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Bozeman Area

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is off I 90 about 22 miles west of Bozeman, MT. The park offers hiking, biking, and opportunities to explore an iconic Native American archeological site. The 640-acre park is a perfect place to learn about buffalo jumps and why they were so important to the Indians.

Where is Madison Buffalo Jump

The park is very easy to access. It’s located in Logan, MT about 22 miles west of Bozeman on I-90. From both directions, I-90 Exit 283 (Logan) turns onto Buffalo Jump Road. Head south and it’s 7 miles on a good gravel road to the well-signed Park entrance. There is plenty of parking and no fee for Montana residents. Nonresidents are asked to pay a $6.00 fee. There are outhouses and picnic shelters but no water.

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Madison Buffalo Jump Hours & Seasons

SeasonOpen All Year
HoursDawn to Dusk
CampingNo
PicnickingYes
WaterNo
Vault ToiletsYes
Elevation4,482 ft
Park Size638 acres

Visiting Madison Buffalo Jump

Most visitors begin by taking the ¼ mile trail to the covered observation area where a series of interpretive signs tell the story of the area. The buffalo jump is directly ahead and it’s easy to visualize a flood of bison pouring over the edge.

While many visitors choose to explore no further, consider taking the trail that leads to the top of the jump. The trail leads around the north edge of the cliff and gradually climbs up the backside. It’s easy to follow and is only steep for a short section. When you are on top of the hill be sure to look around carefully as there are a number of teepee rings from when the Native American tribes inhabited the area.

Trail across field
An easily hiked foot trail leads from the parking area around the backside and up to the top of the cliffs.

Hiking and biking at Madison Buffalo Jump

There are some interesting trails to explore at Madison Buffalo Jump. The trails are open to foot or bicycle. The park warms up and dries out earlier in the spring than the surrounding areas. Consequently, you will find a lot of trail users in the spring. As summer progresses it becomes hot and dry and not as much fun.

None of the trails are very long but they can be combined to make a variety of different hikes. This trail map shows the primary trails in the park.

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park trail map – Download the Map

Are they called buffalo or bison?

Bison is the correct name for these magnificent creatures. When early explorers discovered bison they already knew the”true” buffalo from Africa and Asia. When they encountered North American bison they applied the name they knew – buffalo. However, the correct name is bison.

How old is the Madison Buffalo Jump

There is evidence that buffalo jumps were used about 12,000 years ago but the Madison Buffalo Jump has not been active that long. Studies indicate that it was first used about 2,000 years ago and then was used consistently until about 500 years ago.

Who built the Madison Buffalo Jump

Although bison were central to the economies and culture of the northern plains tribes, other tribes from the Plateau and Great Basin regions made annual journeys to hunt bison and to trade for bison products. Some of the tribes who used the Missouri headwaters region to hunt bison include the Shoshone, Nez Perce, Bannock, Salish, Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Cree, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Dakota, Lakota, and Hidatsa.

Can I collect rocks & bones at the Madison Buffalo Jump

No! It is illegal to collect any artifact from the park. It’s great to take photos but never remove any rocks, bones, or other artifacts.

What is a buffalo jump

Bison are big and tough. They are very hard for hunters on foot to bring down using stone tools. Native Indians harvested large numbers of bison by stampeding them over the edge of a cliff. The places where these bison drives took place are called buffalo jumps.

For thousands of years, the Madison Buffalo Jump was used by native peoples to harvest the bison that were so important to them. Buffalo jumps are common across the west and the Madison Buffalo Jump is a classic example.

Cliff edge that forms the buffalo jump
Panicked buffalo ran right off the lip of this cliff during a successful drive. Working together the Indians would begin slowly driving the bison from a far distance. As they progressed the Indians would focus the herd and then begin to get them running until they would break into a full stampede.

How does a buffalo jump work

A buffalo jump needs to have a suitable cliff that is sheer and tall enough for the bison to tumble over. It also must have a good approach area that allows the bison to be driven toward the cliff.

The work of hearing the bison toward the cliff often began miles away from the cliff. The first work was physical, they built rock cairns, brush barriers, and other obstacles to put edges along a wide-open area. As the bison moved along the path it increasingly narrowed. As it approached the cliff edge, the pathway shrank to a narrow funnel that lead directly over the cliff.

Driving the bison began slow and easy, taking care not to spook the animals. Specially trained “Buffalo Runners” would work to move the animals along into an ever-tightening bunch. as the cliff area came closer the buffalo runners would create a frenzy to trigger a stampede. Tribal members would line the path yellowing and waving their arms to keep the bison headed straight toward the cliff.

drawing of buffalo falling over cliff circa 1900
This illustration from about 1900 shows buffalo falling over a cliff during a drive. Once the bison began to stampede they couldn’t slow down or turn before running off the cliff.

Few bison were actually killed in the fall. Instead, most suffered broken legs and people would move in from below to finish them by hand. Typically, tribes felt it was important to kill every bison. They believed that a bison who survived would teach others to avoid buffalo jumps.

Why were bison important?

A good buffalo jump was almost like a Walmart for native Americans. Bison provided food, shelter, clothing, and much more. Almost every part of the animal was used to supply many needs.

Bison meat was eaten fresh and dried. A single bison provides a lot of meat and the large number killed at a jump provided enough meat to last for many months. The hides were used to make shelters, clothing, and footwear. Every part was used including the bones, hair, hoofs, horns, and internal organs. Here is more detailed information.

Bison were critical to the survival of the native tribes and the bounty that came from a successful drive over a jump ensured survival.

Why did they quit using Buffalo Jumps

By the early 1700s tribes around the Madison Buffalo Jump began to acquire horses. They quickly switched to hunting bison from horseback using bow and arrow. Soon the bow was replaced by the rifle and the tribes no longer needed to utilize the buffalo jumps.

Where to visit other buffalo jumps

Buffalo jumps are common across western North America from Texas into Canada. Most are small and located on private property but there are a number of buffalo jumps you can visit.

Montana Buffalo Jumps

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park also known as Ulm Pishkun or the Ulm Buffalo Jump, is open daily and is described as the world’s largest buffalo jump. In addition to picnic facilities and trails there is a visitor center that does a great job of telling the story of this site.

Wahkpa Chu’gn also known as the Too Close for Comfort Site is located in Havre, MT. There is a museum & guided tours.

South Dakota Buffalo Jumps

Vore Buffalo Jump in South Dakota is located along Interstate 90 between the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument. Interpretive tours are available and donations are requested.

Wyoming Buffalo Jumps

Vore Buffalo Jump is located alongside Interstate 90 just a few miles from the South Dakota border in Beulah, WY. This fascinating site sits in a sinkhole where bison fell into the hole instead of over a cliff. Located between the Black Hills and Devils Tower, this is an easy stop for I 90 travelers. Unfortunately, the site is only open from early June to late August.

Alberta, Canada Buffalo Jumps

Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park is located in central Alberta, Canada. It is unusual for the 150 ft cliff that the bison were driven over. This is much higher than most buffalo jumps.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta, CA is one of the oldest, largest, and best-preserved sites. It has been designated as a World Heritage Site and features a museum and visitor center.