Big Hole: Montana’s Big Hole Country

by Rick and Susie Graetz
Big Hole Valley
Big Hole Valley | Rick and Susie Graetz

Native Americans who frequented the area called it the “land of big snows.” In 1806, William Clark christened it Hot Springs Valley.  Early trappers used the French word trou (hole), to describe a wide-open basin between mountain ranges, and the homesteaders and ranchers, who moved into these bottomlands in the 1880s, adopted this term for the Big Hole Valley.

Later, in the days when hay was piled high like giant loaves of bread, it was often referred to as the “valley of 10,000 hay stacks.”

Legendary for its fishing, haystacks, tough winters, and multi-generation ranches, southwest Montana’s Big Hole country is still the real west. Considered one of Montana’s most beautiful valleys, this sparsely populated landscape is home to some of the largest and oldest working ranches in Montana. Cowboys are alive and well here. Many of the cow-calf operations are still roping, herding, and branding like they have done for 150 years.

Sprawling in a most beautiful setting, the Big Hole’s east side touches the Pioneer Mountains. On the west, topped by the Continental Divide, the Beaverhead and Anaconda ranges rise. At 15 to 20 miles across, nearly 75 miles long, and 6,000 plus feet and in elevation, this is the state’s highest and broadest valley.

The centerpiece of this southwest Montana domain is the Big Hole River. Native Americans called it “waters of the pocket gopher” and the Corps of Discovery labeled it Wisdom River. On August 6, 1805, Meriwether Lewis penned in his journal “we therefore determined that the middle fork was that which ought of right to bear the name we had given to the lower portion or River Jefferson and called the bold rapid an clear stream Wisdom and the more mild an placid one which flows in from the S. E. Philanthrophy, [2] in commemoration of two of those cardinal virtues, which have so eminently marked that deservedly selibrated character through life.” Lewis was referring to President Thomas Jefferson. Philanthrophy is now the Ruby River. The original journals didn’t surface until after Lewis’s death and settlers who came much later bestowed their own names on the rivers.

Below the river and surface of this grass and sagebrush filled-valley lies unique geology. When wells were first drilled, they showed an extraordinary deep fill of gravel, mud, clays, and sand extending downward more than 14,000 feet to a bedrock of much older solid volcanic materials. Through erosion and glaciation, sediments washed off of the mountains and filled in the valley.

In geographic terms, this region is considered “basin and range” topography. As the earth’s crust was pulled apart, faults formed and down-dropped land masses into north-south oriented valleys, while uplifting the mountains that separated them. Much of southwest Montana and eastern Idaho is part of this realm of landscapes.

Birthplace for the Big Hole River is Skinner Lake sitting at 7,340 feet in the high country of the Beaverhead Mountains in the southern most reaches of its watershed. Leaving this elevated wetland, the newly formed river gathers contributions from other waters pouring off of the Continental Divide and from many tributaries on the fringes of the upper basin. As it gains its place in the heart of the valley, it winds its way north through the entire 75 miles of its namesake valley.

Below the town of Wisdom at Fish Trap, the river leaves the basin and turns northeast on its way to meet the Beaverhead just below Twin Bridges, where they form the Jefferson River, one of the three forks of the Missouri. When it ends its run, the Big Hole will have covered 153 miles. Along the way, waters from numerous lakes and streams, discharging from the surrounding mountains, feed it and help create a world-class fishery. It has been said that there are more than 3,000 fish per mile in the river.

Owing to restoration projects, the rare fluvial (fish living in rivers and streams) Arctic grayling is found centered around Wisdom in the valley’s upper reaches. The Big Hole is one of only places left in the lower 48 states where this fish still lives in a native river environment. Additionally, east of Dillon, the Ruby River is home to a newly established population of fluvial grayling. The Red Rock Creek population of Arctic grayling in the Centennial Valley exhibits both adfluvial (residing in Upper Red Rock lake and spawning in Red Rock Creek) and fluvial behaviors with some grayling remaining in the stream for a prolonged period.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Department Natural Resources and Conservation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service is currently partnering with 33 ranchers to address threats and enhance habitat to allow this prize fish to increase its presence in the upper Big Hole watershed. Approximately 90% of the Arctic grayling habitat in the upper Big Hole flows through private lands.

Overall, the river represents the highest fish density of any Montana stream; along with the grayling, it hosts a robust whitefish population, brook trout, cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout.

For the most part, time has passed by quietly in this crescent shaped valley.

Long before the European invasion of North America, for countless generations, the Shoshone Nation spent the warm months in the Big Hole in search of camas root and other plants. And as the valley is high, averaging over 6,000 feet in elevation, cold – temperatures can reach 50 below zero – and it accumulates deep winter snows, much of the year, these indigenous peoples lived below the west slope of the Beaverhead Mountains in today’s Salmon and Lemhi valleys of Idaho where they could fish, especially for salmon, and hunt in a more hospitable winter climate.

Then came the first white men. On July 6 and 7, 1806, William Clark with members of the Corp of Discovery passed through the Big Hole, camping first on Moose Creek, about seven miles southwest of Wisdom. The next day they paused at today’s Jackson Hot Springs; here are excerpts from Clark’s journals.

Sunday 6th July 1806

“…we assended a Small rise and beheld an open boutifull Leavel Vally or plain of about 20 [NB: 15] Miles wide and near 60 [NB: 30] long extending N & S. in every direction around which I could see high points of Mountains Covered with Snow… The Squarpointed to the gap through which she said we must pass which was S. 56° E. She said we would pass the river before we reached the gap. we had not proceeded more than 2 Miles in the last Creek, before a violent Storm of wind accompand. with hard rain from the S W. imediately from off the Snow Mountains this rain was Cold and lasted 1½ hours. I discovd. the rain wind as it approached and halted and formd. a solid column to protect our Selves from the Violency of the gust. after it was over I proceeded on about 5 Miles to Some Small dry timber on a Small Creek and encampd.

Monday 7th July 1806

Situated about 100 paces from a large Easterly fork of the Small river in a leavel open vally plain and nearly opposit & E. of the 3 forks of this little river which heads in the Snowey Mountains to the S E. & S W of the Springs. this Spring [NB: 15 yds in circumc, boils up all over bottom which is Stoney] contains a very considerable quantity of water, and actually blubbers with heat for 20 paces below where it rises. it has every appearance of boiling, too hot for a man to endure his hand in it 3 seconds. I directt Sergt. Pryor and John Shields to put each a peice of meat in the water of different Sises. the one about the Size of my 3 fingers Cooked dun in 25 minits the other much thicker was 32 minits before it became Sufficiently dun. this water boils up through some loose hard gritty Stone

Clark and his crew camped that night at a spring just below today’s Big Hole Pass, on its east side.

From about 1810 to the 1840s, fur trappers, mostly French-Canadians from the Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company, and the American Fur Company entered these valleys of southwest Montana and gave some of them their names. These groups of trappers, called brigades, came in search of beaver pelts and other furs. Their passing depleted the streams of fur-bearing wildlife. By the mid-1840s the fur trade was no longer profitable and the area saw very few white men for the next 25 years.

Beaverhead Range west of Big Hole | Rick and Susie Graetz

The foundation of what would become Montana and eventually bring human permanency here dates back to an event that occurred just to the east.

On July 28, 1862, John White and his fellow prospectors discovered gold on Grasshopper Creek, a tributary of the Beaverhead, that the Corps of Discovery had named Willards Creek. Bannack was born and by that autumn 3,000 people occupied the camp. On May 26, 1864, it became Montana’s first Territorial Capital.

As word spread, prospectors, searching for “colors” fanned out to the Big Hole and other streams and creeks of Southwest Montana. Very few had success as the geology wasn’t as favorable as in the gulches in and around Bannack and the Virginia City.

Miners and homesteaders settled the area between 1880 and the early 1900s. The Homestead Act of 1862 that gave 160 acres of land enabled these first pioneers to claim Big Hole Valley land. Those who received a site were required to live on their land, cultivate it, and develop it, then they could obtain a deed after five years. In 1877, Congress passed the Desert Land Act allowing settlers to obtain 640 acres of land, which had to be irrigated within three years.

Historical accounts credit A.J. and Hattie Noyes as being the first homesteaders in the valley. They came to The Crossings (now Wisdom) in May 1882 and filed a homestead claim that summer. The place gained its initial name as two roads, one down the Big Hole to the Jefferson and the other westward to the Bitterroot, intersected here.

In 1877, to accommodate a mail route from Bannack to Missoula through the Big Hole, two men, Salisbury and Gilmer, built three stage stations each consisting of a one-room log cabin, a barn, and corral for horses. One was near Jackson, another a bit north of there, and a third at what was then The Crossings. As deep snows blocked passage for six months out of the year, after only a few trips, the enterprise ended. The stops were abandoned. Jack Hicks, an old trapper, made good use of one, spending the winter of 1881-1882 there.

As Bannack grew and other gold strikes in the region brought more people to Southwest Montana, the abundance of grass and water for irrigation coupled with the demand for meat by the miners, attracted cattlemen to the valley. The Big Hole as well as nearby Grasshopper Creek and Beaverhead valleys, was the stage for the growth of ranching in Montana. Ranches still operating today expanded from the heyday of the mining camps and have been in the same family for generations. Many of these old-time ranches were established by buying homesteader’s lands and cobbling them together.

Long winters and a short summer season dictate that growing hay – lots of it – was one of the very few crops possible to flourish. Hay had to be stored for feeding cattle in winter and it could be sold. Early on, this was a tough proposition, then in 1909, two valley ranchers Herbert S. Armitage and David J. Stephens invented the “Hay-Stacker.”

Often called a “beaverslide,” the apparatus allows for loose hay to be loaded on the platform part of the inclined slide, which moves upward on pulleys (some powered by truck motors and some by horses), to a height of about 30 feet where the hay then drops over the top edge into a rectangular pole cage forming a stack upwards of 30 feet high. The result is a wind-proof stash of hay that can last at least three years and longer.

The slides remained in use until the 1990s when they were replaced by mechanized equipment that formed large round bales. Owing to the high cost of buying mechanized equipment, a few ranchers in the Big Hole continue to utilize the traditional stacker.

While the demand for beef by the miners and early settlers was the catalyst to propel this important Montana industry forward, it was the coming of the railroad into Montana in 1891 that opened markets for Big Hole rancher’s beef, horses, dairy items, and hay.

In 1869, the Transcontinental Union Pacific Road reached Corrine, Utah. And when it did, crews began laying track for the Utah and Northern heading about 300 miles north toward the Butte mines. The first train rolled into Butte on December 26, 1881. Important to Big Hole interests was that the tracks ran through the Beaverhead Valley with sidings in Dillon and Divide, both within easy reach.

One major and violent bit of history did occur in the valley. On August 9, 1877, the US Army ambushed the peaceful Nez Perce Indians. Although many of their numbers were killed in the surprise attack, under the leadership of Chief Joseph, they were able to hold off the enemy and escape. The site, west of Wisdom, is now the Big Hole Battlefield National Monument.

Today, Wisdom and Jackson with populations of 100 and 36 respectively are the mainstays of this ranching domain. Wisdom, first known as The Crossings, has its collection of saloons, eateries and a general store. After the post office was established in 1884, the town folk revived the original name as the former moniker had lost favor.

Jackson, 19 miles upstream, came into being in 1896 and was named for the first postmaster. Today it boasts of a mercantile, hotel, hat-maker, and Jackson Hot Springs with its lodge and artesian fed hot plunge.

As a result of the expanded Homestead Act of 1912, the valley’s population slowly increased. New folks began fencing out the ranchers to the south who had summered their cattle in the area since the 1870s. Tensions escalated to just short of range-war status. The depression in the 1920s and fierce winters eventually thinned out the ranks of the homesteaders.

Now the Big Hole River draws fisherman from across the globe, but the area offers far more than fly-casting opportunities. The surrounding wilderness has many hiking trails, easy mountains to climb and dependable winter snows make for excellent cross-country and backcountry skiing. And then there is the quiet beauty of the valley that in itself is worth a visit!