Located west of I-15 and south of I-90 is a part of Montana that has it all – majestic mountains, sweeping, grand river valleys, blue ribbon trout streams, historic battlefields, ghost towns, hot springs and gems you can dig for yourself. Does it get any better than this? Best of all, this loop can be accessed from several different directions, so no matter where you are coming from, you can easily get to it. This is the Big Hole Valley and the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.
The Big Hole is a wide, broad, arcing valley that runs about 85 miles - from Big Hole Pass in the south to Divide on I-15 between Butte and Dillon. It is bordered to the west by the Beaverhead Mountains, the north by the Anaconda - Pintler Mountains and the east by the Pioneer Mountains. Connecting the best sections of it is the Pioneer Scenic Byway - a beautiful 50 mile drive through the center of the Pioneer Mountains.
The Big Hole Valley is known for its fertile grassy river bottoms producing vast amounts of grazing and hay for cattle. Antique hay stackers dot the valley as a picturesque testament to former haying technology and this valley, reportedly, raises more cows that any other area in the US.
Running through the center is the Big Hole River, famed for its blue ribbon fly fishing waters that attract fisherman from all over the world. Its prodigious insect hatches (including mosquitoes), are loved by birds and fish alike (maybe not humans so much - especially the mosquitoes!). Drift boats with hopeful fisherman on board are a constant feature on the river during the summer months.
In the center of it all lies the small town of Wisdom. A short distance west of Wisdom is the Big Hole Battlefield. Fleeing from the US Army, the Nez Perce rested here on their march from their homelands in northeast Oregon to Sitting Bull in Canada. Fending off a surprise attack from the army, the Nez Perce were able to pack up, bury their dead and move on towards what is now Yellowstone National Park. Teepees, including one for Chief Joseph, reconstruct the encampment as it was. This is hallowed ground and an attitude of reverence is expected.
Connecting the two ends of this drive is the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway. Starting at the town of Wise River in the north, this road traverses the center of the Pioneer Mountains. First following the Wise River (also known for its fishing), the road tops out in a series of meadows and parks with abundant wildflowers, such as camas, lupines, Indian paintbrush, elephant heads, etc. There are many campgrounds along this section for those who wish to tarry longer to enjoy this part of Montana.
Also near the top of the Scenic Byway is Crystal Park. F or a small fee, you can dig for quartz crystals to your heart’s content. Ample picnic grounds makes this a great family outing. If that isn’t enough, nearby is a winding road that leads to the ghost town of Coolidge, located a short distance off the byway. A once bustling town supporting a large silver mine, the “good times” ended in the early 1930s. As a map at the beginning of the town states: “Today, Coolidge is a fading reminder of the fortunes made and lost in the mining camps that dotted Montana ’s mountains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” Although now being reclaimed by Nature, it is a fascinating glimpse of a section of Montana’s colorful past.
Coming back down the south end of the Byway there are scenic overlooks (e.g., Grasshopper Valley), hot springs (Elkhorn Hot Springs) and the grand vista of the southern Big Hole from Big Hole Pass.
The whole loop is about 120 miles long and can be accessed from Hwy 93 and the Bitterroot Valley to the west, Anaconda to the north and Divide and Dillon from the east and south, respectively. The Big Hole Valley – Pioneer Mountains loop is a great, safe “road trip” during these days of COVID-19 concerns. So much of what makes Montana, “Montana” can be found and explored in this southwest “treasure” of our Treasure state.
Get out there!
- Doug Stevens, the “Graytrekker”