1) Before hitting the dusty trail, spend some quality time at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, where the works of one of the West’s most iconic cowboy artists draw visitors from around the globe. In addition to seeing many of Russell’s original paintings and sculptures, you can also visit his restored log cabin studio, where he stored much of his work and inspirational artifacts after arriving in the valley in 1880—he remained a Montanan until his death in 1926. Be sure to take a gander at his “illustrated letters,” which are tucked away in an easy-to-miss corner. (For an Auto Tour booklet from the Russell Country tourism region, call 800-527-5348.)
2) Just before dropping in to the hamlet of Belt (where a stop at the Belt Creek Brew Pub comes highly recommended), look northeastward toward the Highwood Mountains to view the backdrop from Russell’s painting, Romance Makers. The title of the painting and the painting itself have inspired numerous exhibitions and studies of Russell’s masterful watercolors.
3) In Without Knocking (one of Russell’s most-acclaimed canvases) was conceived in the roughand- tumble town of Stanford. Be sure to stop into the Basin Trading Post to see the famous white wolf, a canis lupus that looks similar to the one in Russell’s Lone Wolf painting. Back in the 1800s, a healthy wolf population took kindly to the increasing number of game and livestock in the Judith Basin. The white wolf, though hunted aggressively, lived into its teens, before a local Montanan made the kill in 1930.
4) Take a dogleg off the main route at Windham (onto Route 541) and head southward to experience your own Quiet Day in Utica, a colorfully depicted painting with bucking horses and flapping chickens. Established in 1880, Utica is somewhat calmer these days. Continue south on an “improved” gravel road, which soon turns to single-lane gravel with pullouts; you’ll pass a number of “Charlie was Here” interpretive signs (look for the yellow and brown bison skulls). After about 20 miles, Russell Point materializes in the limestone bluffs. No séance needed to feel Russell’s presence here.
5) Before heading any further into the Little Belt Mountains, come about and motor back to Highway 87 (via Route 239) through Hobson. Once a “paradise of free grass,” the area long nourished bison, but by 1883, cattlemen had moved in. Russell’s painting, the Toll Collectors,depicts early stockman’s negotiations for this rolling rangeland.