These days, you can easily drive from Billings to Glendive without stopping. At 80 miles per hour, the plains are a blur.
But should you choose to slow down, you may be struck by the nuance of the country before you. And should you choose to pull over for awhile, may you choose to pull over in Terry.
Terry, Montana — with its rich history and a striking landscape — is the gateway to the Terry Badlands.
In its heyday, Terry was a hub of activity. Two major railroads, the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road, had lines running through Terry in the early 20th century. Sheepherders, dry farmers, and ranchers settled across Prairie County, and businesses and banks situated themselves in town. In the 1930s, there were 20 schools across the county.
Much of that history — along with the culture and landscape — was captured by Evelyn Cameron. Evelyn was a prairie photographer and frontierswoman who gave up her privileged life in England to move to Terry in 1893.
To see her work today, you can visit the Prairie County Museum and Evelyn Cameron Gallery or the Evelyn Cameron Heritage, Inc. in Terry . The WaterWorks Art Museum over in Miles City also has a permanent collection of her photographs.
Evelyn Cameron was deeply moved by the landscape around Terry, the stark pinnacles and deep gulches of the Badlands. Luckily for us, this land has remained undeveloped and is just as captivating today as it was then.
The Terry Badlands are a 44,000-acre swath of public land located just a few miles northwest of Terry. This land has been managed as a Wilderness Study Area since the late ’70s, so the wilderness character of the area has been maintained. When you walk along the ridgelines or down in the drainages, it’s as if you’re seeing the prairie as it was hundreds of years ago — just as Evelyn Cameron did.
Atop Sheridan Butte or the Scenic View Overlook, the Badlands appear endless. From the Calypso Trail — the unimproved dirt road that takes you into the heart of the Badlands — the gnarled spires and rock formations tower above the prairie floor. Deep gulches, rich with grasses, weave their way among the hills. The intensity of the exposed red, brown, black, and grey earth changes as the sun moves overhead. As the seasons pass, the desert wildflowers fade, and the autumn ash trees paint the drainages.
There’s no shortage of beauty out here. The badlands are truly striking.
Karen Stevenson leads a hike to the Terry Badlands every year as part of Montana Wilderness Association’s wilderness walks. Over the past eight years, she has taken a range of people into the Badlands: locals from Terry and Miles City, folks from across Montana, and out-of-state tourists.
Karen considers it a privilege to share this place with people.
“It never fails … people are just in awe,” Karen says. “Everybody gets it once you get up there. They don’t when they’re driving around the Interstate. But if you take the time to get out of your car and walk away, you get it. There’s a power there that I haven’t really found in any mountain landscape.”
Born and raised on the Hi-Line, Karen has prairie in her blood. Both sets of her grandparents were homesteaders and she inherited from them a love for openness. After she began playing Evelyn Cameron in a one-woman show that toured the state, Karen fell for the Badlands.
“Evelyn Cameron lured me into the landscape and the history of the area,” she says. “I would come to realize how landscape dramatically shapes who we are and that we came from a place that isn’t just human caused, but that we came from a place of nature and that still forms us.”
Even after all these years, Karen still finds the Badlands as breathtaking as always.
“It’s humbling. That’s what that county does to you. It can bring you to your knees. Either by slipping on some gumbo mud or by seeing the absolute dramatic expanse.”
There are folks in and around Terry who feel like they hold the key to one of Montana’s secret gems. The Terry Badlands are a great place to hike, camp, or picnic. It’s the ideal landscape for birdwatching and for wildlife photography and viewing. The Yellowstone River has great fishing and is perfect for canoeing, kayaking, or collecting Montana Moss Agates. And thanks to the wild quality of the badlands and the use of Block Management Grants, there is prime hunting.
Luckily for all of us, this is a secret that most are willing and hoping to share with everyone.
Lance Kalfell, a rancher and the chairman of the Prairie County Economic Development Council, has made it his mission to spread the word about Terry’s secret gem. A few weeks ago, before he had to cut his alfalfa, Lance took the time to show us around the badlands and introduce us to the town of Terry.
“I’ve got time to spare right now and I’ve got to help my community.” Lance says. “I’m trying to save our community from drying up and blowing away.”
Lance understands the value of the public lands that are in his backyard. He sees the potential that lies in those hills and draws. For Lance, the most important question is how to harness that potential and make the Terry Badlands beneficial to the local people.
Local folks do use the Badlands. There are grazing rights in the Badlands, although the terrain is tough to navigate and off-road vehicle use is restricted. Some folks would like to be able to drive more places, says Lance. But at the end of the day, “people don’t want to see this land go away either.”
A few years ago, Lance and the Prairie County Economic Development Council teamed up with Montana Wilderness Association in an effort to promote the area. Together, with the help of volunteers and community members, they put together an impressive map and brochure of the Terry Badlands. It gives a thorough guide of how to access the area, and it provides a nice overview of the town’s history. They have since improved the brochure, which can be found at the Miles City BLM office as well as a few other places around Terry. The success of this map helped Montana Wilderness Association put together a larger brochure called Buttes, Breaks, and Badlands which is meant to promote wild attractions all across Eastern Montana.
Ranchers and conservation groups are not as unlikely partners as we once may have thought. Across the state, partnerships like these are forming to promote healthy landscapes, keep our Montana lands open, and find ways to make towns benefit from our public lands.
“They weren’t the bad guys, and it looked like they were trying to make an effort to work with ranchers. So I took the step,” Lance said in a 2011 interview with the Billings Gazette.
For Montana Wilderness Association, there was a recognition that the beauty of Eastern Montana was unrightfully being overshadowed by the big peaks and mountain lakes of the West. There’s an effort to protect these areas, show their value, and help make them beneficial to the communities around them.
“Part of what we want to do is highlight the area,” says Mark Good of Montana Wilderness Association. “I think that some people across the state hadn’t heard of the Terry Badlands.” This is part of a larger effort to promote tourism, improve the vitality of the town, and promote and protect wild spaces in Eastern Montana.
So come for the badlands, and stay for the the people and history.
Terry has quality museums and there is a historic walking tour that weaves throughout the town. Brochures for the walking tour can be found at the Kempton Hotel, which is the longest continuously operated hotel in Montana. Russ and Linda Schwartz, the current owners, are working on upgrading the beautiful rooms and the hotel is filled to the brim with treasures.
Terry Badlands is a place where history, landscape, and people meet. The importance and beauty of the place speak for itself. You just have to slow down enough to hear it.
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