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Two motorcyclist on the highway

Rocky Mountain Front south of Browning.
Photo courtesy Cole Boehler

The Rock Creek route has some pavement at both ends and a long stretch of gravel in between.
Photo courtesy Cole Boehner

Lame Deer Ashland
Photo courtesy Cole Boehler

At Beartooth Highway scenic overlook before crossing into Wyoming.
Photo courtesy Cole Boehler

Rider takes a break to contemplate Yaak Falls on the Yaak River.
Photo courtesy Cole Boehler

Square Butte haying time.
Photo courtesy Cole Boehler

Rock Creek gravel route in October is stunning.
Photo courtesy Cole Boehler

About Montana

Okay, first thing: it's big!

It's roughly 500 miles wide and 300 miles deep - 145,000 square miles. It is the fourth largest state in the Union but only five other states have fewer people, which yields a very, very low 6.5-people-per-square-mile ratio. That also yields a very low car-per-mile ratio on our roadways. We like it like this.

Montana is a place of extremes. The eastern two-thirds is big prairie and rich farmland, rolling hills of good grass pasture, and rugged badlands, underneath which lies vast stores of coal and crude oil. And the sky is really, really big! The western third is mountain foothills, productive river valleys and mountains with plentiful timber and minerals and recreation opportunities. The highest peak is just under 13,000 feet above sea level. Ironically, the state's lowest elevation is in the mountainous northwest corner at 1,800 feet.

The weather

Winds will gust over 100 miles per hour with 80 mph winds not uncommon. During the winter of 2011, a gust of 114 miles per hour was recorded at Choteau ... before the wind measuring equipment was destroyed!

Average precipitation runs between 11 and 15 inches per year, quite arid overall. You may experience violent thunderstorms that drop buckets of rain and bushels of hail, but they are usually brief.

About the Roads

A lack of traffic

In the fall of 2010 an outfit that rates state highway systems said Montana's is second best in the nation. I've personally ridden about 90 percent of the highways in the state in the last few years and I can tell you the roads are fine.

The surfaces

Montana's roadways are generally in excellent condition. Nevertheless, with our extreme weather, surfaces can crumble quite suddenly and unexpectedly, especially after the first thaw. Always look well ahead for pavement problems.

Sand may be present on roadways, especially hazardous in turns. This may be the result of highway department sanding operations after snow or ice forms, or it may be washing off nearby hillsides and mountains.

When riding along steep terrain with cliffs at the roadside, be watching for rocks on the road. We've seen them from billiard ball size to the size of a refrigerator.

It seems a lot of drivers in Montana are hauling loads. In the west, those gathering firewood frequently lose a few blocks. In the east, we've seen where big hay bales, perhaps a half-ton, have let loose from the load. We've also seen sugar beets, from five to 20 pounds, falling from trucks after harvest has begun (September).

We see the evidence of the occasional diesel or cooling fluid spills, both highly anathema to traction. Now here's another surface hazard that is entirely unnecessary and angers me: soupy manure drained onto the surface from livestock hauling trailers. I'm sure it's illegal but it happens all the time. Watch for it, avoid it. If you see it happening, report it!

The Riding

It's mostly about avoiding the crowds

I've found over the years that any piece of highway - even straight and flat - is a pleasure to ride ... if there's little traffic. Here, we often get all the best attributes of superb riding, but especially remoteness and solitude. We now favor riding more in the spring and fall seasons. In 2010 we did our first day-ride in the first week of March (22 degrees in the morning but mid-50s by early afternoon) and our last ride the first week of November (32 degrees at the start and mid-60s at the warmest; it snowed two days later). True, in the "shoulder seasons" the days are shorter and the miles fewer, but sometimes that's nice sleep in and stop early. It's simply about having the highways to ourselves.

The Hazards

The wildlife

Montana, with its wide open spaces and plenty of habitat, hosts wonderful populations of every kind of wildlife, from big four-legged ruminants that exceed 1,500 pounds and stand seven feet tall, to all kinds of wild felines, canines, rodents, fish and fowl.

In our view, deer are the worst hazard facing riders. Whitetails and muleys are present in large numbers. Elk, moose and antelope are also factors.

It helps to be able to recognize likely habitat - good cover, feed and water - and ride accordingly. Some terrain has natural game funnel features that riders can recognize, too, as likely crossings. The highway department posts game crossing signs where there has been a history of traveler and game collisions, so pay attention to the warnings.

The laws

Montana traffic laws are fairly typical for the U.S. with perhaps a minor exception: speed violations.

We are allowed to travel at 75 mph night and day on the Interstates; trucks at 65. Most secondaries are posted at 70 mph and 65 at night, unless there are special circumstances necessitating further reduced limits.

We can live with these limits, especially given the law: any speed 10 miles an hour or less over the posted speed limit can result in a speeding ticket, but it is no-points and $20, payable on the spot. Of course, 11 mph over and you'll get a hefty fine along with penalty points.

Regardless, we have found the Montana Highway Patrol, almost without exception, to be decent and reasonable and friendly. I've found law enforcement officers of all types - city, county, state - seem to respect more, and are perhaps more lenient toward, the riders wearing full gear aboard full touring rigs.

By Cole Boehler
the author and publisher of
"Motorcycling Montana"