Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Overview
Broken up into nine separate areas, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in southwestern Montana resembles a puzzle struggling to assemble itself. In fact, it's been struggling since 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed the two forests that make up its current name (the Forest Service combined them in 1996).
But there's nothing disparate about the natural beauty here: The forest blends typically stunning 11,000-foot Rockies peaks and Missouri River feeder streams that have cut deep valleys into the lush landscape.
The result is more than 3 million acres of playground that begin in the semi-arid grassland foothills, build up to coniferous forests of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir, and climb toward a culmination in the peaks of the Bitterroot and Centennial ranges. This richness of environment supports more than 180 species of animals; everything from the lonely moose to mountain goats and black bears call the forest home.
This natural beauty is intricately woven into the forest's history. Of all the areas traversed by Lewis and Clark on their journey west, perhaps none were so essential to their party's survival than this one. Tired, low on supplies, and pulling dying horses, it was here in 1805 that they met Sacajawea and the Shoshone near a huge rock, which the explorers' journals called "Beaver's Head." The Deer Lodge name also comes from a natural formation—this one geothermal—that resembled a medicine lodge and attracted many deer.
An extensive system of roads and trails makes it easy for visitors to make their own discoveries in this beautiful forest. So what are you waiting for?
Fish in Wisdom
A word to the wise: Montana fishing is nothing less than fantastic (if not quite as glamorous as when Brad Pitt does it), and in the western part of the forest you can find the Holy Grail of casting. No less than 1,000 miles of trout streams and 73 lakes are spread over the Deerlodge section of this natural wilderness. The Wisdom area alone, which abuts Idaho, contains 58 of those lakes, and 35 of them are stocked with game fish. So drop a line and grab brook trout, cutthroat, grayling, lake trout, mountain whitefish, and rainbow and golden trout. Two places to focus: the Ruby-May Creek Trail #102, a primitive 10-mile trail that runs from the May Creek Campground to the junction with Forest Service Road #624. Or take the Sand Lake, Lily Lake Trail #380, which begins one mile west of Steel Creek Campground.
Hike the Nation's Spine
Hardcore hikers and day hikers alike jump at the chance to trek up to and over the Continental Divide (which runs along the Montana-Idaho border), for either one day or several. It's rugged country out here; while the waving grasses and placid lakes lure you with innocent-looking beauty, steely mountain walls bring you back to the reality of the tough terrain. Start with Homer Youngs Peak, which begins in Lower Miner Lakes campground off Highway 278. The trail's about eight miles long; you'll start up a jeep road with a modest uphill, then head toward Upper Miner Lakes. Once you hit Rock Island Lakes, get ready: After a steep climb to Little Lake, it's an oxygen-sucking scramble up to a saddle that's virtually on the Divide. For the coup de grace, look east to 10,624-foot Homer Youngs Peak.
Drive into Pioneer Times
Everyone who visits the forest wants to see its big game, and most who drive the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway won't be disappointed. Odds are you'll pass moose, deer, and the occasional elk. But more likely you'll see large animals of a more domestic variety: 900,000 sheep, cattle, and horses graze on these lands. People have been ranching ever since they migrated out here starting in 1852 and the fevered push for gold dissipated. Like many visitors, these migrants fell in love with the land; they stayed on and used the routes to develop the ranching industry. The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a great chance to see much of this land, as well as some of the small towns that the pioneers' descendants inhabit. Trailheads abound along this road, leading into the East and West Pioneer Mountain ranges, as do sites and activities, such as digging crystals at Crystal Park and visiting Elk Horn Hot Springs.
Bike with the Big Boys
Rocky steeps that make for tough uphills and ripping descents, all the while surrounded by peaks and valleys. No doubt about it, Beaverhead-Deerlodge has terrific mountain biking. But that's not the only reason you'll want to two-wheel through this forest. The major draw is wildlife, wildlife, and more wildlife. With all the lakes, streams, and undisturbed land, the area's perfect for keeping one eye out for moose, bears, and elk (while the other eye's on the trail, of course). One route worth trying is the moderately difficult, 10.5-mile Uphill Creek Trail, north of Dillon. You'll pass Long Branch Lake and (after some serious steeps) end up at the beautiful Agnes Lake. For a relatively easy ride with a big payoff in wildlife and scenic views, ride the Estler Lake Trail. The 7.5-mile run begins near the end of Mule Creek Road, north of Dillon. You'll hit four shimmering mountain lakes (perfect for spotting animals), flanked by two 10,000-foot peaks. Continue on through the woodlands to Tent Lake, pass Minneopa Lake, and it's just another 2.5 miles to Estler Lake, marked by two old cabins. Behind it you'll see Baldy Mountain with an abandoned fire lookout on top.
Cross-Country in the Backwoods
The Montana winter makes for practically ideal cross-country conditions. Cold and dry weather means powdery snow, and while many other skiers share the desire to ski here, it's still possible to snatch a few moments alone with the trees and animals—if you're willing to get off the groomed trails. The Chief Joseph Pass area is one of the more popular areas to ski (read: groomed trails and crowds). Moderately difficult trails combine with the easy ones to make about 15 miles total. But if you're looking to lose the crowds and take on something more challenging, try the Anderson Mountain Road Trail, about 25 miles out of Widsom on Highway 43 at the top of Chief Joseph Pass. Don't let the six-mile length deceive you; it's hard going. But it also gives you a chance to ski on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication