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Montana

The Centennial Sandhills Preserve


NOTE: This preserve is completely undeveloped so bring a detailed topographical map if you plan to hike around. The road into the preserve can also become impassable in winter and early spring. A high-clearance, all-wheel drive vehicle is recommended any time of year.

In southwestern Montana, on the northeastern side of the vast Centennial Valley, is a unique ecological system of dynamic sandhills. The 1,400-acre preserve, part of a larger community of sandhills, supports four rare plant species and several uncommon plant communities. 

Restoring Balance

The Centennial Sandhills thrive on disturbance.  Before European settlement, regular fire cleared out large older plants, allowing wind to scour the ground, moving soil and sculpting a shifting landscape that sustained a diversity of plants and animals. Migrating herds of bison also helped keep bunchgrasses and shrubs from taking over. But, when the bison and natural fire all but disappeared, the system teetered out of balance. Woody sagebrush crowded out patches of rare plants, and the animals that lived with them.

How We Work in the Sandhills

Conservancy stewardship staff are developing a preserve management plan that is ecologically beneficial, financially viable, and helpful to advancing conservation elsewhere in the valley. Staff are studying how prescribed burns combined with grazing affect the plants and sand formations. 

The Conservancy purchased the sandhills as part of the larger 11,500-acre Staudenmeyer Ranch acquisition. We are in the process of transferring most of the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for expanding the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We will keep the sandhills portion because of their unique character and need for specialized management to maintain the conditions necessary for the rare plants that occur there.

Return to Preserves List

The preserve is completely undeveloped and there is no sign to indicate its location. You are welcome to hike the area, but it is best to camp at the nearby Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. An all- or four- wheel drive vehicle with good clearance is recommended on North Valley Road, which can be deep sand in spots. It can become very difficult to drive in wet weather.

Combine a visit with a stay at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

What to See: Plants
  • Fendler's cateye  
  • Painted milkvetch       
  • White-stemmed pale evening primrose
  • Sand wild rye
What to See: Animals
  • Preble's shrew
  • Great basin pocket mouse
  • Pygmy rabbit 
  • Many species of raptors and songbirds

Check weather and road conditions before making a trip. Roads can become impassable in winter and early spring.

Directions

From Interstate 15 take Exit 0 at Monida, Montana (Sign marks turnoff for Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge). Follow signs through Monida (a nearly abandoned town) toward the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and Lakeview. Travel approximately 37 miles east through the Centennial Valley on an improved (partially graveled) dirt road to Elk Lake Road. Take a left (there is a sign at the junction marking the turnoff to Elk Lake Resort). Follow the road another 3 miles and turn west onto North Valley Road (some maps say North “Side” Road). Once on North Valley Road, you will be travelling through Sandhills habitat for about 14 miles. The first 8 miles are part of the refuge, the next 6-7 miles are the preserve.

From West Yellowstone, follow US 20 for about 14 miles west to just before milepost 398. Turn right onto Red Rock Road (signs mark the turnoff to Lakeview, Red Rock RV Park, and Elk Lake Resort). Follow Red Rock Road about 5 miles to a "T". Take a left (sign identifies this as the direction to Elk Lake Resort). Follow the gravel road up over Red Rock Pass and into the Centennial Valley - you will travel about 11 miles from the "T". Take a right at Elk Lake Road (a sign marks the turnoff for Elk Lake Resort ). Follow the road another 3 miles and turn west onto North Valley Road (some maps say North “Side” Road). Once on North Valley Road, you will be travelling through Sandhills habitat for about 14 miles. The first 8 miles are part of the refuge, the next 6-7 miles are the preserve. 

From Reynolds Pass, Montana follow Hwy 87 into Montana and continue about 5 miles past the Idaho / Montana State Line. Turn south (right) at the Sawtell historical marker (sign also identifies this as the turnoff for Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge). Follow the paved road around the west shore of Henry's Lake for approximately 5 miles onto Red Rock Pass Road (gravel road). Stay on this road up over Red Rock Pass and into the Centennial Valley - you will travel about 13 miles from the end of the pavement. Take a right at Elk Lake Road (a sign marks the turnoff for Elk Lake Resort ). Follow the road another 3 miles and turn west onto North Valley Road (some maps say North “Side” Road). Once on North Valley Road, you will be travelling through Sandhills habitat for about 14 miles. The first 8 miles are part of the refuge, the next 6-7 miles are the preserve.

Discussion

Have you been to this preserve? Are you thinking of visiting? See what others are saying about their experiences and add your comments below.

Add Your Comments

Time for you to join the discussion. Tell us about your experience at this preserve. What plants and animals did you see? When did you go? You can help others plan their visit when you share your thoughts. And thank you for visiting one of our nature preserves!

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