Malta

Twenty miles east of the Fort Belknap reservation is Malta, named for the Mediterranean island but otherwise just another ranching town that grew up along the Great Northern Railway. Along with the above-average Phillips County Museum (431 US-2 E., 406/654-1037, Mon.-Sat. 10am-5pm Apr.-Dec., $5), Malta holds the region’s best place to eat, drink, and sleep: the landmark Great Northern Hotel (2 S. 1st St. E., 406/654-2100, $69 and up), which has a bar-cum-steakhouse and a café with good breakfast specials.

Malta, where the eastbound and westbound trains of Amtrak’s Empire Builder pass each other, is just one of dozens of flyspeck US-2 Montana towns with names borrowed at random by Great Northern Railway promoters from all over the globe. Heading along the highway, you pass near or through Dunkirk, Kremlin, Havre, Zurich, Harlem, and Tampico, all of which were founded by the railroad and settled in the main by Northern and Eastern European immigrants enticed here around the turn of the 20th century by the railroad’s offers of farmlands and homesteads.

Milk River Valley

East of Malta, the road and the railroad cross and recross the banks of the sluggish and narrow Milk River. Highway signs proclaim your entrance to “Beef Country”; just check out the menu options in the cafés and you’ll know you’ve arrived. US-2 continues its jaunt over the Milk River tributaries, winding along the swampy Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, once the state’s best duck-hunting grounds and now warm-weather home to pheasant, grouse, and sage hens as well as pelicans, ibis, and herons.

Unless you’re a keen bird-watcher, the main place worth stopping along this stretch is 10 miles west of Saco and 4 miles north of US-2. Here, the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs & Resort (406/527-3320, $50 and up) offers a huge naturally heated swimming pool, as well as hot tubs—as hot as 106°F!

Glasgow

Glasgow (pop. 3,250), on the north banks of the Milk River 50 miles west of Wolf Point, is one of the few Hi-Line towns that’s more than a collection of grain elevators, though its own dominant visual aspects are spreads of combines and threshers. Founded as a railroad town by the Great Northern Railway in 1889, Glasgow is now the largest town in northeastern Montana. In summer, stop in for a look at the tremendously cluttered, diorama-filled Valley County Pioneer Museum (54109 Treasure Trail US-2, 406/228-8692, $3), worth a look for the ornate Buffalo Bill Bar exhibit and the detailed story of New Deal-era Fort Peck Dam.