Best by boat
The best place (in many cases the only place) from which to see the Missouri Breaks is the river. Unlike many western rivers, where rafts reign, canoes are the favored mode of transportation on the Missouri. Motorboat use is restricted and the rapid-free water makes it less than desirable for rafting. It does, however, make for good canoeing, even for novice paddlers and children.
There are several outfitters that ply the Breaks. We chose Missouri River Outfitters out of Fort Benton (1-866-282-3295, mroutfitters.com). We considered renting kayaks and camping gear from them, but opted for a guided trip instead. Although a guided trip isn't cheap (we paid $725 each for a two-day, three-night trip), the comfort, convenience and knowledge of the guides made it well worth the cost. The food was tasty, plentiful and surprisingly healthy, plus there was plenty of cold mineral water and locally brewed beer.
Bring your boots. The hiking — through the high plains, into the canyons, up the badland formations — is stupendous. If you're without a guide, however, be careful. Use well-marked trails and stay away from the edges of the soft sandstone cliffs. Even though we saw only one small rattlesnake, remember that this is rattler country.
When to go
This part of Montana is not unlike Minnesota in its extreme weather: It gets cold in the winter, hot in the summer and while it's very arid, storms can come on quickly. The best times to paddle the river are from mid-June to early September. We went in early July, in the middle of a heat wave. Still, it was pleasant on the river and the current was strong enough to make canoeing downstream easy.
How long to stay
On our three-day trip, we saw only about half (some say the most dramatic half) of the Missouri Breaks. Most outfitters offer short (three- or four-day) trips as well as longer ones (six days or more). While the trip was very comfortable, you will be sleeping in tents and using a vault toilet. If you haven't spent much time camping, you might want to opt for a shorter trip.
Lodging and food
Most trips leave out of Fort Benton, a tiny, quirky Old West town built on the banks of the river. There are some nice looking B&Bs and guesthouses in town. We stayed in the sweetly historic Grand Union Hotel (1-406-622-1882, www.grandunionhotel.com), built in 1882 and restored in 1999. The room rates were very reasonable (starting at $135) and the restaurant is excellent, though pricey. For breakfast, hit the Wake Cup Coffee House (1-406-622-5400, wakecupcoffeehouse.com) or later in the day grab a burger and a Dragon's Breath dark beer at the Clubhouse Bar and Grill (1-406-622-3433).
Most visitors fly into Great Falls, Mont., less than 50 miles from Fort Benton. We chose to fly to Billings, rented a car and drove the four hours north because it was cheaper and we wanted to see the country. The drive from the ridge-rimmed city (Montana's largest) winds through massive buttes and small mountain ranges. In Billings, we booked a room in the Northern (1-406-867-6767, northernhotel.com,), a sleek, modern hotel in downtown.