Mullan Road–Birdtail Divide Tour

The Drive

  • Length: 28 miles
  • Mostly dirt road
  • High point: 4656 ft
  • Owner: private range land (Stay on the road's right-of-way)

West of Great Falls, Montana, this drive follows Birdtail Creek Road as it climbs over Birdtail Divide and drops down to Birdtail Butte. It ends at Fort Shaw on the Sun River. Birdtail Butte is named for its unique shape.

Northeast of Birdtail Butte is Eagle Rock, named for the many eagles that perched there. The spring between the road and the rock was a station on the Fort Benton to Helena stage road.

This drive purposely takes you to Fort Shaw, established in 1867. The original Mullan route took a more direct route to the traditional Sun River crossing five miles to the east. At the fort, you will see the original diagonal streets typical of a Federal outpost, a few original adobe brick buildings, and interpretive signs. A small town of the same name has developed around the original fort.

The fort was named after Col. Robert G. Shaw, who was killed in the Civil War while commanding one of the first official regiments of African American soldiers—the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. Soldiers stationed at the fort guarded the Mullan Road and escorted survey parties through Blackfeet country. Fort Shaw soldiers were also involved in both the Battle of the Big Hole and the Baker Massacre, tragic events in American history. After the fort was abandoned, it became an Indian school.1

The road can be very dusty but is relatively smooth. It can quickly turn to impassable gumbo when wet. You can expect to share the road with ranging cattle who will be very surprised to see a vehicle pass through their home. As always, know your vehicle's capabilities, road conditions, and your own driving ability. When in doubt, stay away.

Link to a elevation profile


1For more history of the Fort Shaw and Simms areas, read: Spritzer, Don. Roadside History of Montana. Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1999, 273-274.

© 2015–2018 Kristopher Townsend