The National Bison Refuge provides an excellent opportunity to see bison in their natural setting — the hilly grasslands of Montana. The Refuge is located about an hour’s drive northwest of Missoula and is just off the road one drives from Missoula to Glacier National Park. The refuge includes a small visitor center, picnic area, limited hiking trails (walking in the refuge is regulated and mostly prohibited as the animals pose a danger to tourists), and a one way scenic drive. The National Bison Refuge was established in 1908 and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; there is a modest admission fee.
(Thunderstorm moving over the National Bison Refuge, Montana)
(National Bison Refuge -- View of Flathead River Valley, Montana)
Highlights of your visit are the scenery and wildlife viewing you’ll enjoy as your drive the 20 mile (about 30 km) road that circles the refuge. The gravel road is in a fairly good state of repair; still it’s fairly narrow and has a 10 degree pitch in many places. Motorcycles and bikes are not allowed. The drive takes you through a variety of ecosystems including hilly grasslands, higher altitude forests and creek environments (you’ll find lots of songbirds around these). In spring and early summer the hills are green but towards the end of summer the grass is dried and yellow. At its highest the altitude is 4700 feet (1400 m) above sea level and features a forest of Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine. The views from this high vantage are wonderful! During the last ice age much of the land seen from the refuge was covered by Glacial Lake Missoula.
The herd of over 350 bison are the star attraction and you’re all but guaranteed to see many of these huge animals, often in close proximity (though sometimes you're not so luck). The American Bison (buffalo) is a massive animal, bulls weighing up to 2000 pounds (900 kg) and cows about half as much. They have a large hump of muscle behind their neck which supports their massive head, and a thick shaggy coat much treasured by hunters in the 19th century. When not grazing, buffalo are often seen rolling in mud or dust holes to coat their themselves with dirt (for protection from insects). They often seem slow and lumbering but are quick and able to run as fast as a horse.
(Pronghorn antelope, left 2 panels, and bull elk, right panel)
We also saw a number of whitetail deer, pronghorn antelope and one elk. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, golden eagles and black bears also live on the refuge but we did not encounter any during our visit. The animals are used to cars and not very scared of them so you will likely have good opportunity to closely approach wildlife.
(Fawn, National Bison Refuge, Montana)
You can spend as long as you like driving and viewing the animals but count on at least 2-3 hours minimum so as not to feel rushed — a lot longer if you wish to study and photograph the animals. It's a good diversion for anyone traveling from Missoula to Glacier, or traveling along the I-90 freeway.