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Three Forks, Mont.

The Town Where the Missouri River Begins Has Tales to Tell

horses on Main, Three Forks, Mont.
Photo caption
When horses hit Main Street in Three Forks, Mont., they kick off a night of comedy, music, and dance.

Scratch the surface in Three Forks, Mont., and you'll quickly find a story: Shoshone and Bannock Indians herding bison over the cliffs at Madison Buffalo Jump, or Sacagawea reuniting with her brother, or the family-owned Wheat Montana Farms Bakery producing 22,000 loaves a day.

Consider that Meriwether Lewis's dream of finding the Northwest Passage faded here in the Missouri River headwaters area and you might agree that this is, as Lewis wrote, "an essential point in the geography of this western part of the Continent."

I started my stay rocking on the wide front porch of the Sacajawea Hotel, a 1910 colonial revival gem with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and a handsome five-point buck presiding over its comfortable lobby. A short walk took me to Three Forks Cafe, where morning patrons visited table to table as a waitress clad in overalls served eggs and hash browns. Then I sauntered down Main Street to the Headwaters Heritage Museum (open daily in summer and by appointment the rest of the year), where I smiled at the sight of a 29 1/2-pound brown trout sharing space with 700 kinds of barbed wire and re-creations of a small-town beauty shop and railroad telegraph office.

During the Spring Roundup (April 25 this year), cowboys drive hundreds of horses through town on their way to their summer pastures. (406) 285-3541.

After grabbing picnic fixings from Wheat Montana, I drove to Missouri Headwaters State Park, where "three noble streams"—which Lewis and partner William Clark dubbed the Jefferson, Gallatin, and Madison—braid together to form the 2,315-mile Missouri River. Interpretive panels tell of conflicts unleashed by the Corps of Discovery's visit, but all was peaceful at the campground as I watched hopeful anglers casting into the trout-rich rivers.

In the slanting light of late afternoon, I looked up at the cliffs of Madison Buffalo Jump State Park and imagined the terrible bellows as bison plunged over the 50-foot bluff, landing one on top of another. Women waiting below stripped the carcasses for meat, tools, and clothing.

I ended my day with smoked trout and ribs at the Willow Creek Cafe & Saloon, a refurbished watering hole and dance hall with pressed tin ceilings and flowered wallpaper. The door squeaked open as locals came from 60 miles around for refreshment and conversation. For a minute I wondered if it was 2009 or 1909. And did I mention homemade cake for dessert?

Photography courtesy Donnie Sexton/Travel Montana

This article was first published in March 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.