To find a taste of true Montana, the eastern side of Carbon County offers unexpected surprises. Two such sites are Bowler Flats and and the Wild Horse Sanctuary of the Pryor Mountains.
The town of Bowler was located approximately 11.4 WNW of Bridger on the Bowler Flats along Pryor Road off of Hwy 310. There is little to be seen there now but this isolated ag community was established in the late 1890’s right at the foot of the Pryors. It had a post office, a bar and a cemetery. Named for the Bowler ranch located in the area, the town was moved slightly to accommodate the railroad’s arrival. You can still see some remnants of foundations, an old barn and post entranceway as you go down Pryor Road off of Highway 310, heading toward the mountains. It is a reminder, that in agriculture of Montana there are times of boom and bust and this town could not survive the drought at that time.
Continue on, forking away from the road leading to nearby Crow Reservation lands, you start rising up into the foothills and on to the Pryor Mountain range. A little over two hours since leaving Red Lodge, you will come to a fork for the Ice Cave or the Pryor Road. Bearing right to the ice cave, you can park and Eastern Carbon County’s hidden secrets walk down a series of wooden stairways. As you approach the entranceway to the limestone cave, you’ll welcome the transition from the heat of the relentless summer sun to shade and growing coolness. Before arriving at the viewing platform there is a seating area to enjoy both the sun and the cool air. In front of a small viewing platform, the frozen, flooded floor of the cave can be seen. You can hear the drip, drip, drip of mineral water from above, patiently and slowly building a growing stalagmite on the floor in the middle of the frozen cave. The cave itself is a raised ocean floor over 150 million years old, with its outer limestone containing lots of shell fossils for curious kids and adults to explore.
Once back in the car, take the other fork as Pryor Road continues upwards until the mountaintop widens out to a vast plateau and the entrance to the Wild Horse Sanctuary. This Sanctuary was formed in the late 60’s and was the first horse sanctuary in America. It is free to enter. Genetically unique, descendants of Spanish horses roam wild in the Pryors set amongst a magnificent summer landscape of wildflowers and 360 degree vistas. Deep purpleblue lupines, pink sticky geraniums and big yellow balsam flowers carpet the hillsides. Look up and you may spy a golden eagle circling above.
The horses are managed by the BLM and culled periodically to control the growth of the herd in what they say are limited resources. This day, various family groups of stallions, mares and foals rotated up to the top of the mountain. They were quite mellow after escaping the heat below, sitting, standing and sometimes rolling in the short grass, high above the Big Horn Reservoir. They are not tame and one is forewarned to always treat them as wild animals no matter how docile they may appear. Suddenly, two stallions rose up at each other and then just as quickly it was over as one mustang swiftly herded his mares away.
After searching for the horses’ water source other than Sage Creek located far below, it was discovered that some of the horses were standing at the top of a well-worn trail leading to a large mass of snow and ice about 40 feet below. Some of the horses still exhibit the striped legs of their forebears as well as scars of many battles. One shiny black stallion with a white blaze stopped to stare, put his ears back and then relaxed, putting his ears forward. He examined us closely with bright, intelligent eyes and then moved on.
A number of foals and yearlings were among the group of approximately 45-60 horses that showed up that day. The foals were curious at first, then reconsidered, scampering off to the security of their mothers. The dirt road trail allows motor vehicles to slowly and closely pass by. Even ATV’s frequented the trail. Evidently, the herd was accustomed to the public and did not seem that disturbed, moving slowly away from the road and resuming their places shortly after the ATV’s passed.
A little further along the top, is a former homesteader cabin. There is little inside beyond a tiny wood stove. You can imagine what it was like to be a pioneer family living alone on a mountaintop in one tiny room in the best of days with the sun shining. Then, if you imagine settling in for the deep snows and brutal winds of a long Montana winter, you understand why the builder set the cabin a little down the back of the hill, foregoing most of the spectacular view.
More recently, it served as a BLM cabin to serve its employees with some modest upgrades. Nearby, are shady pine and fir trees providing a light, cool breeze, making it a good place to rest before returning to the hotter lowlands.
Take a picnic, lots of water and visit this eastern tip of Carbon County for an unforgettable and authentic experience of the real West.