Beaverhead’s Mountain Passes

IMG_3417Beaverhead County’s history has deep roots, perhaps never deeper than at the high mountain passes that divide it from neighboring Idaho.  We have already taken a look at Monida Pass, but now let’s shift to the western border and consider Lemhi Pass (Lemhi Road is the image above) and Bannock Pass, both at well over 7000 feet in elevation.


IMG_3427Lemhi Pass is a magnificent place, reached by a wide dirt road that climbs up to 7300 feet.  The roadbed is modern, and lies over a path worn by centuries of Native Americans who traveled this path between mountain valleys in present-day Montana and Idaho.  That deep past is why the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition took this route over the Bitterroot–and the Corps of Discovery connection is why the pass has been protected in the 20th century.  The pass is also connected with Sacajawea, since her tribe, the Shoshone, often used it to cross the mountains.

The pass is one of the infrequently visited jewels of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, a place that the expedition used and probably would have never “discovered” if not for the prior Native American use.

IMG_3433This kiosk by the U.S. Forest Service is part of the new public interpretation of the property, both at the start of the pass to the top of the mountain itself at the Sacajawea Memorial Area.

IMG_3429Bannock Pass, comparatively has received little in public interpretation.  Unlike Lemhi, it is not a National Historic Landmark associated with Lewis and Clark.  For today’s travelers, however, it is a much more frequently used way to cross the Rockies despite its 300 foot higher elevation.  A historic site directional sign leads to one interpretive


marker explains that railroad engineers used the pass to connect Dillon and Idaho in the early 20th century, changing the ancient appearance of the pass, used by Native Americans for centuries to connect the high plains of Montana to the rich valleys of Idaho.  The marker also describes the use of Bannock Pass by Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph in 1877, as they escaped back into Idaho after the Battle of Big Hole. The Nez Perce National Historic Trail is more closely associated with Chief Joseph Pass, located to the north.

IMG_2893It was a snowy Memorial Day when I crossed Lost Trail and Chief Joseph passes on my way to Big Hole Battlefield.  Once again I was impressed by the recent efforts of the U.S. Forest Service to interpret the epic yet tragic journey of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce in 1877, especially the Trail Creek Road that parallels Montana Highway 43.

Kudos to the National Park Service for its new visitor center, exhibits, and interpretive markers at the battlefield–the finally the whole story of the Nez Perce campaign is explored through thoughtful public interpretation, centered on the Nez Perce perspective,

those who lived here until the military force led by Col. John Gibbon thought it could surprise and rout the Indians.  Rather the Nez Perce counter-attacked forcing the soldiers into surrounding woods.  The trek of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce effort to find safety in

IMG_2919Canada was underway. Today the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and Park mark that journey into history. The park today is frankly an amazing transformation, from a preserved battlefield in the early 1980s that only hinted at the true facts of history to a modern of battlefield interpretation, one that does justice to history and to the Nez Perce story.  One only wishes that more western battlefields received similar treatment.






Country Towns in Beaverhead County, Part II

Jackson MT, MT 278Jackson, Montana, is another favorite place of mine in Beaverhead County.  Located on Montana Highway 278, far away from any neighborhoods, the town dates to the 1880s, as

Jackson Mercantile, MT 278, L&C sign on sidethis area of the Big Hole Valley opened up to ranching. Its name came from Anton Jackson, the first postmaster; the town still has a historic post office building even though its

population barely tops 50.  That is enough, once kids from surrounding ranches are added, to support the Jackson elementary school–a key to the town’s survival over the years.

Jackson School, MT 278Jackson grows significantly during the winter, as it is an increasingly popular winter get-away destination, centered on the historic Jackson Hot Springs, which had been upgraded and significantly expanded since my last visit in 1984.

Jackson MT Hot SpringsBut my real reason to tout the wonders of Jackson, Montana, lie with a simple but rather unique adaptive reuse project.  A turn of the 20th century church building has been converted into a hat manufacturer business, the Buffalo Gal Hat Shop–and I like hats!

IMG_2995Grant is another ranching town along a Montana secondary highway, this time Montana Highway 324.  Like Jackson, it too has enough year-round residents and children from nearby ranches to support a school, a tiny modernist style building while an older early 20th century school building has become a community center.

Grant only attracts the more hardy traveler, mostly hunters.  The Horse Prairie Stage Stop is combination restaurant, bar, and hotel–a throwback to isolated outposts of the late 19th century where exhausted travelers would bunk for a night.

Grant bar and lodgeBack when I visited in 1984, Monte Elliott (only the third owner of the property he claimed) showed off his recent improvements made within the context of a business location that dated to the Civil War era.  The lodge still keeps records from those early days that they share with interested visitors.  In the 21st century, new owner Jason Vose additionally upgraded the facilities,  but kept the business’s pride in its past as he further expanded its offerings to hunters and travelers.

IMG_3499Far to the north along Montana Highway 43 is the Big Horn River Canyon, a spectacular but little known landscape within the state.  Certainly anglers and hunters visited here, but the two towns along the river in this northern end of Beaverhead County are tiny places, best known perhaps for their bars as any thing else.


Certainly that is the case at Dewey, where the Dewey Bar attracts all sorts of patrons, even the four-legged kind.  The early 20th century false-front general store that still operated in 1984 is now closed, but the town has protected two log barns that still front Montana Highway 43.

Wise River still has four primary components that can characterize a isolated western town:  a post office, a school, a bar/cafe, and a community center.  It is also the location for one of the ranger stations of the Beaverhead National Forest.

The station has a new modernist style administrative building but it also retains its early twentieth century work buildings and ranger residence, a Bungalow design out of logs.

The forest service station has provided Wise River with a degree of stability over the decades, aided by the town’s tiny post office and its early 20th century public school.


IMG_2967Just as important as a town anchor is the Wise River Community Center, which began in the gable-front frame building as the Wise River Woman’s Club but has expanded over the last 30 years into the larger building you find today.

Wise River Woman's Club with extension

But to my eye the most important institution, especially for a traveler like me, is one of the state’s most interesting bits of roadside architecture, the Wise River Club.  I have already written about this building, from my 1984 travels.

Wise River Beaverhead Co. MTThe liveliness of that 1984 exterior–note the mini-totem pole, the log benches, wagon wheels, and yes the many antlers defining the front wall–is muted in today’s building.

IMG_1660But the place is still there, serving locals and travelers, and a good number of the antlers now grace the main room of the bar.

IMG_0549Wise River, unlike Dewey but similar to Jackson, has been able to keep its historic general store in business.  The post office moved out in the 1990s to the new separate building but the flag pole remains outside to mark how this building also served both private and public functions.

Wise River Mercantile, Wise RiverThe country towns of Beaverhead County help to landmark the agricultural history of this place, and how such a huge county as this one could still nurture tiny urban oases.  Next I will leave the rural landscape and look at Beayerhead’s one true urban landscape–the county seat of Dillon.