Something about the crisp autumn air beckons exploration. Maybe it is our attempt to hold onto summer, with it being just warm enough to wander without a coat, or the deep colors of fall that beg us to connect, or the roads which are craving use before they become coated in snow and ice. For all these reasons, I hit the road this weekend to explore Southwest Montana.
On the menu, for this fall weekend, a loop tour from Helena to Lincoln.
The high points:
- Caffeine to Kick Off the Morning
- Marysville, MT
- Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in Wild
- Hike / Walk
- Pit Stop
- Hi-Country Trading Post
Much like the fly-over states, Lincoln is often written off as a drive through town, nothing but a dot on the map – but it is so much more.
The most important stop of the morning was for a quick caffeine kick, and luckily for us, there are some great choices in Helena – Scenic Brew, Firetower Coffee, Moose Junction, Hub Coffee, and more. Coffee in hand, we drove through the North Helena Valley and took off toward Fletcher Pass, but first we would make a quick detour for an eerie experience at one of the many ghost towns in the region: Marysville.
The history of this abandoned town (which is now making a comeback with just under 100 residents) closely resembles that of many towns constructed by the boom and bust. Thomas Cruse struck it rich with the discovery of the Drumlummon Mine in the late 1800s. The discovery of gold spurred the production of a town, complete with saloons, a church, and a school. Today, the town stands as a skeleton of what it once was. As for the ghosts, accounts vary, with tales of a mangled hunter pulling a dead wolf, a headless woman near Bald Butte, and an old miner near the spring. Whether or not spirits continue to haunt this site, the rich history and narrative that surround the town are worth a walk through the ruins. We hopped back into the car and continued the trek to Lincoln, winding our way through farmland and up the pass. As we descended the pass, we looked down to realize that our gas tank was riding on empty, with only four miles left in the tank … I would say we hit Lincoln just in time.
Next up, and by far my favorite stop of the day, Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild. Just east of Lincoln, this park stands to celebrate the rich history of the Blackfoot Valley through an exploration of the area’s natural environment, history, and culture. Even the entrance shocks visitors, towering overhead, the braided branches welcome guests. The art is both permanent and temporary and brings together elements of the natural environment while telling Montana’s story. A variety of events are hosted in the park, each year an artist in residence is brought in, as well as musicians to perform in the featured TeePee Burner (part of the Montana Memory Project).
I could easily spend an entire day wandering through the sculpture park, taking in the scenery, writing, sketching, and simply being among the massive artwork. Each piece is accompanied by its artist statement, providing insight to the piece’s intention; however, like art installations across the world, sometimes it is more fulfilling to create meaning for yourself. As we continued to wander we took time to engage with the massive pieces, walking through the art, lying on the ground to gain a new perspective, and slowly circling the pieces to take in their full effect.
I’m not going to lie, I am a bit of a coffee addict, but when I see “Pumpkin Spice is Back” I can’t help myself but stop in for another cup of coffee. Coyote Coffee, a drive through shop that also has a picnic table sitting out behind the kiosk, sits just off main street and is the perfect place for a quick stop to warm up. Plus, a fall road trip just wouldn’t be the same without a little Pumpkin Spice.
Lincoln is notable for the vast array of outdoor activities which visitors can take part in. With over 200 miles of trails the area is a hiker’s paradise, campgrounds litter the area, the Blackfoot River offers fine trout fishing and creates some of the most beautiful scenery. In the winter the area hosts over 200 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, and is also perfect for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. With this in mind, stretching your legs on one of those many trails is a no brainer. Again, driving just a few miles east of Lincoln, we hit the trails around Copper Creek.
With a packed morning, it was time to grab some grub, and we found the perfect place: The Lincoln Pit Stop. This is a classic burger joint complete with a soda fountain, counter, and jukebox. The Pit Stop offers a variety of burgers, sandwiches, and milkshakes. With our engines fueled, it was time to once again hit the road – this is the perfect time to mention, however, that Lincoln has several hotels and motels and this road trip could easily be turned into an overnight excursion.
Next on the docket was a stop at the old trading post just west of town. The Hi-Country Trading Post has long been a Lincoln staple, and sits directly on the Lewis & Clark trail. It is from this point that the annual dog sled race, Race to the Sky, both commences and concludes. Behind the trading post building sits the four-acre Upper Blackfoot Valley Historical Museum maintained by the Historical Society. The buildings and artifacts tell of the mining and agricultural history of the area. The Trading Post itself boasts indoor exhibits as well as Montana Made gifts and food. As you wander through the knick knacks and museum exhibits, this is a prime opportunity to grab a snack – Montana Made Jerky, a variety of local cheeses, or even some homemade fudge!
At this point, it’s time to head back to Helena, but quite possibly the most attractive aspect of a fall road trip through the Blackfoot Valley is the rich fall colors that paint the landscape. Rather than retracing our steps, we made a loop from Lincoln to Ovando (the epitome of a charming Montana town). Then weaved down a backroad to Helmville and followed MT Hwy 141 to Avon; with large farms and ranches, open space, and a winding dirt road, this drive will take your breath away.
As we hit MacDonald Pass, we realized that our perfect fall day was coming to an end … but there was one last stop that would put the cherry on top of our perfect day. A stop on the Helena Walking Mall at the Big Dipper! Fall flavors are here, and you guessed it – the end to a perfect day included a scoop of their pumpkin ice cream.