottonwood, pine and mountains – can’t get more western than that.
Southern end of the Crazy Mountains. We rode up the valley on the other side of them around about 6 July.

Finally, the pilot car arrives. I let all of the other cars go through, then I join the back of the line. I promptly lose the pilot car about ¼ mile down the road (why did I have to wait?). However, I then have the next 12 miles all to myself on a thin piece of smooth asphalt that hasn’t been milled. They are only working right down the end of the 12-15 miles of construction, close to town. I don’t even have to slow down for any heavy equipment. They are packing up for the day down here. That was great fun to have a 12-mile downhill run to myself through the tan outcrops of the volcanic rocks.

There is about 15 miles of road construction going downhill to Big Timber. The flagger makes me wait for the pilot truck which I lose only a quarter mile into the construction. But they have not milled the far right side of the road, and it is some of the smoothest pavement I’ve had in MT. I don’t know why it needed resurfaced. But whatever… it was nice to have that great pavement all to myself almost all the way into town.

I negotiate $50 cash for a room at the old motel in town. The room is tiny and the bed is so bouncy you would not want to get too crazy on there, or you might bounce right off onto the floor. The place is so dated it has a scale that folds out from the wall in the bathroom (I’m still losing weight). It is so tacky, it has used floor mats stuck to the wall with push-pins as decoration. But it is clean enough, it keeps me out of the afternoon storms that roll through, and the shower (I haven’t had one since Havre) is hot and has good pressure.

So classy. A used floor mat tacked on the wall as decoration. I only stay in the best places!
Yep, that’s a scale that folds out from the wall. First time I’ve ever seen one of those, and I’ve stayed in a lot of old motels over the years. 
I’m not sure where you get a picture of a Victorian-style home in prairie Montana, but they’ve done it. The clock doesn’t work; thankfully, the air conditioner does.

It caps off another fantastic day. Central Montana, you are terrific!


Leave a Reply