When I am looking for a fun day trip from my home in Missoula, I head south down U.S. Highway 93 to explore the Bitterroot Valley, following the highway as it climbs to meet the Idaho border at Lost Trail Pass. Along the way, I like to visit small towns, like Corvallis and Victor, hike the many trails in the Bitterroot Mountains, and watch for wildlife along the shores of the Bitterroot River. There are so many amazing things to explore in the valley. Here is a list of just some of the highlights.
1. The Site Where Montana Began
Stevensville is home to St. Mary’s Mission, the first settlement in what would become the state of Montana by non-Indigenous people. Jesuit priests founded the mission in 1841 and helped to support the local Salish people as the way of life that they had known for centuries began to disappear with more and more white settlers moving into the valley. You can visit the Mission Complex and Museum today to explore the grounds, the historic chapel, the Salish encampment, and the visitor center.
Continue your tour of Montana’s history just outside of Stevensville at Fort Owen State Park, home to Montana’s first Catholic church and first permanent white settlement. The park’s many buildings and interpretive signs offer a fascinating glimpse into this history. Both St. Mary’s Mission and Fort Owen are closed in the winter.
Pro Tip: The intimate dining room and extensive wine selection make The Catered Table a great place for dinner when you’re visiting Stevensville. Be sure to make reservations, as devoted locals can quickly fill up the restaurant.
2. The Campsite Of The Corps Of Discovery
Whether you are a Lewis and Clark enthusiast or simply have a mild interest in the famous duo, the significance of Travelers’ Rest State Park in Lolo cannot be understated. It is the only archeologically verified campsite of the Corps of Discovery. The expedition members rested on this land from September 9 through 11, 1805 before making their perilous journey over the Bitterroot Mountains and onward to their ultimate goal of the Pacific Ocean. Park staff work very hard to also educate visitors about the importance of this area to the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Nez Perce people that inhabited this land well before Lewis and Clark made their appearance.
Start your visit at the visitor center. Exhibits detail the expedition’s journey explaining why this site was of such importance to them, and to Native peoples. Head outside and over the bridge crossing lovely Lolo Creek to explore the campsite along a smooth dirt trail. Interpretive signs explain how archeologists confirmed the authenticity of the campsite as well as their discovery of the expedition’s latrine using evidence of mercury in the soil, a result of the men’s use of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s “Thunderbolt” pills to relieve their ailments.
Pro Tip: Travelers’ Rest has very dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers on-site several days a week eager to give personal tours to anyone interested. All you have to do is ask.
3. The Bitterroot Trail
You can drive to Travelers’ Rest, or you can bike or walk to this, and many other stops in the valley, along the Bitterroot Trail. The trail extends approximately 50 miles between Ogren Park in Missoula to Main Street in Hamilton, mirroring U.S. Highway 93. Enjoy spectacular views of the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountains on the wide paved trail. You have the option of taking on the entire thing or exploring certain sections using the many parking lots along the trail. Create your own tour of the valley by biking from town to town.
The trail gains approximately 400 feet in elevation from Missoula to Hamilton, so start in Hamilton if you’re looking for a gradual downhill ride. Motorized vehicles, in general, are restricted — with the exception of motorized wheelchairs. There are very few public restrooms along the route, so plan accordingly.
4. Birds Of The Bitterroot
With its wide range of habitats, the Bitterroot Valley attracts a wide range of bird species. Osprey and bald eagles hunt for fish along the flowing waters of the Bitterroot River. Great horned owls and pileated woodpeckers take advantage of hollow trees in the dense forests. Hooded mergansers and tundra swans glide on the open ponds. There are dozens of sites throughout the valley to visit. Download Montana Audubon’s helpful brochure, Birding in the Missoula and Bitterroot Valleys, for a map of locations and a list of all the birds you have a chance to see during different parts of the year.
The best thing about birding the Bitterroot Valley is anyone can do it no matter your physical limitations. Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge outside of Stevensville affords you the perfect view of northern shovelers on the ponds and sandhill cranes in the fields without ever having to leave your vehicle. If you’re up for more of a challenge, hike into the foothills of the Sapphire Mountains at Calf Creek Wildlife Management Area, outside Corvallis, to see mountain bluebirds and listen for the high sweet song of western meadowlarks.
Pro Tip: Missoula’s Five Valleys Audubon Society hosts guided bird walks at Lee Metcalf NWR the third Saturday of every month starting at 10 a.m., excluding December. There is no need to sign up — just appear at the refuge visitor center to join in the fun.
5. The Natural World
A great way to explore the beautiful outdoors in the Bitterroot Valley is to hike its dozens of trails. Options range from short walks through the woods to lung-busting climbs up the peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains.
The River Park Trail in Hamilton has both paved and dirt paths that take you through a variety of environments. If you’re looking to get into the mountains, chose the Bear Creek Trail. A short 1.5-mile hike leads you to picturesque Bear Creek Falls. You then have the option of continuing along the trail to hike deep into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
Several websites are available that detail all the different hikes in the valley. Visit Bitterroot Valley has a wide variety of options from short interpretive nature trails to treks that go on for miles. Wild Montana focuses on slightly more challenging hikes. Click on the map in the area you wish to visit to get information about length and elevation gain, as well as instructions on how to get to the trailhead and what to expect along the trail.
Pro Tip: Weather in the mountains can be unpredictable. Cool mornings turn into blazing hot afternoons with a chance of thunderstorms. Be prepared by wearing layers of clothing. Pack sunscreen and plenty of water.
6. Beers Of The Valley
Breweries have become the hub of many small communities in Montana. No place is this more evident than the towns in Bitterroot Valley, where six breweries are located along a 53-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 93.
Lolo Peak Brewery in Lolo has a wide selection of rotating brews as well as a full dinner menu featuring juicy burgers. They often partner with nearby Travelers’ Rest State Park for events and fundraisers.
Sustainability is important to Jim Lueders, owner and brewmaster at Wildwood Brewery in Stevensville. Grab a glass of his Organic Bodacious Bock and a seat on the patio outside to bask in the summer sunshine.
Bitter Root Brewing in Hamilton is one of the oldest and most beloved breweries in the state. Their spacious taproom is often full of locals looking for refreshment and a bite to eat after a day spent on the river and trails.
Check out Visit Bitterroot Valley for a full list of breweries as well as wineries, distilleries, and cider houses.
7. Small Town Darby
Darby is one of the southernmost towns in the valley, and close to one of the smallest. Darby has gained some fame in the last few years as home of the fictional Dutton Family Ranch on the television show Yellowstone. Despite this brush with stardom, Darby has never lost its small-town vibe.
Get to know Darby by strolling down Main Street. Pretend you’re the head of your own ranching empire with a one-of-a-kind creation from Double H Custom Hat Company. Indulge in the candy of your youth at The Old West Antiques and Candy Store. Veer off Main Street a few blocks to visit Montana’s smallest brewery, Bandit Brewing Company, where owner JC McDowell is constantly experimenting to keep the locals coming in for more.
Pro Tips: Relax and take your time exploring the area around Darby while staying at The Rye Creek Lodge. Choose one of the five rustic yet elegant cabins spaced out on the 120-acre property. Watch for bighorn sheep on the surrounding hills from your own personal hot tub.
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