Overlooked Escape: Montana’s American Prairie

Photo: Brian Greenblatt

Experience America’s iconic ecosystem inside a massive nature preserve effort.

Visiting the far-flung reaches of north-central Montana is a bit like stepping back in time. Here, bison roam the shortgrass prairie; meadowlarks and peregrine falcons swoop through the skies; and the buttes, river lands, and wide-open grasslands look much as they did before Europeans began ranching and farming across much of the American prairie. Travelers who brave the journey to this remote region can hike the trailless hills, sleep under the stars, and witness the restoration of an iconic ecosystem, all thanks to a bold conservation initiative called the American Prairie.

The project, run by a nonprofit based in Bozeman, Mont., aims to create the largest nature preserve in the lower 48—encompassing 3.2 million acres of badlands, prairie, and a stretch of the Missouri River—in a unique way. Most protected lands in the U.S. were created by government action, but AP’s goal is to build its preserve by buying private lands that connect existing public parcels. AP will hold the lands and manage them jointly with federal management agencies, with the intent of keeping them open to the public for recreation. 

Since it began its work in 2004, AP has assembled 420,425 acres of land: It outright owns 105,378 of them and is leasing the rest from the federal and state governments. These lands border or sit close to the 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the 375,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, and more public lands managed by Montana and the Bureau of Land Management. Together, they make up the vast preserve that AP hopes to restore to a fully functioning prairie ecosystem. Bison were reintroduced to the preserve in 2005, and managers want to build up the populations of many more species that traditionally made their homes here: mountain lions, elk, white-tailed deer, and bighorn sheep, among many others.

Far from cities and airports, AP takes dedication to visit—you’ll need to be prepared for rough roads, harsh weather, and little infrastructure. But the chance to explore this wild, rugged region is well worth the trouble. To get here, plan to fly into Bozeman, Great Falls, or Billings (go for the closest one to your intended destination within the reserve), and rent a car there. As you approach AP, Lewiston, Malta, and Lodgepole have some services—most crucially, gas. 

Visiting American Prairie

AP is a reserve-in-progress. Right now, it consists of the adjacent Charles M. Russell NWR, Upper Missouri River Breaks NM, and a patchwork of other lands the nonprofit has taken under its wing. The additional lands are broken up into units: PN on the west, Mars Vista in the center, Two Crow to the south, and Dry Fork, White Rock, Sun Prairie, Sun Prairie North, Blue Ridge, and Timber Creek to the northeast. 

Ready to experience the wild prairie? Here are just a few places to start, all within the lands that AP has opened up to public access over the past 17 years.


Unlike in many other parks, the majority of AP’s hiking opportunities don’t involve maintained trails; cross-country exploration is encouraged. If you go this route, just be sure to carry a map and compass and know how to use them, pack plenty of water, and be extra-alert for wildlife like bison and rattlesnakes. If you’d prefer to start out on an actual path, the Box Elder Crossing route winds for 5.8 miles (one-way) across meadows and over hills in the Sun Prairie Unit.

Mountain Biking

Lonely dirt roads and trails that are perfect for two wheels crisscross parts of the AP. The PN and Sun Prairie units have the most options, with loops and out-and-backs of varying distances available. Study maps and chat with staffers ahead of time for specific route-planning and current trail conditions.

The AP offers excellent bikepacking options, too, particularly when you combine the newer AP units with the Charles M. Russell NWR and Upper Missouri Breaks NM. Dispersed camping is allowed on the AP-deeded lands.


Hunting for game species is allowed on 69,000 acres of AP lands. And the reserve even offers the chance to hunt bison as part of its plan to manage the herd by mimicking natural predation. Tags are highly desirable and distributed through a drawing that prioritizes local hunters first, but anyone can enter the lottery. 


Eager to sleep under the prairie sky? AP has opened a couple of developed, reservable campgrounds. Antelope Creek Campground in the Mars Vista Unit offers eight tent sites, 12 RV sites, and four cabins—and it’s easily accessible off U.S. Route 191. Buffalo Camp, in the Sun Prairie Unit, is farther off the beaten path and has six tent sites and seven RV sites, and yes, offers a chance to spot the preserve’s bison herd. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.