36-hour Montana Road Trip: Driving into the Big Hole and the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway

In 1905, Montana pioneer Joe Maurice experienced the worst possible losses. Although blind in one eye from a horse kick, the Belgium immigrant had persevered in eking out a living at the homestead he’d established on Gold Creek, supplementing cattle with gold prospecting.

But that winter, his wife died of diphtheria, which by 1905 was curable if you could get to a doctor with anti-diphtheria serum. In the spring — possibly before he had the chance to bury his wife in the frozen ground — his two young children died of typhoid fever.  Was Joe all alone? Or did neighbors help him to bury his family, or with the grim task of piling rocks on the fresh graves so that animals didn’t dig up his loved ones?

On our 36-hour Montana road trip, we stopped to visit these lonely graves, marked by blank wooden headstones, just off to the side of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway (Route 73) in southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead County.

On this June day, we saw few cars. A hundred years ago, this valley was an even lonelier place. I wonder how diphtheria, a highly contagious disease, managed to invade Joe’s home. Had a passing traveler carried the bacteria (which can be transported by health “silent carriers”)?  Had Joe brought the diphtheria back from a trip to town?

Most of us would be crushed by these losses. I haven’t been able to find much additional information on Joe–if he married again, or had more children–but the Forest Service road sign told me that he Joe persevered. Having arrived in this valley in 1883, at age 13, Joe was determined to stay on, perhaps mining copper at the mine bearing his name on a nearby mountain flank. Joe lived at his homestead until 1963, when friends persuaded the 93-year-old pioneer to move to a rest home, where he died a few years later at age 97.

On Montana’s Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway in late June, alpine meadows and mountain “parks” bloom with lupine and yellow daisies– beauty that belies the challenges faced by those who tried — and are still trying — to make a living here.

Joe’s story is one of many that lie beneath the pavement of this route running between the Big Hole Valley and the hamlet of Wise River, Montana. Today, as in the past, cattle — along with elk, bear, and other animals — remain far more common than people.

Cows, cows, everywhere, as we encounter a ranch family escorting a herd of cattle to summer mountain pastures. Two pickup trucks and five people on horseback were herding the cattle along a five-mile stretch of the Byway.

On our 36-hour road trip, we aimed to discover new territory in the vast state of Montana. We were visiting a friend in Darby, in the scenic Bitterroot Valley, which is the Montana of travel brochures: snow-capped mountains and rivers teeming with trout. The Bitterroot is great for fishing, relaxing, and hiking, with miles of trails in the Bitterroot National Forest.  But we wanted to explore further afield.

With our borrowed 1999 Chevy Lumina and a full tank of gas, I knew I could cram a lot into 36 hours — a day, a night, and another full day — without feeling cramped. We left Darby after breakfast, heading south on Montana Route 93 to the Lost Trail Pass, near the Montana/Idaho border, and then up and over Chief Joseph Pass, on Route 43, into the Big Hole Valley.

Our first stop was Big Hole National Battlefield, where the Big Hole River meanders through a grassy meadow. In the summer of 1877, this meadow was the site of  a small but significant battle between the U.S. Cavalry, and a band of Nez Perce who were resisting forced removal onto reduced reservation lands in Idaho (the government seized the land  after prospectors discovered gold on the reservation).  Here, the Cavalry surprised the sleeping Nez Perce, with many women and children killed in their teepees. But the Nez Perce warriors rallied, counter-attacked, and ended up forcing the Cavalry to retreat, thus allowing the surviving band members to flee.

When we visited the Battlefield, rain was falling, so we didn’t walk out to the memorial site, but inside the small visitor center, we touched the howitzer cannon that the Nez Perce captured from the Cavalry. I’m thankful that the National Park Service permits visitors to touch this object, giving visitors a tangible connection to the Nez Perce fighting to preserve their way of life as well as the Cavalry soldiers who died that day.

Back in the car, we drove to the tiny town of Wisdom for lunch at the local café, a busy spot, with one waitress trying to cover 12 tables. Then we returned to the road, turning on t0 Route 278 and into the wide open heart of the Big Hole Valley.

Big Hole Valley, overlooking Hamilton Ranch.

Was this land truly a “valley”? Or something else, like a tableland, or a plain?  It was so wide and open, with green sagebrush stretching for miles in all directions, and mountains in the distance. I had never seen a landscape as vast as the Big Hole Valley (most of it ranch land, in private hands).

We continued on  Route 278, heading towards Bannack State Park, once the territorial capital of Montana and a thriving community of 3,000 souls. Today, Bannack is an official ghost town, full of abandoned buildings, rusty artifacts, and stories.

The old jail, with sod roof, at Bannack State Park. At its peak, after the 1862 gold discovery, Bannack was a thriving town of 3000 people. Although people began to leave by the turn of the century, the mining industry remained active through World War II.

Visitors can wander, at their own risk, through any unlocked building.  You have to watch your step on loose floorboards and creaking stairs, as Bannack is not prettied up for visitors.

Bannack’s main drag. The building with the cupola on top was built to serve as both a Masonic Lodge (second story) and the town’s schoolhouse (first floor).

Bannack’s one-room schoolhouse. At one point, the town had so many students that some attended classes in the Methodist Church and in the Masonic Lodge hall on the second floor.

 

Bellying up to the bar in Skinner’s Saloon, which served as the headquarters for the notorious criminal gang, Plummer’s Road Agents. After the gang’s demise, the saloon became a store.

As thunder clouds moved in, we returned to the Chevy and backtracked west to set off north on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, heading towards Elkhorn Hot Springs. We stopped first at the Grasshopper Inn, because its many roadside signs advertised gas for sale.

But the inn was out of gas. We knew we would be fine, but the empty gas tank signaled the struggle common to much of rural America: the slow depopulation and decline that perpetuates itself. If you can’t offer a necessary product like gasoline, then it’s even harder to attract people to come visit, never mind stay.

A few miles past the Grasshopper, we turned off to Elkhorn Hot Springs, which exactly met my expectations for rustic western hot springs: cabins with no running water, a restaurant/main lodge serving adequate food, and two hot spring pools that could benefit from a little love, but which were clean and relaxing.

The “cool” pool (96ish degrees) at Elkhorn Hot Springs. An adjacent pool is around 101 degrees, and a sauna in the building ranges from 104-106 degrees F.  The water is crystal clear and clean; the discoloration stems from the pool’s pitted concrete bottom. A room at the Lodge for one person goes for around $35 a night, including breakfast and the hot springs. Now that’s a bargain!

Elkhorn, it seems, is teetering on survival, as is Maverick Mountain, the ski area next door. The hot springs and the mountain are just too far away from large numbers of people.    Like so many places in rural America, Elkhorn Hot Springs needs a benefactor who could pour some money into the place without needing to worry about a return on investment.

The next day, after a morning soak in the hot springs, we headed north towards Crystal Park, a Forest Service area where visitors can dig for quartz (bring your own pick and shovel). Unfortunately, the Park was closed for a week of site improvements.

The meadow or “park” across from Crystal Park.

The mineral batholith stretches across the road and into the meadow. The Forest Service ranger told us we could dig there (usually off-limits), but we decided against it due to an onslaught of hungry mosquitoes.

Another view, just off the Byway.

Back in the car, we considered our options. Hike up to Coolidge, another ghost town, or aim for one of the high mountain lakes? We didn’t have many provisions, so we elected to continue on, eventually passing the Maurice family graveyard and the roaming cattle, and then landing in Wise River for a hearty lunch at the Wise River Club.

Skalkaho Falls, on the western side of the pass, heading towards the Bitterroot Valley.

Having come this far, we decided we would drive back to the Bitterroot via the Skalkaho Pass Road (Montana Highway 38), which travels through the Sapphire Mountains on a seasonal Forest Service road built upon a Native American trail.  After passing through more beautiful country, we spied the tall smokestack marking the former industrial town of Anaconda, and then detoured for tea and ice cream in Philipsburg, a small town known for its brewery, shops, and cool vibe.

I was nervous about the Skalkaho, since it is described as a “narrow winding road” on one of Montana’s “least travelled mountain roads,”  but I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the rough Forest Service roads we’d been taking to various hiking spots near Darby. Along the way, we stopped at the Gem Mountain Sapphire “Mine,” where visitors can buy buckets of gravel from a nearby mine and sift for sapphires (located just past mile marker 38 on the Skalkaho Pass Road, just before the paved road becomes gravel).

As it turned out, the Skalkaho was a breeze, especially since we were driving on the mountain side of the road, and not the edge. Also, because of some major spring washouts, the Forest Service had just finishing re-grading the road, making for smooth driving. Although the Skalhako isn’t exceptionally scenic, we enjoyed the ride up to the pass and through the forest, where anglers seek out certain fishing spots.  Not scary at all.

Skalkaho Road landed us just south of Hamilton, Montana.  Back in Darby, we finished off the road trip with a visit to Bandit Brewing Co., Montana’s smallest brewery, where beer is power.  Just ask the owner, a relative newcomer to town who recently become Darby’s mayor. We’d only been gone for 36 hours, but as we drank our beer, I realized that Darby was beginning to feel like home.  Fingers crossed, we’ll have another opportunity for a return visit and another 36-hour road trip.

Sources and resources

At the bottom of the post, see the hand-drawn map (on a Google map) covering our journey.

For more information on the Nez Perce, see the National Park Service website for the Big Hole National Battlefield.

See this Forest Service link for more detailed information on sights and stops along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.

Find more information on Skalkaho Pass Road here.

This is my amateur and approximate map of our road trip, including detours to Bannack State Park and Philipsburg. We began and ended in Darby, Montana, south of Hamilton. Skalkaho Pass Road, parts of the Pioneer Mountains Byway, and the back road we took to Anaconda are all closed in winter, which starts early. Check locally on road status if you are traveling October through early June.

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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6 Responses to 36-hour Montana Road Trip: Driving into the Big Hole and the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway

  1. Karen Freeman says:

    I always enjoy reading your essays, Dianne and look forward to the next! Please go boldly where many….or few….have gone before and then tell me about it.

  2. Joyce Turco says:

    That trip looks so interesting. It is wonderful to learn of the experiences of people that long ago. I have traveled in some of that area but not as extensive in Montana. It makes me want to go back that way again. We have many fantastic places in our country to explore and a good reason to travel in the US.
    Love reading about your travels.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Joyce. I definitely hope to get back there again, on a longer road trip where I can really dig into the nooks and crannies. There is so much to see in the US, and it’s also great to get out there and talk to people and realize that there are lots of wonderful people out there of all shades, stripe, views, etc.

    • Joyce Turco says:

      Just left a reply but don’t know if it was sent. I love reading about your travels and thank you, so interesting to read. I have traveled to some of that area but not as extensive in Montana. It makes me want to go back. Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

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