Southwest Montana: A Profile (4 of 4)

Southwest Montana

For the most part, the physical and social geography of southwest Montana has changed little with the passage of time. Ranching and agriculture are the major lifestyles and the Bitterroot and Gallatin valleys still draw the most folks. Water, which played a significant role in the past, is still important today. Here in this quadrant of the state, is the gathering place for the rivers forming the three forks of the big Missouri. The Jefferson and Gallatin both get their start within the boundaries, while the Madison's birthplace - in Yellowstone National Park - is just a few miles outside the lower eastern margin. These three important rivers and their tributaries, drain almost all of southwest Montana.               

The Big Hole is probably southwest Montana's best-known valley. High - 6,000 feet above sea level - wide, and handsome, in the spring, the wildflower-filled lowlands are encircled with snow-covered mountain peaks. The river itself it is a legendary fly-fishing mecca. In 1877, the infamous Big Hole battle between the US Army and the Nez Perce tribe was fought here outside of Wisdom (the Indians won).               

Surrounded by pastoral sheep and cattle ranches, a plethora of trout-filled, fast moving waterways and regal mountain ranges, the Beaverhead Valley reeks of historical importance. In the days of the Corps of Discovery, the Beaverhead River (then still part of Jefferson's River to Lewis and Clark) led the explorers to the Shoshone Indians and their much-needed horses. Dillon, a sleepy college town and the human cornerstone of the area, came to being in 1880, as a northern rail terminus for Montana's first railroad - the Utah and Northern rail line heading to Butte.                

Though its length is short in comparison to other major Montana rivers, the landscape the Bitterroot River flows through is long on beauty and historical significance. Some of Montana's most rugged summits, ranging from 9,000 - 10,000 feet, including 10,157-foot Trapper Peak, begin their climb to the sky here. Towering jagged pinnacles, precipitous walls, and a series of long U-shaped glacial carved canyons make up the western side of the Bitterroot's landscape. Long before Lewis and Clark came through the valley, Native Americans used it as a thoroughfare and a place to hunt. The Salish called the northern part of the river "Place of the Bitterroot," after the pink flowering plant they sought for its bitter tasting roots. A favorite source of food for the native people, Lewis brought samples back to St. Louis, introducing this new species to the world.                

The Bitterroot Valley is one of the fastest growing regions in the state. Fighting to hold its grace amid the sprawl of human invasion, the river passes by groves of cottonwoods, farms and pasture lands and represents the plant that became the Montana state flower in 1895, the beautiful bitterroot.               

Centerpiece of the beautiful Madison Valley, the Madison River holds court as one of Montana's premiere fisheries. Flowing in a northerly direction flanked by the Madison and Gravelly mountain ranges, the river touches on Ennis, a tidy little town with the look of the old west.                

In the lonesome, yet magnificent Centennial Valley, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge offers a haven and nesting ground for species such as the endangered trumpeter swan. Marshes, meadows, creeks, sand hills and the two lakes make up the almost 45,000-acre refuge. If it weren't for the wildlife sanctuary, few travelers would make their way through this nearly 40-mile-long basin, where large cattle ranches are the norm along the valley floor, and peaks of the 10,000-foot Centennial Mountains and the Continental Divide rise abruptly on the valley's southern flank.               

This land of high mountain valleys with a history so rich it could only possibly have been made-up in Hollywood and with a beauty so enduring it has lured men's hearts to ranching, mining and recreation for more than a hundred years, continues in the true Montana traditions - cattle graze, hay is cut, hard work abounds, old trails are still used, and blue-ribbon trout streams meander through. This is southwest Montana. 


Rick and Susie Graetz