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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715
406-587-9563
1-877-613-0404
info@cowboyhvn.com

 

Pioneer Mountains

Scenery, Wildlife, Camping, Fishing, Hiking, Ghost Towns, & Rockhounding

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ne of Montana’s little known jewels is the Pioneer Mountains area northwest of Dillon. The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway along the Wise River south of its namesake town offers somewhat rare paved access to a string of delightful campgrounds, surrounded by great scenery, hiking, fishing, hunting, plus a few less common attractions like ghost towns, rockhounding, and a hot springs. In most of the state in order to reach an area like this, you need to beat your vehicle down many miles ofWiseRiver.jpg (18553 bytes) washboard gravel road, but in this part of the Beaverhead National Forest you can stay on pavement right to your campsite. I’m all for primitive access, but must admit that this paved access is a nice change of pace. Of course, easy access does make for a bit less solitude, but with eight campgrounds in a span of about fifteen miles, you should easily be able to find a site. Plus, if it’s solitude you desire a multitude of trails depart into the surrounding mountains and you can easily leave the vast majority of other visitors behind.

The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is most easily reached at its northern end at Wise River, 12 miles west on MT 43 from the Divide interchange on Interstate 15 between Butte and Dillon. The actual Scenic Byway intersection in Wise River is not particularly well marked, but Wise River is a pretty small town and it’s the only paved road heading south. The first campground is about fourteen miles south, and after that there is a campground every few miles. Most of them are not overly large, with from five to ten sites, but that is good in the sense that it limits the number of potential neighbors. They are all very nice campgrounds, nestled in the pines along the Wise River with the exception of the Mono Creek campground, which lies a mile up the gravel Elkhorn Creek road, along its namesake creek. Beyond the intersection with the Elkhorn Creek road the Scenic Byway climbs fairly rapidly to a high plateau consisting of broadPioneerMeadows..jpg (15020 bytes) meadows sprinkled through the lodgepoles, similar to what you see in Yellowstone Park. Just past the Crystal Park rockhounding area lies the Price Creek campground, which is much larger than the others, with over twenty sites. Due to its location in a high elevation lodgepole thicket with no nearby streams of any size, in my opinion it’s not as nice as the other campgrounds in the area. If the other campgrounds are full or if digging in Crystal Park is your primary activity, it will certainly suffice, though. Shortly after Crystal Park the road crosses the Wise River / Grasshopper Creek divide. There is another larger and very nice campground a few miles beyond along Grasshopper Creek. Also, there are many undeveloped campsites at pullouts all along the Scenic Byway, which in addition to offering more solitude are free, both of which more than make up for lack of picnic tables and restrooms.

If like me you find it impossible to pass a trailhead without an urge to head up the trail and see what’s out there, you could easily occupy yourself for many trips in the Pioneers. The Scenic Byway runs between the East and West Pioneers, both of which have an extensive network of trails. The East Pioneers are high, rugged mountains with several peaks over 11,000 feet. They contain quite a few high elevation lakes, any of which make for extremely scenic destinations for an overnight backpack trip or moderately strenuous day hike. The lakes mostly lie under the peaks along the crest of the range, and involve trips from six to ten miles with elevation gain of a little over two thousand vertical feet. Most of these will be out and back trips on the same trail, although it’s possible to cross the East Pioneers on a trail from Mono Lake campground to Brownes Lake, an eighteen mile trip which will obviously necessitate a vehicle shuttle.

The West Pioneers are more rounded and timbered, lower elevation mountains. They also contain several lakes, but these are more easily accessed from trailheads along their west side. What they do have are extensive roadless areas, a fact not lost on the abundant wild game (particularly elk). Consequently, most of the backcountry use in the West Pioneers occurs during the fall big game hunting season, and the elk hunting success rate is one of the highest in the area. The hiking in the East Pioneers is more strenuous, but I think most summertime visitors will find the alpine grandeur worth the calories expended, and will like me find the East Pioneers more attractive for hiking. For those who would rather see the country from the back of a horse, there are good horse facilities and plenty of trailer parking space at the trailheads. Several area outfitters offer trail rides in the area and we can set you up with one if you desire.

Most visitors will want to spend some time exploring the area by vehicle as well as foot or horseback, and there are a couple of excellent loop drives of around a hundred miles through the surrounding country. After crossing the Wise River / Grasshopper Creek divide and descending the gravel Grasshopper Creek road for a few miles you may first wish to stop at Elkhorn Hot Springs. This rustic lodge has two pools filled from a natural hot springs, and a soak followed by a burger and beer in the bar is most enjoyable. A couple of miles further down the road is the Maverick Mountain ski area, and after another few miles of washboard you are back on pavement and shortly intersect with Montana 278, at which point you have a choice. A few miles to the west you enter the upper Big Hole valley, a scenic and historic ranching area. This route offers many accesses to the Big Hole river, and is a good choice for fishermen, although that is not exactly a unique attribute in this area.

At the town of Wisdom, history buffs may wish to take a side trip to the Big Hole battlefield, where the fleeing Nez Perce Indians suffered losses but still managed to escape from General Gibbon’s forces. For what it’s worth, the Nez Perce had been generally peaceful Indians, but when faced with forcible removal from their ancestral homelands in Idaho, they fled on a very circuitous through Montana in an effort to join Sitting Bull’s Sioux in Canada. In spite of large numbers of women and children and an extensive horse herd, they mostly managed to avoid the pursuing US Army, led by General Gibbon whom they derisively nicknamed "General Day After Tomorrow". Like the rest of the Indian Wars, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. They were finally surprised and defeated within sight of Canada. I have also visited that battlefield, south of Chinook, and can’t honestly say that these are feel-good kinds of places. Say what you will, but I think the karma of past injustice hangs heavy. Still, you can walk in the footsteps of history (actually not that long past), and although it’s not a particularly pretty part of our history, I think that it shouldn’t be ignored.

North of Wisdom there are several more fishing access sites along the Big Hole, views of the peaks of the Anaconda/Pintlar Wilderness area, and a possible side trip of a few miles north to the Mount Haggin Wildlife Management area. Another few miles along the Big Hole brings you back to Wise River and the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.

Returning to our decision point on US 278, if you turn east in a few miles you come to a most worthwhile attraction; the ghost town of Bannack.Bannack.jpg (18944 bytes) The first discovery of gold in Montana Territory occurred nearby and the town sprang up shortly after. It was the first Territorial Capitol of Montana, and has been well preserved. It is not hard to visualize the harsh and often violent life of the inhabitants during the gold rush days of the mid-1860’s. Continuing east on MT 278 brings you to Dillon, from where you can follow I-15 north toward Divide and then east on MT 43 to Wise River. Exits off I-15 provide access to roads leading into the east side of the East Pioneers. Compared to the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway these roads are somewhat rough and primitive, but they do offer road access to a couple of lakes. The Rock Creek road leads to Brownes Lake, and is suitable even for cars. The Birch Creek road leads past Aspen and Dinner Station campgrounds. Beyond that point you will want a higher clearance vehicle as the road climbs to Minneopa Lake. Both these roads also access trailheads to backcountry lakes.

The primary attraction for fishermen in the area is likely to be the famed Big Hole river. The Wise River looks fishy as can be, but has never completely recovered from scouring resulting from a dam break many years ago. Not to say that it is fishless, far from it, just that it is not as good as you would think. Like many small streams, its clear pools require aJacobsonMeadows.jpg (14963 bytes) careful approach and presentation, something that has always struck me as having more in common with hunting than fishing. We have had better luck in Elkhorn Creek, in the area around the Mono Creek campground and upstream around Jacobson Meadows. The fish aren’t large, but they are eager and cooperative, something especially younger anglers will appreciate. The backcountry lakes also contain fish, and if you plan on hiking into them it’s advisable to bring along a pack rod.

Another worthwhile area attraction is the ghost town of Coolidge, which lies a short hike beyond the end of the Elkhorn Creek road. ExtensiveMarmots.jpg (20012 bytes) silver mining went on in this area up until the 1920’s, but now the only inhabitants of the abandoned mill, with its accompanying houses and businesses scattered along Elkhorn Creek are marmots. This ghost town has not been preserved like some others, and many of the buildings have collapsed from the weight of winter snows, but it’s still worth visiting. It’s hard to believe the amount of work and expense the miners sank into extracting ore from the mountains, only to walk away from it all when the ore played out and low mineral prices made further mining impractical.

Visitors with geological interests should visit Crystal Park to dig for crystals. An area of a hundred acres or so has been set aside for digging, although portions of it may be closed for safety reasons. Rockhound friends tell me it’s possible to find crystals up to fist-sized, although I must confess my attention span for digging in the hot sun while on vacation matches that of my children. We found many smaller crystals, though, without expending much effort. Even if you don’t dig at all, you can find small crystals laying on the surface, and if nothing else a short hike to the top of the ridge offers excellent views of nearby Comet Mountain as well as more distant peaks in the East Pioneers.

Outstanding scenery, wildlife, fishing, hiking, ghost towns, rockhounding, plus abundant campgrounds with easy access add up to an excellent place to spend a few days. In doing so, you’ll be following in the footsteps of the pioneers who this area was named after, without enduring the rigors they faced. Not a bad deal at all, in my opinion.

 

 

 

 

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