Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest offers unlimited opportunities for a wide variety of recreation in any season of the year. Mountain Bikers, campers, anglers, hikers, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, horseback riders, hunters, and others find solitude amidst the vast beauty here. There are 160 high-mountain lakes with fish; two wilderness areas (Anaconda Pintler and Lee Metcalf); 1,050 miles (1,680 km) of fishable streams; and over 1,700 miles (2,720 km) of trails providing access to the extensive roadless portions of the Beaverhead.
Here, too, you'll find the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, designated in 1989. The road runs for 27 miles (43 km) along the Wise River, bisecting the East and West Pioneer Mountains and connecting state highways 43 and 278. It offers spectacular views of stately mountain peaks, magnificent sunrises and sunsets, and abundant wildlife. High on the east side of the forest, south of Sheridan, Virginia City, and Ennis is the Gravelly Range Road. This gravel route offers over 40 miles (64 km) of high-country driving, with spectacular wildflower displays during midsummer.
Georgetown Lake, on Montana Highway 1 (Pintler Scenic Route) is a popular attraction for boating and fishing. Located at the lake are three National Forest campgrounds containing 136 campsites and two boat launching areas. There are more than 35 other campgrounds and picnic areas throughout the remainder of the Forest. If developed camping areas are not to your liking, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest has over 400,000 acres of undeveloped semi-primitive land in which to explore, hike, or camp.
Sheepshead Mountain Recreation Area, 18 miles northeast of Butte, is recognized as one of the premier handicapped accessible outdoor recreation sites in the Nation. This day-use area has over 8 miles of paved trails, fishing docks, and a special area for overnight camping by groups of handicapped people.
The Crystal Park Picnic Area makes a particularly interesting stop along the Scenic Byway. True to the name, large crystals of garnet and various other minerals abound here, formed by molten granite pushing its way into beds of limestone nearly 70 million years ago. The national forest allows small-scale digging for these crystals at no charge.
Some of the same brew of ancient geology that produced the beautiful rocks of Crystal Park also created veins of silver in many parts of the Pioneer Mountains. The old Elkhorn Mine lies less than three air miles east of Crystal Park and is reachable in high-clearance vehicles via an old mining road. Ore was first extracted from the Elkhorn Mine in the 1870s. Final processing into metal actually occurred in Wales, with the ore first taken by bull team to Utah, then by rail to San Francisco, and finally by ship to the British Isles. In the early part of the twentieth century, after a rollercoaster ride of rising and falling silver prices, the Elkhorn Mine was taken over by William Allen. Allen not only constructed one of Montana's first million dollar mills, but also the town of Coolidge (named after friend President Calvin Coolidge). From 1922 to 1932, the village bustled with stores, homes, a school, post office, cookhouse, surveyor's office, railroad depot, and pool hall. Today Coolidge is a lovely, sagging old ghost town, set high in the pines beneath the rugged spires of Saddleback Mountain. The crumbling homes, stables, and various mine buildings sing a lonely, haunting song—a familiar refrain about the grand dreams that have come and gone in the shadows of these magnificent mountains. Skiers and snowmobilers should note that Coolidge has a special appeal in winter, when the hush of deep snow softens the rough edges of the old town.
The main camping season in the Beaverhead is from May 30 through the Labor Day weekend. Although most campgrounds remain open later, water systems are shut down to prevent freezing. The campgrounds don't have electric or sewer connections. Please don't drain your waste water onto the ground. Snowpack may keep vehicles out of many campgrounds during the winter season. Sites in campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
You may camp at any location in the national forest as long as you practice the pack-it-in-pack-it-out method of removing your own garbage. At all campsites, campers may not stay more than 14 days. When this two-week limit is reached, you are asked to move at least five miles (8 km) to another campsite. Please use good camping sense in the backcountry, especially in heavily used areas around lakes. The natural quality of these places depends on your efforts to keep a clean camp.
You may build campfires as long as you follow some simple guidelines: Clear everything away that could burn, down to bare earth, and build the fire there. Keep it small; never build against trees, logs or near brush. Before you leave your fire, stir the coals while you pour water over them. Make sure it is dead out before leaving it. You'll find firewood only at a few campgrounds. Use deadfall for fires. Please don't cut live trees, shrubs, or other vegetation.
Always treat surface water before drinking—it may be contaminated. Boiling is the only sure method of water purification: boil at least 10 minutes in a covered container before using. Pets are welcome but should be kept on a leash in developed recreation sites. Stock users take care to minimize damage to trees and soil. Please don't picket your animals in marshy areas. Use tree-saver hitchlines in tying your horses.
Hiking trails cross a variety of terrain on the Beaverhead: stream bottoms, high ridges, open meadows, dense forests and lakes. Some trails cross cattle grazing allotments. The majority of the trails are clear and well marked. Watch for trail blazes at eye level—these vary from small vertical scars to double and triple marked scars.
Trail bikers, be sure that your bike is equipped with a spark arrestor and fire equipment. When riding, take care to minimize bike damage to trails and meadows, especially in wet areas.
Travelers in winter and spring need to be wary of snowfields. They can be very slippery to cross and, under the right conditions, present a real threat of avalanche. For the latest avalanche information, call 406-587-6981.
Visitors will find tourist accommodations and supplies in Dillon, Wisdom, Jackson, Wise River, Melrose, Divide, Twin Bridges, Sheridan, Virginia City, Lima, and Ennis.
There is a series of Recreation Opportunity Guides available at any of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge offices describing in more detail the above recreation activities. This information is available free of charge to help you enjoy your visit to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication