Beaverhead National Forest

Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway
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Pioneer Mountains

The Scenic Byway starts at Montana State Highway #43 in the town of Wise River and travels south approximately 49 miles over County and Forest Service Roads to Highway #278. From Wise River the Byway goes south up the Wise River Valley for a distance of 26 miles to Crystal Park near where the Byway tops out at approximately 7800 feet above sea level. This section of the road is paved. From this high point, the road drops slightly to Price Creek where it turns into a lane and a half wide graveled and dirt surfaced road. This section of the road winds along steep forested hill sides descending into the Grasshopper Creek Valley, passing near Elkhorn Hot Springs and the Maverick Mountain Ski Area before reaching the open grass and sage brush covered hills near the valley bottom along Grasshopper Creek. Approximately 4 miles further down the valley lays the small settlement of Polaris, Montana. The Scenic Byway ends at the junction with Beaverhead County Road #278, 7 miles down the road from Polaris.

Leaving the Town of Wise River the scenic route passes ranch land on a dry bench where there are usually cows and sheep grazing during the summer months. Four and a half miles south of Wise River the road enters the Beaverhead National Forest. Here the valley begins to narrow down and tree cover dominates the steep hill sides along the Wise River. There are a number of summer as well as permanent residences along this section of the road. For the next 20 miles the road follows fairly close to the Wise River, traveling primarily through timbered hills with interspersed openings in the form of willow bottoms and dry grass and sage brush covered hills. Along this section of road, there are five established campgrounds, Fourth of July, Lodgepole, Boulder, Willow, and Little Joe. Fourth of July is located 11 miles from the town of Wise River, Lodgepole and Boulder are 12 miles from town and Willow and Little Joe are 13 and 20 miles respectively. All campgrounds have parking spurs, tables, fire grates, toilets, and water from a hand pump. All campground are designated fee sites ($6.00 per night), and provide garbage pick-up.

There are also numerous dispersed campsites along the Byway where individuals can pull off and picnic or camp. These sites have few or no developments and are used as overflow areas when the established campgrounds become full, or by individuals who want to rough it and get away from developed areas. Pull outs and interpretative sites are being planned for the Byway and some are in the process of being constructed. These sites will provide an historical overview of the area, explain its ecology and geology, and elucidate past and present forest management practices.

Wildlife such as moose and deer can be seen along the Byway as well as an occasional elk. Most wildlife is observed early in the morning or late in the day. Fishing for brook trout, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout is available in the Wise River and many of the smaller side streams.

Along the Byway there are numerous trailheads for trails leading into the East and West Pioneer Mountain ranges that parallel the Byway. Most of the trails along the Byway are well maintained. Many of these trails lead hardy hikers, backpackers and stock users into high elevation lakes deep in the heart of the East and West Pioneer Mountains.

At approximately 21 miles south of Wise River there is a road junction with Forest Road #2465. One mile up Forest Road #2465 takes you to Mono Creek Campground which has five units. The road and parking spurs in the campground are graveled. Parking spurs are designed for trailers up to eighteen feet long. Mono Creek Campground was reconstructed in 1994 and is now a designated fee site ($6.00 per night). Traveling another 4 miles up this road brings you to the Coolidge Trailhead where there is a small parking area. From this trailhead it is a 1/4 mile walk over an old road into the. old Ghost town of Coolidge and the Lower Elkhorn Mine. On October 24, 1873, silver was discovered by two prospectors in the East Pioneer Mountains at this site. The mine was worked intermittently until 1903 when silver prices rose enough to make working the mine profitable. William Allen began buying claims in the area in 1911 and formed the Boston Mining Company in 1913. By 1914 a road was constructed to the site of the Elkhorn Mine. Coolidge was becoming well established by 1914 as the result of increasing silver prices and the renewed interest in the Elkhorn Mine. In order to help develop the mine and mill, a narrow gauge railroad was constructed from Divide, Montana up the Big Hole River to Wise River then up the Wise River Valley to Coolidge. The mine was further developed and a mill constructed to process the ore in the early 1920s. The mine and town survived for only a short time before closing down in the 1930s due a drop in silver prices. Very little work has been done to the mine since then.

Approximately 21 miles south of Highway #43 the Byway starts to climb out of the Wise River Valley. After climbing for three miles the road enters upon a high plateau with large meadows and parks and stands of lodgepole pine forest with small streams flowing through. In early morning and late evening hours, deer and elk can be seen feeding at the timberline.

At Crystal Park, visitors can dig for quartz crystals. Crystal Park has a new parking area with picnic tables and toilets. Areas are designated where crystals can be dug. Amethyst crystals can be found and many are of high quality. The diggings at Crystal Park are on Forest Service land and they are becoming very popular. During the summer months, the parking area may have twenty to thirty vehicles parked there.

Leaving Crystal Park the Byway climbs a short distance to Price Creek where the pavement ends and the road starts to descend to the Grasshopper Valley. The road is narrow, approximately 14 feet wide, following the contour of the hills 5.8 miles off of the plateau to Elk Horn Hot Springs. This is a resort within the Beaverhead National Forest. Elkhorn Hot Spring has a small pool, lodging in rustic cabins, and a cafe.

From the Hot Springs, the Byway follows Grasshopper Creek past Grasshopper Creek Campground (one mile below the Hot Springs), the Beaverhead National Forest boundary and Maverick Mountain Ski Area. Below Maverick Mountain the Grasshopper Creek Valley opens up with the surrounding mountains fading into the backdrop. A half mile below the ski area is the Grasshopper Inn where there are rooms, a bar, and a cafe. From the ski area it is approximately 4 miles to the small settlement of Polaris, where there is a post office and a bar. There are no other facilities. From Polaris the Byway follows a dry bench on the east side of Grasshopper Creek past fields of grazing cattle and ranch buildings. Seven miles south of Polaris the Byway ends at Beaverhead County Highway #278.

Turning west on Highway #278 will take you to the small towns of Jackson (18 miles) and Wisdom, Montana (35 miles). Turning east will take you to Dillon, Montana (28 miles) a full service community.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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