Cow Creek Airstrip (above) is one of six backcountry airstrips
in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument spans 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River “Breaks” country, a label adapted from the Lewis and Clark journals. They called the precipitous elevations “broken land,” as it was the most challenging terrain the Corps of Discovery encountered on their epic journey from St. Louis to the Pacific. The Monument includes six backcountry airstrips with the picturesque names Woodhawk, Knox Ridge, Left Coulee, Black Butte North, Cow Creek, and Bullwhacker. But with the convenience of flying among the Breaks, your view out the window would reveal an unbroken array of scenic interests. Land at any of the six and enjoy a hike, surrounded by a variety of natural beauty. It’s half a million acres of land that is much as it was when Lewis and Clark first described it in 1805. “It is the last significant chunk of ground whose face hasn’t been altered by mankind,” RAF Supporter Ralph Rogers of Winifred, MT says.

Now each June near the long daylight hours of solstice, Rogers and Pete Smith of Lewistown, MT invite visitors to the Missouri River Breaks Fly-in, a weekend of exploration beginning with a Friday kickoff dinner and campout at the Winifred airport. On Saturday morning, the group flies 30 nm south to Lewistown to enjoy cinnamon chip pancakes – “the best on the planet” – then flies out to explore  Breaks airstrips. Some folks plan a visit to “Heller Bottom” a privately owned 1,800-ft native grass airstrip right on the river belonging to RAF Supporter Loren Smith. He has graciously added primitive amenities for visitors. Pilots are cautioned not to land on any of these strips if surface is wet. “Those soils turn to glue,” Rogers warns. See the RAF Event Calendar for specific dates.

These historic airstrips predate the act that created the National Monument. Numerous organizations activated to demand closure of all roads and airstrips after President Clinton’s 2001 declaration. The potential loss of these airstrips figured in to the RAF’s founding, and co-founder Chuck Jarecki initiated conversation with the BLM district manager. Chuck found historic photos of each of the ten airstrips, and he and Rogers rounded up other Montana Pilot Association and RAF advocates to attend public meetings and comment for their preservation. Thanks to these early efforts, six of the ten airstrips are now charted (as is Heller Bottom) and offer scenic and remote dry camping. “The partnerships developed during that process helped all of us protect this fantastic piece of Montana landscape,” Ralph says, adding, “we celebrate the Breaks and surroundings each year with the Missouri River Breaks Fly-in.” Come explore these places. The monument is public land where visitors can float the river, fish and hunt. Be sure to jot your name in each airstrip’s visitor register, sinceusage justifies and assures future support.

For more information on these airstrips, enter each one in the Airfield Guide.


  1. John Heverling on June 1, 2024 at 9:36 am

    Living in SC not easy to fly there , hopefully I will make it and be able to enjoy all the perseverance and hard work you folks have done for us. Thanks for sharing. John

  2. Perry Brown on June 4, 2024 at 10:23 pm

    The Missouri Breaks is a very special and magnificent place. It is awesome that these airstrips were preserved for future generations to enjoy and appreciate. Thank to all that was involved in this process. Get involved in your local areas too so we can enjoy and appreciate their individual values as well.

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