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, remains important today.
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. It is high — 6,000 feet above sea level — wide and handsome. In spring, the wildflower-filled lowlands are encircled with snow-covered mountain peaks.
The river is a legendary fly-fishing Mecca. In 1877, the infamous Big Hole battle between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce tribe was fought outside of Wisdom. (The tribe won.)
Surrounded by pastoral sheep and cattle ranches, a plethora of trout-filled, fast-moving waterways and regal mountain ranges, the Beaverhead Valley is imbued with historical importance. In the days of the Corps of Discovery, the Beaverhead River led the explorers to the Shoshone Indians and their much-needed horses. Dillon, a sleepy college town and the human cornerstone of the area, was established 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 to 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 Meriwether Lewis and William 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 properties. A favorite source of food for 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 groves of cottonwoods, farms and pasturelands, 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. The 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 rich history and 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 is a faculty member at the University of Montana. He and his wife, Susie, have authored several books on Montana.