Coaxed out of my apartment a few days ago by one of the most beautiful stretches of fall weather in memory, I found myself on the banks of the Clarks Fork River just southeast of Laurel.
I was enjoying myself, but the three dogs accompanying me were downright ecstatic. Miles of trails wind through a river bottom thick with chest-high grass and cottonwood trees, and for the dogs, plenty of opportunities to slide down the gravel banks for a swim or a drink of water.
And for Xavi, the youngest and least discriminating of the dog trio, there were plenty of horse turds to nibble on when he took the notion.
We were at the Sundance Lodge Recreation Area, a 380-acre parcel that was acquired in 1997 by the Bureau of Land Management with assistance from the Nature Conservancy and the Yellowstone Chapter of Pheasants Forever.
I had been there once, many years ago, to write about mountain-men re-enactors putting on programs for Laurel high school students, but it was summer and the mosquitoes were almost unbearable. I had pretty much forgotten about it until recently, when a friend told me it was one of her favorite dog destinations.
That recommendation, and the pull of the fine weather, finally drew me back.
Sundance Lodge, 16 miles from downtown Billings, is easy enough to find. You take the south frontage road west to Duck Creek Road, take Duck Creek to River Road and follow it until crossing the mouth of the Clarks Fork River. The entrance to the recreation area is a half mile from the Clarks Fork bridge, on your left.
From Laurel, take Highway 212 toward Red Lodge, turn left on Thiel Road and drive 1.3 miles to the parking area. (Thiel Road turns into River Road on the east side of the Clarks Fork River, if you’re wondering.)
We’d been there about half an hour when we ran into Carol Blades, out walking with her 7-year-old black lab, Bessie. Blades lives just north of the recreation area and is a regular visitor. She used to go often on horseback, she said, but she has scoliosis “and the best thing for my scoliosis is walking.”
Besides being so good for her physically, she said, “it’s very comforting to my soul.”
There are some drawbacks. The ticks are terrible in the spring and the mosquitoes in the summer, but in the fall, winter and early spring, she said, “it’s just magnificent.”
“It was like the Y in January,” she said.
There’s one more thing to watch for, Blades said.
“The thing I don’t like down here are the porcupines. I’ve had to pull quills out of her”—pointing to Bessie—“a couple times.”
But as I say, it was nearly perfect when we were there, if anything bordering on being two warm. Besides the abundant natural attractions, there are several picnic tables and benches, which Blades said were installed by the Montana Conservation Corps.
There are also several interpretive signs throughout the area that tell the story of the flight of the Nez Perce Indians across Montana in 1877. There’s good history there, and some good photographs.
The area was named by Laurel high school students. Their research showed that the Crow Indian name for the Clarks Fork River translated as “Where the Sun Dance Lodge was run over.” According to the BLM, this refers to an incident “in which an abandoned sun dance lodge was run over by a herd of buffalo.”
The area is now managed by the BLM and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It is available for day use only, open for biking, hiking and horseback riding. Archery hunting and limited shotgun hunting are also available.
I can see it becoming a regular destination for me and my dogs. The trails are mostly soft, charcoal-colored sand. Blades said the main trail that winds around the perimeter of the recreation area is 3.7 miles long, with several other trails branching off through the brushy bottom land.
Ed Kemmick/Last Best News permalink
Beautiful day, beautiful trail.