There are so many beautiful areas to discover in the northwest, but one of our very favorites is the Wise River, Montana area! Wise River is a gorgeous valley river that meanders through the southwest corner of Montana. It stretches out for miles, snaking its way over rocks and between mountains. For part of it’s run through the Pioneer mountain range, a paved road follows its course; called the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway, the nearly 50 mile long road between highways 43 and 278 is a gorgeous drive, with multiple opportunities to pull over and enjoy the surroundings.
This area of southwest Montana is a magnet to anglers, hikers, rock hounds, and naturalists, as well as drawing in hunters, firewood cutters, and campers.
(near Wise River, MT, driving next to the Big Hole River)
The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway begins where the Wise River empties into the Big Hole river; an incredibly popular fly fishing destination. The byway’s northernmost tip is at the tiny town of Wise River, Montana, on highway 43, and the byway extends 49 miles south from there; the first half of the byway following the course of the Wise River through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. At the southern end of the byway, some 40 miles south from Wise River, it intersects highway 278.
Driving south on the byway, you will find yourself driving next to the Wise River for the first 20 miles. That part of the byway route is mostly flat, and there are 5 campgrounds, the first being 11 miles south of highway 43. Each improved campground has paved parking sites, each with a fire ring and picnic table. The campgrounds have vault toilets, and have both pump well water and garbage service in season. As of this writing (2014), these developed National Forest campsites are $8/night (the first two campgrounds are the best for big rigs).
You will also find some ‘dispersed’ camping. Some of those areas are right off the road, and right next to the river. Our favorite site is just a little ways off the road, and in a crook of the river. It seems to always be full during the camping season; good thing we enjoy hitting the mountains when most others are done camping for the year!
There are a lot of great camping spots along the scenic byway!
There is also so much to see and do along this beautiful route!
Checking out side roads that lead up into the trees, and end who-knows-where, is one of our favorites past-times when we are here!
The O’Dell Lake Trailhead road is a great one for driving back in to! The dirt road does not require a 4×4, and it meanders between mountains and through valleys. If there is not a lot of traffic on it that day, it is a great place for spotting some wildlife! On our drive up to the trailhead this fall, we saw a beaver and 6 cow elk. The O’Dell trailhead is also a great place to park the rig and take a hike! The surrounding area is not real steep and is great for exploring with kids! Vaughn and some of the older kids hiked into O’Dell one year, and camped in the snow. Because not a lot of people will take the initiative to head back in there, the fishing was superb! 😉
Another great drive is to take the side road that leads up to the Coolidge Trailhead (all trailheads are clearly signed out on the byway); it takes you past the Mono Creek campground. The campground is set on a mountainside, and is not quite as flat as the other campgrounds, and while its sites are not paved, it still offers the same other amenities. Continuing on past the campground, you head come to the Coolidge Trailhead; the trailhead offers a great jumping off point for the short and easy 1/4 mile walk to the Coolidge ghost town and the remains of the Lower Elkhorn Silver Mine. This is a fabulous place to spend a day exploring! It’s interesting for all ages, and there are some great photo ops too, whether you are photographing the beauty of Montana’s back country, or just want a few fun family/kid pics! (and the brook trout fishing on the way up isn’t too bad either! 😉 )
While you are out and about, please keep in mind that backcountry is not a zoo. Situational awareness is a must for your safety!
Also, be aware that Montana is a ‘free range’ state. Cows free range in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and it is your responsibility to steer clear of them (literally!). While driving this scenic byway (or any other Montana road), if you hit a cow, it is not the owner’s responsibility, and by law it is your (or your insurance’s) obligation to reimburse the cattle’s owner at fair market value. Just thought you’d want to know…
After visiting the Mono Creek area, the road climbs via a few switchbacks. It’s a great place to view the valley, but there are no pull offs.
26 miles down the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, you will find a unique destination! Crystal Park is a fun and engaging National Forest site where you can dig for 6 sided quartz prisms. It’s a lot of fun, and a great stop for all ages!
We spend a couple of afternoons at Crystal Park each time that we visit the Wise River area, and our kids of all ages love to explore and mine their way around the mountain! You can find more info about Crystal Park on my post about it here.
After Crystal Park, the road climbs a bit more; at the top of the pass, you will find the Price Creek Campground. I’m not sure why it’s called Price Creek, because there isn’t a creek in site (but we’ve never explored the area much, so?). This 21 site campground is situated like the others, and has some nice big pull-thrus.
Just south of Price Creek is where the road becomes not-so-big-rig-friendly! The first year we drove the south side of the pass (about 2007), it was on a laundry run into the small town of Dillon. Boy were we glad we had not taken our 40+’ 5th wheel with us!!! The road was a steep gravel trail that was often one lane. Since then, the road has been completely redone, but we would not consider taking our rig on it still! After the top of the pass, there is a 5 mile long, steep grade, with s-curves, and without a single pullout or shoulder large enough to pull off on. It’s a beautiful drive, but we wouldn’t attempt it in a large RV without some serious power going up (coming from the south), and an exhaust brake going down.
At the bottom of the south side of the pass, you will find the Elkhorn Hot Springs, and shortly after that the Grasshopper Campground (not paved, but same other amenities). After the campground is a .7 mile 8.5% grade with an s-curve at the bottom. Once you hit the bottom land, another 10 miles through beautiful farm and ranch land and you’ll reach the intersection for highway 278. From there, the ranching community of Dillon is 18 miles to the east, where you can do laundry, and get groceries, propane, and fuel.
The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is one of our favorite places in Montana! It boasts some of the best small stream fishing in the state (in our opinion!), and is an incredible place for families to camp with so many options for activities!
Nearly all the campgrounds are situated right on the river, and are great for dipping toes in to cool off. We love the Wise River area of southwestern Montana; it has so much to offer, no matter your age or interests. *Well, unless you are a screen addict, then you might be out of luck – it’s over a half hour drive to cell or internet service! – personally, we count that as a plus!)
While both the northern and southern legs of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway are open (and plowed) year-round, much of the byway is closed for the winter from Dec. 1 to May 15-30 (varies depending on snow pack). The road is gated off, remains unplowed for the winter, and becomes a snowmachine paradise! The parking lot at the most northern campground, 4th of July, is set up for trucks and trailers, and people drive in just to snowmobile the byway. There is even a cabin up on the top flats that is stocked with wood so that those die-hards that make it to the top can fire up the wood stove and warm up a bit! If you are coming through southwestern Montana in May, or even early June, you can call the Wise River Ranger District to find out the road report for the byway.
We have loved to bring our kids to ‘The Wise’ over the years – it holds many fond memories for our family. Check it out, and it might just become a favorite for your family too!