West Pioneer Mountains

by Mark Spero with Rick Graetz

Southwest Montana claims 20 mountain ranges, many of them are well-know and experience significant use. Then there are the West Pioneers rising across the Grasshopper Creek and Wise River valleys from the better-known East Pioneers. Many folks who spend considerable time in the mountains of Montana never knew of them as a separate range thinking this gathering of elevated terrain was one group of peaks – the Pioneer Mountains.

Together they take up a considerable piece of geography rising from two valleys that are well etched in Montana’s antiquity.

From the crest of the East Pioneers a climber looks east to the Beaverhead Valley and the town of Dillon to the south. From viewpoints in the West Pioneers the Big Hole Valley dominates the western viewshed. In the north both ascend quickly from the Big Hole River.

One can only wonder why those on the sunset side share the name Pioneers with their eastern neighbor. Perhaps because in their northern reaches they sort of intermingle, separated by the narrow Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway and Wise River flow.

Each claims their own distinct ecosystems.  The East Pioneers display a sharp jagged ridgeline and evidence of glaciation everywhere. Their loftiest pinnacles exceed 11,000 feet and high cirque lakes sit just below many of the mountain walls. Numerous named mountains and unnamed points exceed 10,000 feet. Alpine biological diversity best describes them.

Elbow Lake in the West Pioneers | PC: Leroy Friel
Elbow Lake in the West Pioneers | Leroy Friel

Very few of the more rounded tops of the West Pioneers are above timberline. Its highest summit is 9,497’ Stine Mountain and the lakes, estimated to number 29, are found mostly in timber. This ecosystem experiences a more hospitable environment.

Before white settlers arrived, the Shoshone, Bannock, Salish, and Kootenai tribes travelled the area to hunt. The Shoshone frequented the area the most, spending much of the summer months in the Big Hole Valley and foothills of the West Pioneers.

Montana’s gold rush roared to life with the discovery of gold in July 1862, just a short distance to the south on the lower reaches of Grasshopper Creek, the West Pioneers attracted mining exploration.  From the 1860s to the 1930s, nearby mining camps were known for their gold and silver mines, which fed a smelter in Anaconda.

In 1908, the Beaverhead National Forest was established in the area, allowing the USFS to protect the ecosystems of both ranges. In 1996, the Beaverhead was merged with the Deerlodge to form Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Unlike the rocky and bare upper reaches of the East Pioneers, the West Pioneers show dense forests covering rolling hills. Included are old growth stands of lodgepole pine and whitebark pine.  One stand of lodgepole is thought to be the oldest in existence at over 500 years old.  Lakes in this area contain Arctic Grayling.  Above water wildlife includes elk, deer, black bear, moose, pine marten and wolverine.

Even though the West Pioneers do not reach the heights of the massif to the east, there are plenty of opportunities to ski and climb and access is easy.

West Pioneer Mountains in Montana - Bobcat Lake and Bobcat Mountain | PC: Leroy Friel
Bobcat Lake and Bobcat Mountain | Leroy Friel

Maverick Mountain Ski Resort, located just off the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway in the southern reaches of the West Pioneers provides the surrounding towns with a small, community focused place to ski or snowboard. Its 2,020 vertical feet has 24 runs for all abilities. And the top of Maverick provides far-reaching views of the mountainous topography in all directions. Then there is Elkhorn Hot Springs, just beyond the ski area. Here is a rustic a year-round hot springs resort offering two outdoor hot mineral pools, a sauna, a restaurant, bar and cabins and rooms to rent. Guests can hike, snowmobile, cross-country ski in the surrounding mountains spreading or downhill ski at nearby Maverick Mountain. In the warm months mountain biking is popular.

Large scale mining may have ended, but today people come to the area to search for quartz crystals at Crystal Park, a designated National Recreation Area.  Rockhounds find clear, cloudy, white, gray, and purple crystals here.  While the crystals have little monetary value, some are prized for making jewelry.

Crystal Park sits at the higher elevations of the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway a road that traverses the length of the West and East Pioneer Mountains.  This route also leads travelers to ghost towns, trout fishing and trailheads. Part of this scenic road closes from December to mid-May.

Much of Montana’s early and wild days as a territory and then a state set some their most important stories in and around the West and East Pioneer Mountains.  Southwest Montana as a region considered the foundation of Montana!

Exploring Montana’s Pioneer Mountains – Trails and Natural History of This Hidden Gem – published by Far Country Press, Helena, Montana is a must read for anyone wanting to learn more about an incredibly diverse gathering of wild country and mountains! It is one of the best books of any mountain area in the state as author details routes to lakes and peaks and includes charts for every lake in both the East and West Pioneers and features a section on wildflowers well illustrated.

Maps of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that include both ranges are available from the Supervisors office in Dillon.