If you’re looking for an adventure in Southwest Montana, chances are you have a few criteria in mind. Remarkable scenery, history, wildlife, preferably off the beaten path, and good camping, and maybe a few interesting towns to stop in along the way.
If that’s what you’re looking for, then you should start planning a trip to the Big Hole Valley, or more specifically, the 156 mile loop from Dillon, up highway 287 to Wisdom, then along Highway 43 through Wise River to Interstate 15, and back south to Dillon. Dillon and environs end up getting a lot of press on this blog, and with good reason. Not only is it the Southwestiest area of Southwest Montana, but Dillon and the Big Hole Valley meet all the criteria and more for an ideal Southwest Montana vacation.
Let’s start with Bannack. Bannack, is, of course, a classic Old West sort of town. One of the first towns in Montana, Bannack was Montana’s first gold town, and territorial capital, it was the home of the notorious highwayman/sheriff Henry Plummer, and key in the story of the Vigilantes (can you get any more Old West than a sheriff who secretly leads a gang of outlaws and is eventually brought to justice by a upstanding gang of vigilantes?). Today, it is one of Montana’s most fascinating state parks, a spectacular ghost town, and a great place to camp.
Bannack was named after the Bannock Indians, a fact which points to the reality that the so-called “Old West” is, in fact, not that old at all. To the Native peoples who lived on the land long before any sort of white adventurer “discovered” it, the “Old West” was a new, and fairly inhospitable west. This less heroic, more complicated, but certainly richer history is exemplified at the Big Hole Battlefield National Monument, a few miles outside of Wisdom. The Battlefield is one of a number of important sites marking the trail of the Nez Perce Indians who, led by famous Chief Joseph, attempted to flee to Canada in 1873. The Battlefield is well worth a visit, and tells a fascinating chapter of the state’s history.
And then, of course, you have the Big Hole Valley itself. A vast, lush meadow, surrounded by stunning peaks, and showcasing the meandering Big Hole River, the Valley is as picturesque as they come. Adding to the sense of river-bottom hay-meadow lushness, many of the farmers in the are continue to use the traditional “beaver slide” technique, to create massive stacks of hay throughout midsummer. The fishing, both in the river, and in the surrounding lakes and reservoirs is some of the best you’ll find. The mountains surrounding the valley are mostly part of the Beaverhead National Forest, and camping opportunities abound.
You won’t soon tire of somnolent meanders of the Big Hole River, but if eventually you do, you can head slightly east, into the Pioneer Mountains of the Beaverhead National Forest, and follow the tumultuous Wise River as it torrents north to join the Big Hole at Wise River.
For more excellent suggestions of off-the-beaten-path roadtrips in Montana, one of the best resources of the web is the many routes created by BigSkyFishing.com