Terry Badlands beckon on a perfect fall day

TERRY — We went to the Terry Badlands on Saturday knowing that the natural bridges—huge spans of sandstone over a dry gulch—were prime attractions of the area.

What we didn’t know was that one of the first things you encounter as you approach the badlands from the frontage road west of Terry is a bridge of an entirely different kind: the old Milwaukee Road railroad bridge across the Yellowstone River.

This behemoth, four big spans of black iron, is a single-lane bridge with foot-wide strips of grated steel laid over the timbers for a driving surface. In more than a few spots the old timbers have rotted away, the gaps replaced with lengths of scrap iron held in place by enormous bolts. It doesn’t really feel unsafe, but I think our jokes about plunging through the bridge to the river far below were tinged with a sliver of nervousness.

As it turns out, it’s a good introduction to the Terry Badlands. The railroad bridge might be shaky, but it’s probably a good deal more reliable than Calypso Trail (named for an old railroad siding), the road that actually takes you into the badlands. Calypso Trail is a narrow dirt road with some steep climbs, more than a few sharp bends and several constricted passes where you could reach out on either side of your vehicle and touch the rock walls.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Micha, left, and Dawnya Kirkpatrick, accompanied by Mack the boxer, make their way across a natural bridge in the Terry Badlands.

There isn’t much information available on the Terry Badlands, but every mention of them is accompanied by a warning not to use Calypso Trail after a rain, when it turns into slick, treacherous gumbo.

That was one thing we didn’t have to worry about. Saturday might have been the perfect day for an outing to the badlands—perfectly dry but not too hot. It was still cool when we started our hike into the natural bridges, and though we warmed up on the hike out, when temperatures climbed into the low 70s, it was not uncomfortable.

I had been meaning to visit the Terry Badlands for years. I had known of them only vaguely, as something clearly visible from Interstate 94. The first time I remember learning anything definite about the badlands was in Brett French’s story more than three years ago in the Gazette.

I tried to find the brochure he mentioned in his story, a handy guide produced jointly by the Prairie County Economic Development Council and the Montana Wilderness Association, but they have become scarce.

After striking out at the Billings office of the Bureau of Land Management and the Base Camp store, I made five or six phone calls before finally being referred to Lance Kalfell, the rancher mentioned in Brett’s story.

Kalfell was kind enough to leave three of the brochures in his mailbox, on the frontage road west of Terry, which we picked up on the way. (In the same spirit, if anybody else wants to visit the Terry Badlands and needs to borrow one of the brochures, just get ahold of me.)

The brochure has information about vegetation, wildlife, historical attractions and such, plus GPS coordinates for some of the landmarks. The Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area encompasses 44,000 acres of mostly BLM land northwest of Terry.

It was designated a wilderness study area in the 1970s and is still awaiting (don’t hold your breath) congressional action. In the meantime, it is maintained as if it were a wilderness area. That means vehicles, including mountain bikes, are allowed only on Calypso Trail.

Cameron Sapp, the prairie lands coordinator for the Montana Wilderness Association, said the Terry Badlands look a lot like Makoshika State Park outside Glendive, “but the way they’re treated and viewed is completely different.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A chunk of sandstone, looking like a giant slice of pie, rests atop a pillar of whitish stone.

At the Terry Badlands there is no pavement, no visitors center and just two informational kiosks, both near the entrance. The only marked trail is the one to the natural bridges, and it is quite faint for much of its length. Elsewhere, you’re invited to pull over where you can and go exploring on your own.

I was accompanied Saturday by Tom Tollefson and David Crisp. We belong to an informal survivors club, all three of us having worked as region editors at the Gazette.

We got to the badlands by taking the Diamond Ring exit on I-94, near the Prairie County line, and following the frontage road about 15 miles to Milwaukee Road, which takes you over the Yellowstone on the railroad bridge and then to Calypso Trail just west of the river.

The guide says the road to the natural bridges parking area is 5½ miles. I’d say it’s closer to seven but don’t worry. You’ll get there eventually, and even if the road were any better you’d want to crawl along fairly slowly anyway, just to take in all the stunning scenery, which changes with each bend in the road.

We parked above Bootlegger Spring, a boggy depression containing some stock-watering equipment, and started walking in. I was keeping my eyes down, vaguely hoping to spot an arrowhead. No such luck, but I did espy a small piece of paper with writing on it.

I snatched it up and quickly discovered it was a mash note, addressed from a boy to a girl. I’m guessing it was recently composed, since it probably wouldn’t have been legible after a single rainstorm, and was most likely the remnant of a school field trip.

To avoid embarrassing either party, I won’t say who it was from or who it was addressed to, only that if you unfolded it, it said on the reverse side: “U look nice today.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

From the scenic overlook north of Terry, the badlands seems to stretch on forever.

Our young gallant could as easily have been addressing the landscape, a lovely mixture of badlands interspersed with grassy meadows, always with some striking feature in the distance or near at hand—pyramids of stone, slender columns of whitish rock supporting slabs of rock or mushroom-shaped clumps of sandstone, great heaps of hard gray mud, squatting there like elephants, and everywhere multicolored layers of sedimentary rock, looking like chapters in a book of geology.

The guide said it was a mile from the parking area to the bridges, but once again we all thought it seemed farther. Not that the terrain was strenuous or the scenery wearisome, and accounting for our advancing decrepitude; it just seemed longer.

As we got near the bridges, we passed through a mostly dry marsh. It was strange out in that dry badlands to come across a substantial collection of reeds and cattails, but there they were. It looked as though the trail once cut across an edge of the marsh, but sometime fairly recently, probably during one of those heavy rains this spring or summer, a big swath of marsh collapsed in on itself, leaving a large oblong gash, maybe 15 feet deep, in the muddy soil.

The bridges were as striking as advertised. There are three distinct spans, the largest being about 8 feet wide and maybe 75 feet across. All three sandstone bridges are surprisingly smooth and level, spanning a steep ravine choked with sagebrush and juniper trees.

It was dry on Saturday, but you can imagine the volume of water the ravine carries in a hard rain by exploring a series of three or four caves just down the gulley from the bridges.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

This formation, near the scenic overlook, is slowly crumbling into countless fragments, each seemingly of a different color.

While we there, eating lunch and exploring a bit, two other people arrived, the first we had seen all day—Dawnya Kirkpatrick and her 23-year-old daughter, Micha, accompanied by their boxer, Mack.

Dawnya said they moved to Terry in 1996, and though they often four-wheel in the badlands—“That’s all we do; that’s our entertainment”—this was the first time they had hiked into the natural bridges.

“It’s awesome!” Dawnya said when they got there.

“I can’t believe I’ve never seen it,” Micha chimed in. At least she wouldn’t wait so long for a return trip. Micha said some Wyoming friends would be visiting this weekend, and she planned to take them to the natural bridges.

That wouldn’t have surprised Sapp, with the wilderness association, who said: “You would think it’s a local treasure, and it is, but a lot of locals have never been to the area.”

We had left Billings at 8 a.m., and by the time we walked back to our vehicle it was already 3 p.m., which is getting late this time of year. We had planned to do some more hiking, but as it was we only had time to briefly explore an area not far from the natural bridges.

Other notable landmarks include Sheridan Butte, close to the start of Calypso Trail, where soldiers in Custer’s 7th Cavalry carved their names, and Chimney Rock, a lone pillar of sandstone thrusting up from a pyramid of sedimentary rock.

We slowly made our way back to the start of Calypso Trail, back across the railroad bridge and then into Terry, two miles to the east. We drove through town to Highway 253, a Big Sky Back Country Byway that goes north to Brockway.

Just at the top of the first hill outside of town, we took Scenic View Road to the west. The road sign is very small. We shot past it, realized our mistake a few miles later and turned back around.

This road dead-ends after about five miles and if anything is even more primitive than Calypso Trail. But we were rewarded at the end, where there is a little turnaround on top of a tall bluff. From there, looking west and north, the badlands stretch off as far as you can see. Looking south and a little east, the town of Terry spreads itself out along the Yellowstone River.

There was one carload of people ahead of us, a family from Miles City with some visiting kin from Minnesota. They had never been there either, and we later learned that they nearly turned back at one point before running into a local on a four-wheeler, who advised them to press on.

We could have picked just about any point at the overlook to scramble down to the bottom and go exploring, but it was too late. A little sighingly, we got back in the car for the three-hour drive to Billings.

Next time, and I do hope there is a next time, I think we’d better make it an overnighter.



Leave a Reply