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Driving through central Montana? Skip the bridge, take a ferry.

Let’s take the scenic route. Hop off the highway and follow the Missouri river. The cities in Montana are few and the views are great.

Here’s the ultimate backroad: skip the bridges, take a ferry.

Three of the original six ferries in Montana are spread along the river. These ferries began popping up on the Missouri in the early 1900s. Due to the Missouri’s length and Montana’s vast amount of space, these ferries were essential for rural transportation.

View of the Missouri River Breaks in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana in the United States. US Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Dan Harrell.
View of the Missouri River Breaks in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana in the United States. US Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Dan Harrell.

These aren’t the grand green and white ferries that meander across the Puget Sound, though. Steel cable pulleys stretch across the width of the river in order to drag the boat across and prevent it from being pulled downstream. The small, wooden, barge-like ferries are only large enough to hold one or two cars at a time.

The ferries were updated in 2004, according to the Montana Standard. The Stafford-McClelland ferry got a completely new boat, while the Carter and Virgelle ferries received simple repairs.

Tom Philp, who operates the Stafford-McClelland ferry, told the Havre Daily News that the busiest season for the ferry is usually tourist and sheep hunting season from May 1 to Nov. 1. He says an average of eight cars cross daily, but some days it can be up to 20.

The Stafford-McClelland ferry is the most remote of the three, located 45 miles north of Lewistown, but have seen its share of interesting people. Susan Allen, who worked the ferry before Philp, helped Weird Al Yankovic cross the river once.

“I have his autograph, and he took my picture,” Allen says.

If you want to play it safe, cross the river at the Carter or Virgelle ferries. You drop 1,000-2,000 feet in the last mile of the dirt road that leads to the Stafford-McClelland ferry. Depending on the weather, that dirt might be slick mud.

If you’d rather not make the long trek to one of the ferries, you can ride along with YouTuber Michael F. Herrmann as he floats across the Missouri

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