After a brief but exhilarating visit to Moab (see post Moab = Fun and Adventure) we set out for Durango across Utah 46 which becomes Colorado 90 at the border. Colorado 90 is a gem – a beautiful ride up into the Southern Rocky Mountains within the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The pass at the top of route opens up to the panorama of the Paradox Valley. The majority of this route is very remote and we would not advise traveling this road in winter weather.
The Paradox Valley is a remote, thinly settled and beautiful place. The valley is approxiamtely 25 miles long running in a north – south direction. The width of the valley is between three and five miles. The paradox that led to the naming of the valley is the unusual east to west flow of the Dolores River which cuts across the valley, as opposed to running the length of the valley.
A Canadian company proposed building a uranium mill in the valley in 2009. Fortunately, the project was abandoned in 2020. As much as we recognize the need for extractive industries it would have been a shame to alter the beauty and character of this place with a uranium mill and everything that comes with the extraction of radioactive materials.
We were looking forward to taking a break at the Bedrock Store (serving outlaws since 1881). The Bedrock Store was used in the filming of the movie Thelma & Louise. Unfortunately, the store was not open.
We made a brief stop in Durango, CO enroute to New Mexico. Durango is a mountain town which sits just below 8000 feet above sea level and is a base for the alpine ski mountains in the areas. The town sits along the Rio de las Animas Perdidas which provides wonderful scenery for the bike path nestled on the bank of the river.
As you might surmise from the photos we were quite taken with Taste Coffee as well as barista and co-owner Mike Clarke. P.S. There is a narrow gauge railroad that runs from Durango to Silverton – which we did not ride because we left town to avoid a predicted snowstorm – but it looks like a lot of fun.
With heavy snow predicted in the Western Rockies we re-routed due south into New Mexico – stopping to visit the puebloan ruins located in the town of Aztec, Colorado.
The Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in the town of Aztec, New Mexico. The ruins are 900 years old. We utilized the excellent self-guided audio tour to explore the ruins. This is an impressive site with over 400 rooms and an a restored Pueblo Great House. It is well worth the visit if your travels will be taking you to northern New Mexico. ( https://www.nps.gov/azru/index.htm )
Change of plans
After our overnight in Chama we traveled north and east across Colorado Route 17 to access the Carson National Forest for our planned overland trip from the border to Jemez Springs, NM. When we arrived we found the forest roads still covered in snow with mud underneath. This is a bad recipe for safe travel on narrow mountain roads so we decided to hold off on overlanding (no paved roads) until conditions improved.
We decided to visit Taos while waiting for better conditions on our overland routes. We will report on our stay in Taos in our next post.
The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a spectacular drive. The route follows a paved road from Wise, Montana to its end near Dillon, Montana. The Pioneer Mountains have an eastern and western range. The drive winds through the meadows between the ranges providing incredible views all around. Interestingly, the two ranges are very different in appearance. The eastern range has tall, jagged peaks (think Grand Tetons) while the western range is more rounded. These are big mountains with several peaks above 11,000 feet.
We were not familiar with this range before a gentlemen in Shelby told us about this drive – thank you! This is one of the biggest ranges we had never heard of before. The range is within national forest – largely unspoiled – just mountains, forests, meadows and the the byway bisecting the range.
About 25 miles along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway we came to a five mile dirt road that climbs up to the site of the ghost town of Coolidge and the defunct Elkhorn Mine and Mills. The road is fine for 2wd vehicles if it is dry.
The former mine and town sit at an elevation of 6601 feet. The mine produced zinc, lead and silver from 1875 until it was decommissioned in 1899 when the ore load was considered to be played out. The Elkhorn was the last mine in Montana to produce silver.
Work to reopen the mine under new ownership began in 1918. The tunneling work brought people back to Coolidge and a school and post office were established. The town even had electricity – no small feat at that time in such a remote location. Unforunately, by the time the tunneling was completed and the mine was actually ready to begin producing in 1923, silver prices plummeted and the mine went bust.
Subsequently, a dam collapse wiped out several sections of rail line and the town lost rail service marking the beginning of the end. The school and post office closed soon after.
The remains of the town are mostly collapsed at this point – not much to explore in that regard, but we think it is worth the visit – the scenery from the mine site is gorgeous and you walk away with a real sense of the what conditions must have been like when the mine and town were operating.
After completing our drive on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Highway we continued south through the Grasshopper Valley to visit the ghost town of Bannack. The town sits on the bank of Grasshopper Creek and was founded in 1862 after gold was found in the creek. The town is named after the Bannock Indians that inhabited this area at that time – the spelling with an a instead of an o was the result of a clerical error in Washington.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition first documented the creek in 1805 and named it Willard Creek. When the population swelled in 1862 after the discovery of gold, the miners renamed it Grasshopper Creek due to the abundance of grasshoppers in the area.
In addition to the influx of miners (many from Colorado) prospecting for gold, the town became a haven for Civil War deserters and outlaws (in part due to its remote location). Within a year there were approximately 3000 people inhabiting Bannack. Almost all of the inhabitants were men. The handfull of women in town were mostly “saloon girls” who worked in one of the four saloons.
As the population continued to swell (10,000 people at its height), the outlaws took full advantage of the opportunity to relieve miners of their gold. Miners frequently went back and forth between Bannack and the mining camp at Virginia City. By this point the outlaws had organized into several large gangs and routinely robbed and in some cases murdered the miners.
The town hired a sheriff (Henry Plummer) to stop the violence but he turned out to be the leader of the largest and most violent of the gangs. Dang!
As this fact became well known, folks of Bannack and Montana decided to take matters into their own hands, forming the Montana Vigilence Committee. Between December 1863 and February 1864, 24 men suspected of crimes were lynched by the Vigilantes. There were no trials! One of the most notable of the men hanged was Sheriff Henry Plummer, who was suspected of being a gang leader. Montana State Police still wear a shoulder patch with the numbers 3-7-77. The numbers supposedly represent the dimensions of the graves of ths suspected outlaws killed by the vigilantes. Three feet wide, seven feet long and 77 inches deep…and now you know.
As with many gold rush towns, the bust comes just as quickly as the boom. By 1870, the easy gold was dredged out of the creek and the population began to quickly decline. Bannack’s population dropped from almost 10,000 to just a few hundred by 1870, only eight years after its founding.
The town carried on until the 1940s due to several small gold booms, but they were not enough to sustain the town. The majority of the remaining population moved on during the 1930s and by the 1940s the one room schoolhouse and the post office closed. The town was effectively non-existent, although a small number of residents hung on into the 1970s.
Today Bannack is managed by the state of Monatana as part of Bannack State Park. The state has done an excellent job preserving the remaining structures as they were but is not restoring the buildings
The history of this short lived town is deep and fascinating. The town physically has over 60 structures remaining – the majority are open for exploration.
If you enjoy western history, Bannack is a fun and interesting place to visit. The Grasshopper Valley is beautiful but remote, so give thought with combining a visit to Bannack with other destinations in southwestern Montana and perhaps Idaho.
Friday night rodeo is a weekly event during the summer in many ranching towns in the west. Kids begin competing at age six. Most high schools have rodeo teams and there is a collegiate circuit as well. Towns take great pride in their rodeo stadium.
The video below is of Cole Trexler, age 18, Montana high school all-around rodeo state champion. Cole will be riding at the collegiate level this fall. His brother Cash, 14, is also a budding rodeo star. He is the high school state champion bull rider. We met Cash and his mom. She told us that Cash “sat” his first horse at age three!
The Senior Professional Rodeo Association was in Darby for the weekend while were camping up the road a piece in Victor. On a gorgeous Friday evening we enjoyed watching the cowboys and cowgirls compete in bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and barrel racing (cowgirls only). The senior circuit is for cowboys and cowgirls forty and over.
The local rodeo is a big deal. The whole town turns out to support the riders. It is also deeply imbued with patriotic and christian themes. The opening ceremony includes prayers for the safety of the riders as well as the servicemen and servicewomen who protect our freedom. The prayers are also for our political leadership – that they make the hard decisions necessary to protect our way of life.
The photos below were taken at the Little Smith Creek Ranch where we camped for several nights. We were the only campers at the ranch during our stay. To say that the setting was idylic is an understatement. The ranch is located at the base of the Bitteroot Mountains on the western edge of the valley and our view to the east extended across the valley to the Sapphire Mountains. Plenty of deer wandering by as well. Wow!
Biking and hiking Bitteroot
The Little Smith Creek Ranch, while remote with spectacular scenery, is only minutes from a good number of spectacular hikes into the Bitteroot.
The photos above and below are from our favorite hike. The Kootenai Creek Trail follows a fast flowing creek with waterfalls and pools up to the North Kootenai Lake – a distance of about ten miles to reach the lake, and no – we did not make it all the way to the lake!
Clark fork of the columbia river
The Clark Fork of the Columbia River is a 310 mile long river originating as the Silver Bow Creek in Butte. It carries water from a substantial portion of the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia River Basin, which makes the river an excellent choice for white water rafting.
We ran a number of rapids which were mostly class 3. Early spring produces the biggest rapids -class 5- due to snow melt while by August most of the rapids are class 1 or 2 due to the reduced flow of water.
I am not sure if it was due to our senior citizen status or not but we had three guides on our raft! Regardless, were glad to have the two additional paddlers when we went into the bigger rapids.
Fika and art: Missoula style
After our stay in the beautiful Bitteroot Valley we drove north to Missoula. We had hoped to do some more bicycling in addition to river rafting but the heat was too much for us to manage the cycling side of the equation.
We did stay for a couple of days and spent some time at two local coffee shops and visited the interesting (but small) Missoula Art Museum (MAM).
Southwestern montana…hidden gem
Southwestern Montana did not originally factor into our initial planning but after conversations with several Montanans we decided to vector to the region and we are pleased that we did. The southwest corner of Montana is well known to fishing and hunting aficionados, but it’s not found on the standard tourist itinerary.
We had a piece of the planet to ourselves (well, at least regarding other humans) for stretches of time as we drove through the Pioneer Mountains and the pristine Grasshopper Valley. We will definitely return to the area for a more extended stay in the future – lots of hiking, ghost towns and backroads to be explored and dispersed camping under the dark sky.
After a brief visit to Billings (see previous post) we set out due north to traverse the Great Plains of central Montana before turning west in the Northland parallel to the Canadian border.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR)
Our first stop on the journey north was the CMR. Once again we found ourselves crossing the mighty Missouri River which so dominates the history of this part of the country with its integral connection to the Lewis & Clark expedition.
We crossed the river within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge consists of 1.1 million acres which border the river from the Fort Peck Dam on the east to the Missouri River Breaks National Monument on the west – a distance along the river of about 125 miles.
This protected area is primitive and essentially looks as it did when Lewis and Clark journeyed up the river. There is a rough auto road that drops down to the river level and follows the river before looping back to the highway.
We drove the road and were able to see some of the Missouri Breaks (rock formations) as well as a number of the remnants of abandoned praire homesteads. It is hard to fathom how hardy people must have been to homestead in this rugged terrain – most failed.
The refuge is named after Charles M. Russell – an artist known for his western landscape paintings, many of which depict the refuge, and as an early conservationist.
american prairie reserve (APR)
The APR is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the prairie land of central Montana. It is estimated by the APR that a land area of three million acres (5000 square miles) is necessary to preserve the Great Plains in perpetuity. The APR is buying prairie land from private owners and leasing land from the federal and state government which is contiguous to existing public lands (including CMR) to create the reserve.
The APR has also established a sizeable bison herd which freely roams within the reserve. When we were completing our research on Montana we learned that we could camp within the reserve among the bison (at our own risk obviously).
We were definitely up for the camping on the prairie. Adding to the adventure was the need to navigate across 60 miles of prairie devoid of signage and without the aid of satnav. Since we are writing this post you are correct in concluding that our navigator was more than up to the task.
We enjoyed our journey through the prairie and our overnight camping with the bison despite the triple digit temperatures, 30 mile per hour winds and accompanying dust. The opportunity to see these magnificent animals roaming the prairie freely, as they did until the late 1800s, felt as if we had the privilege of traveling back in time.
Of course, we probably all have read about the near extinction of the bison at the hands of Euro-Americans to supply the east with fur and hides. The slaughter of the bison also served to deprive the Native Americans of their way of life.
The Native Americans of the plains not only killed bison for the meat – they used every bit of the bison to make shelters, clothing, weapons and tools. The Native Americans worshipped the bison as it provided so much of what they needed to live.
“When the buffalo went away, we became a changed people… The buffalo was everything to us. When it went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. —Plenty-Coups (Crow) 1880
When we decided to visit the APR we did not know that the Montana ranching community is adamantly opposed to it. We had the opportunity to speak with a rancher when we stopped for fuel and provisions on the trip to the APR.
The cattle ranchers are concerned they will not be allowed to continue to use the land that the APR buys and leases from the government for grazing. They are also concerned that the APR wants to let the bison roam freely throughout the reserve and not be managed as stock; which could lead to transmission of Brucellosis to cattle, causing spontaneous abortion in pregnant cattle. Bison in Yellowstone National Park have been infected with Brucellosis in the past. How real the concern is we do not know.
In the end though, much of the opposition is to what the ranchers view as a land grab by the federal government. Ranchers have a deep animosity towards the federal government and as you may recall, this has manifested itself in violence on a number of occasions.
The Montana economy is primarily agricultural and extractive – cattle, sheep, barley, wheat, copper mining and fossil fuel. Theerefore, any partnership by the government (in this case with the APR) to de facto acquire more land (which ends up off-limits for agricultural or extractive purposes) is going to be controversial.
Hopefully, the ranchers and APR can work things out, although presently there are several lawsuits in progress.
The montana hi-Line and Sweet grass hills
We departed the APR traveling north through another 50 miles of dusty prairie until we reached the town of Malta and our first paved road in several days. At Malta we turned west to travel on Route 2 to reach Chester and then head north into the Sweet Grass Hills. The area from Route 2 north to Canada and from the North Dakota border on the east to the Idaho border on the west is known as the Montana Hi-Line.
The Hi-Line is emblamatic of Montana – rolling grasslands, cattle ranches and mile after mile of wheat, barley and cannola fields under seemingly un-ending blue sky. This area known as the Hi-Line was sparsely populated until the late 1800s.
Around this time James Hill, a railroad executive, began the construction of the Great Northern Railroad (GNR), envisioning a railroad extending from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. He envisioned this railroad as a trade route ultimately extending to Asia. The construction of the railroad through northern Montana brought multitudes of ranchers and farmers into the area. The railroad brought supplies to the towns that popped up along the railway and moved their crops and stock to market. Today the railroad and Route 2 run side by side through most of this area.
The photos above are from our stop in Chester – our departure point from Route 2. We had fika at Well in Chester and met several local farmers and ranchers. The coffee shop owner is also the local pastor, a firearms dealers and a substitue teacher – apparently not unusual in this part of the world based on our conversations. The town is tiny at 311 acres and a population of 1099 and it was obvious that there is a real sense of community here.
After our stop in Chester we were on our way north. We were surprised when we turned onto Route 409 North that is was paved but as so often happens here, the pavement ended abruptly in just a couple of miles and we were back to traveling on dirt roads once again.
The Sweet Grass Hills are dominated by three buttes – West, Gold and East. The buttes stand at about 7000 feet and they can be seen from a significant distance because of the gently rolling grasslands around them.
We spent the remainder of the day touring the Sweet Grass Hills following Route 409 and Route 552. While that sounds straightforward – we assure you it is not – the 409 and 552 are meandering and unmarked routes crossing other dirt roads and forking off in multiple directions (with many of the trails not shown on our maps).
Nonetheless, this backcountry tour was amazing. This is remote country inhabited by cattle and a handful of ranchers. The wind apparently never stops on the prairie adding to the sense of isolation and remoteness – we felt it in just the day traveling through the area.
Whitlash, population 15, was the only named place on our tour of the hills. We did not see anyone at this bend in the road called Whitlash. We stopped for a “pop” at what we thought was a store based on a sign for cold pop. Upon entering we found a coin operated washer and dryer and a soda machine but no people. When was the last time you purchased a 12 ounce cans of pop for 50 cents?
About three miles east of the terminus of Route 552, the road became paved once again and we cruised into Sunburst in search of a well deserved chocolate milkshake.
We had the opportunity to chat with several life long residents of the area while enjoying our shake. We learned that this tiny town which is just eight miles from the Canadian border was once home to the largest refinery in Montana and one of the largest in the states when it was in operation.
Sunburst sits in the aptly named Kevin – Sunburst Dome, a significant deposit of oil and gas. The refinery was purchased by the Texas Company (Texaco) in 1929. During World War II the refinery was a major supplier of aviation fuel for the U.S. military.
Texaco closed the refinery in 1962, concluding a 30-year run of prosperity for the town. Subsequently, the refinery was leveled, the site remediated and the town returned to its agricultural roots. The only vestige of the refinery today is the road sign declaring that Sunburst is home to the Sunburst High School Refiners athletic teams.
First Peoples Buffalo Jump
We wrote above about the literally life sustaining importance of the bison to the Native Americans of the plains. Traveling south from Sunburst we visited a buffalo jump used by Native Americans to to kill the bison that so sustained their way of life.
A “buffalo runner” disguised in bison hide would lead the short-sighted herd towards a precipice, sometimes running for days to bring the herd to the jump. Other members of the tribe would follow behind, agitating the herd. The agitators would usually be disguised as wolves.
Once the bison went over the edge the rest of the tribe went to work. Any bison not killed by the plunge were quickly dispatched. The entire bison was disassembled – blood and meat for immediate consumption. The remainder of the bison was set aside for making tools, clothing, teepees and weapons. Meat not eaten during the ensuing feast would be dried for consumption after the last of the fresh meat was eaten.
The photos above show the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump – thought to be the largest of the 6000 known buffalo jump sites in North America.
Thoughts on the Prairie
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the prairie and grasslands of central and northern Montana. It is unquestionably beautiful country, but it is also without a doubt a harsh environment. We experienced many days of temperatures well over 100F. There is little to no shade, the wind never stops blowing and it is dusty, dusty, dusty.
Visit, but go prepared for extremes in weather, keep your fuel tank full and carry as much water as you can if you are going to venture deep into the backcountry.