A Slice of Big Sky Country

In southwestern Montana, where the Continental Divide squiggles along the crest of the Bitterroot Range like a child’s doodle, rainwater and snowmelt gather to form rivers that wend their way northward, collecting volume along the way, then become the Jefferson, the Madison and the Gallatin. These rivers converge at Three Forks, giving birth to the mighty Missouri, discovered by Lewis and Clark on their fabled expedition.

I set out to tour a small slice of this area in a Jayco mini, determined to pay attention to the scenery and attractions rather than only searching for fishable water as I had done on a previous visit. I found the expanse of land buffered by the Bitterroots to the west and easing into Yellowstone to the east offers adventurous RVers a range of activities as broad as the basin itself–from scenic byways to natural hot springs, from ghost towns and abandoned mining camps to hiking trails and limestone caverns.

Heading north from West Yellowstone, I forked east onto Highway 191, which dips into the park for about 20 miles (much of this stretch parallels the Gallatin). Fishermen braved the Gallatin’s roiling turquoise water, playing their lines overhead within a long cast of the bull elk wading along the river’s shore. Fishing in the park is no longer free, now requiring a license that can be obtained at the ranger stations.

As the road exits the park, sandwiched between the Madison Range to the west and the Gallatin to the east, it shoots down the canyon, hopscotching the Gallatin River through the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, with 10,000-plus-foot peaks on either side. Four campgrounds exist between Big Sky, a resort community featuring a ski area and an Arnold Palmer-designed championship golf course, and Bozeman, a university town with a full range of activities and amenities, from shopping for Western wear in the many outfitter shops to sampling the coffee and baked goods in the Leaf and Bean Coffee House. RVers can also take care of any of their needs at Big Sky RV, just west of town on Huffine Lane.

The primary indoor attraction in Bozeman is the Museum of the Rockies. Located on Montana State University, the museum features permanent exhibits on the geology, history, archaeology and paleontology of the region, allowing visitors to take a “journey through the 41Z?2-billion-year-old history of the Northern Rocky Mountain region.” In addition, the museum features three halls for traveling exhibits, such as Native American artwork, and the Taylor Planetarium regularly
offers new programs.

Heading west out of Bozeman on Interstate 90, I found the sky above me as high and blue as any local department of tourism could hope. One benefit of the heavy snowpack was that in almost every direction, mountains that in other years would simply be beautiful were majestically blanketed in white.

Three Forks was next on the list. The Sacajawea Inn on Main Street caught my eye first. The white structure, its porch girded by doubled columns and lined with rocking chairs, has a fascinating history: Two of its wings, originally built in 1882 near the headwaters, were transported to higher ground on rolling logs; in 1910, the main building was added on, allowing Milwaukee Railroad passengers on their way to Yellowstone National Park to rest awhile amid the “Old West” ambiance. After a painstaking renovation supervised by owners Jane and Smith Roedel, the Sacajawea Inn today maintains many of the original architectural features without sacrificing any modern conveniences. I was so impressed by the inn that I ate breakfast in the well-appointed dining room though I’d just eaten 20 minutes before in Bozeman. Down the street, the Headwaters Heritage Museum is a two-story former home of one of the first banks in Three Forks. Today, the museum houses artifacts so eclectic as to be difficult to categorize, from an anvil used by the Missouri Fur Company in its nearby trading post to a 701-strand barbed-wire collection that’s downright goofy.

The Missouri Headwaters State Park allows historically inclined travelers to view the coming together of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers much as Lewis and Clark did in 1805. An outdoor interpretive center allows visitors to read plaques detailing what life was like for the various peoples who have inhabited the headwaters area, the race by European countries to establish sovereignty of the land and the hardships encountered by the trappers and mountain men who struggled to live off a land inhabited by Blackfeet Indians. A short, easy walk up a paved trail grants visitors the same view as Lewis and Clark had, and other hiking trails circle the gentle slopes, giving those people not wanting to fish or float a peaceful way to pass the day.

Going southwest on Highway 2 toward Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park, the Jefferson River skirts the road like a wet shadow, hugging the mountains then cutting through farmland and pastures. Clouds condensed overhead–as they would every day of my visit at about 3 p.m.–released their liquid contents, then dissipated as quickly as they had gathered. By the time I finished the tour of the caverns–a two-hour, two-mile guided spelunking excursion in 48-degree air–the sky outside had again become high and blue.

I found the wide-open valley–flanked by the Tobacco Roots’ snowy peaks and bisected by the raging Jefferson River–conducive to self-reflection. Driving through the whistle stops of Twin Bridges, Laurin and Alder along Highway 287, I wondered what it must be like to live in towns so small. To the locals, do the cars passing through represent another missed chance to escape, a more exciting way of life they will never experience? Or do the residents of these towns, mining settlements established more than 100 years ago with smaller populations now than then, feel sorry for us city slickers with our hurry-up-and-relax pace and our what-would-we-do-here expressions?

I stopped to have a cup of coffee in Alder. An elderly man, who chatted with the waitress as only a local could, sipped from a mug. We exchanged pleasantries about the weather and the quality of the joe. “Shame ’bout the fishin’,” he said, between sips. I agreed. Before I paid for our coffees, it occurred to me that the small-town folk who don’t cotton to the down-home lifestyle have already left, and the ones who remain are probably as content as people are anywhere. I said goodbye, and as I left, the old-time Montanan waved to me and said, “Thanks, friend.”

Continuing east on 287, travelers get their fill of the Old West in the adjacent towns of Nevada City and Virginia City. The first is a ghost town, with 100 restored buildings, including an operating hotel and cabins. Sitting across the street are ancient railroad cars. Visitors can watch staged gunfights and pan for gold. The town itself is, in effect, a museum, with an admission charge to view most of the buildings up close.

Virginia City is Nevada City brought back to life. Travelers can spend hours stepping back into history by taking the Virginia City walking tour, a map-led trip past buildings erected mainly during the 1860s. From Ranks Drug, Montana’s oldest continuously operating business, to the Cabbage Patch, a group of sheds and houses that made up one of the town’s many “red-light districts,” visitors can study up on their history, take in a 19th-century melodrama in the Opera House performed nightly from mid-June to Labor Day, or belly up to the bar for a drink in the Bale of Hay Saloon. The Virginia City Campground is located a half mile from the east edge of town for those RVers who’d like to spend a night in an Old West town, all of which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

In Ennis, someone suggested I drop down the 287 and try fishing the Madison, or at least sample the water in Ennis Lake. One fisherman told me he had caught two decent browns while floating the Madison east of Norris. I thought about buying a two-day license, and I had visions of battling a state-record trout. Fishing is a big attraction to southwestern Montana, right? But then I thought of the mountain views, the museums, the history. I remembered pulling in at each historical marker along the roadsides and leaving each stop a little more knowledgeable. I thought of the time I’d spent browsing in Bozeman’s bookstores and of the T-shirt I saw in a shop window: It was a stencil of a man decked out in waders and a fishing vest, his hands wide apart as if to show the size of his catch–under the stencil were the words, “I Fish, Therefore I Lie.”

I decided to leave my rod broken down. I’d seen what southwestern Montana had to offer and would let other travelers know about it. And, I wouldn’t have to lie.

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, P.O.Box 200701, Helena, Montana 59620; (800) VISIT-MT; www.travel.mt.gov.


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