The Pacific Northwest meets the Rockies in a fine Montana valley rich with history, culture, wildlife, and local eats.
The first European settlers to set up shop in Montana made it easy on themselves. Instead of choosing dusty plains or frozen high country, in 1841 a small band of Jesuit missionaries picked the Bitterroot Valley, a gentle, fertile stretch of country at the foot of the rugged Bitterroot Range south of present-day Missoula. More than 170 years later, the valley is still an easy place to be.
This is where the Pacific Northwest meets the Rockies, where neat apple orchards grow within sight of peaks that only rarely lose their snow. Driving south on Highway 93 along the Bitterroot River through or near the small towns of Lolo, Stevensville, Victor, Hamilton, and Darby—a trip of just over 50 miles—you pass hay fields, tall pines, sweet little shops, and lots of places just to pull over and take a picture. The Bitterroot isn’t crowded, but it feels jam-packed with gems.
St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville, billed as the place where Montana began, is still an enchanting spot. A statue of the Virgin Mary carved by missionary Antonio Ravalli—a founding Father with some real Renaissance talent—looks down on the rows of pews in the 1866 chapel, itself resplendent with bright Italianate decoration. As the tour guide leads visitors past old mission cabins and tepees, he explains that the native Salish mostly welcomed the black-robed outsiders. Tribal members still visit for special occasions.
The valley soon attracted the wealthy as well as the pious. In the late 1880s, copper tycoon Marcus Daly settled here and founded Hamilton, now the largest of the five towns. There never was much copper in these parts; Daly simply wanted a sanctuary far removed from the grit and bustle of Montana’s mining centers. His mansion—with 25 bedrooms, 15 bathrooms, and seven fireplaces—still stands on a 46-acre spread shaded by giant cottonwoods and lindens. Guided tours highlight the trappings of turn-of-the-19th-century opulence: silk-covered walls, Italian marble hearths, feathered hats.
A Lolo-to-Darby day trip offers travelers plenty of chances to pursue their whims. The “medicinal” waters at Lolo Hot Springs—cleaned up since its turn in A River Runs Through It—may not cure your ills, but a soak in the outdoor pool is undeniably refreshing.
In Stevensville, the River’s Mist Gallery displays wildlife paintings and glass sculptures by Kathleen Sheard, a local artist whose use of explosive colors puts mountain lions and giraffes in a whole new light. The Old West Gallery and Candy Store in the logging town of Darby is known as much for its homemade fudge (huckleberry is a favorite flavor) as for its curios, including an elk antler candelabra and a $30,000 set of china.
Opportunities to dip into the great outdoors pop up at nearly every bend of the Bitterroot River. Several companies offer guided fly-fishing trips on mellow, clear waters that hold an almost unfair allotment of trout. You can also sign up for a half-day scenic float trip on the river’s west fork with the upbeat outfit Fly Fishing Always. Guide Rick Thomas, a Hamilton native, steers his raft through boulder-studded channels and beaver-pond doldrums while Bodee, his canine copilot, stands ever vigilant for riverside wildlife—elk, moose, white-tailed deer, black bears—and likely stopping points.
Looking for an even more classic Western mode of transportation? Selway Adventures leads two-hour horseback rides on a mountain trail near Darby. The horses take a slow and steady approach through dark forests, open meadows, and patches of fireweed and young pines in spots charred by wildfires in 2000. The only real challenge: keeping your mount from overindulging as you pass through swaths of tall green grass.
It’s the Bitterroot and the living is easy.
Photography by Donnie Sexton/Travel Montana
This article was first published in July 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.