Of all the Indian tribes encountered by settlers of the frontier, none earned more respect and admiration than the Nez Perce of Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, and western Montana. They helped Lewis and Clark cross the Bitterroot Range during a bitter winter, perhaps saving the expedition. They were as receptive to the white man’s ways as any tribe. Many became Christians and changed their names to reflect their conversion.
Yet their cooperative and peaceful ways didn’t prevent the Nez Perce from suffering the same shameful fate as the rest of their brethren in the late 1800s banishment to reservations on a fraction of their ancestral lands.
For the Nez Perce, life amid their natural riches ended in 1877 after a remarkable three-month pursuit that covered five states and 1,170 miles. Many Nez Perce had already signed a treaty requiring the tribe to move to a small reservation in northern Idaho, but a handful of “nontreaty” members led by Chiefs Joseph, Whitebird, and Looking Glass refused to leave much larger homelands that were ceded to them in a previous treaty.
Ordered to move his people and livestock to the Idaho reservation, Joseph instead began a march eastward, hoping to find sanctuary with the Crows in south-central Montana unaware that the tribe had aligned with the cavalry and had fought with Custer at Little Bighorn. For weeks, Joseph and his 700-plus Nez Perce two-thirds women and children outwitted General O. O. Howard and his 2,000 soldiers. They even handed the army a defeat at White Bird Canyon above Idaho’s Salmon River in mid-June, shortly after leaving the sacred Wallowa country of northeastern Oregon.
After crisscrossing the Bitterroots between Idaho and Montana, the turning point came on August 9th at the Battle of the Big Hole west of present-day Wisdom Until then, the Nez Perce had the upper hand in their skirmishes even as they fled, but the loss of 25 warriors at Big Hole left them on the defensive. They crossed the five-year-old Yellowstone National Park, where they killed two tourists, and ascended the Absaroka Mountains into the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River Valley. Once back into Montana southwest of Billings, they discovered the Crows wouldn’t help because they feared retribution.
From there, the Nez Perce charted a course due north, hoping to find a new home in Canada with Sitting Bull and a band of Sioux. They fell 40 miles short. It was at the Bear’s Paw Mountains, his tribe freezing and starving, that Chief Joseph uttered his famous surrender speech on October 6, 1877: “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Today, the route the Nez Perce took is the federally designated Nee-Me-Poo Trail. It was added to the National Trails System in 1986.
Back in Wisdom, the place to grab a bite is Dennis and Diane Havig’s, Crossing Bar & Grill at Fetty’s, an upgrade from the former Fetty’s Bar & Cafe. The restaurant is a combination platter of Fetty’s and Big Hole Crossing Restaurant, which was destroyed in a fire on Memorial Day 2010. Nearby, what was once the creaky-floored Conover’s Trading Post a one-time hotel known for the alluring reclining “Indian lady” covering most of the building’s classic western front is now the Hook and Horn (406-689-3272, May-Nov.), which has upgraded to selling western fine art, artisan gifts, and trendy coffees, teas, and baked goods.
The brisk Big Hole River begins to gather some volume at Wisdom and becomes one of the state’s most revered trout streams as it carves a horseshoe-shaped course north, east and then back southward on the east flank of the Pioneers. What makes this stretch truly one-of-a-kind is the opportunity to catch six count ’em varieties of fish: the imported rainbow trout, brook trout, and brown trout as well as the native whitefish, cutthroat trout, and Arctic grayling. Farther downstream, the river’s tea-colored waters are famed for their early summer salmonfly hatch and early fall caddis hatch, both of which lure fly anglers from the world over.
For the next 30 miles, MT 43 hugs the river and, after passing Country Road 569 headed to Anaconda, veers east into a pine-studded canyon with trophy homes and summer getaways. Eleven miles later, the Big Hole emerges into a modest valley at Wise River (pop. 323). Pick up a few necessities at the Wise River Mercantile (406-832-3271) and find out what the trout are rising to at the Complete Fly Fisher (866-832-3175). Just before the Wise River Club, look for an unmarked right turn on FS 484 here begins the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway portion of the route. The 49-mile north-south road, now fully paved, rises gently toward the headwaters of the tumbling Wise River and descends through the heart of the mountains along Grasshopper Creek, splitting the towering and rugged East Pioneers from the gentler West Pioneers. This section has numerous campgrounds and trails north of the divide, including the federally designated Pioneer Loop National Recreation Trail (406-832-3178) near the upper reaches of the Wise River, Browns Lake Trail just before the divide, and the Blue Creek Trail near Elkhorn Hot Springs farther south. The 35-mile Pioneer Loop Trail isn’t for the faint of heart, but this strenuous hike along the backbone of the West Pioneers provides dramatic vistas of the Big Hole Valley. It is reached from the main road by turning right on FS 90 about 20 miles south of Wise River. Browns Lake Trail is near the junction of FS 2465, which leads to Coolidge ghost town. Drive about 5 miles to the trailhead and hike another quarter mile to the abandoned Elkhorn Mine and town, which is remarkably well-preserved, due largely to its isolation.
Atop the gentle divide, the road levels and provides regular views of the jagged East Pioneers, which some compare to the Swiss Alps. There are several scenic turnouts, most notably Mono Park and Moose Park, where interpretive signs explain why the East and West Pioneers are so different. The Lupine Picnic Area has a small warming hut amid lodgepole pines that’s amply stocked with firewood. Also near here is Crystal Park (406-683-3900), a day-use area where the Butte Mineral & Gem Club and Forest Service provide a summer opportunity to dig for quartz crystals. The 30-acre site has water, picnic tables, and trails to the digging sites, which look a little like minefields. A $5 fee is charged, but you get to keep any crystals you find.
Over the divide and in the tall timber, accommodations at Elkhorn Hot Springs (406-834-3434) are as primitive as Forest Service cabins, but the pool is a delightful respite of gravity-flow, sulfur-free warm water. Many of Elkhorn’s visitors come after marking turns at Maverick Mountain Ski Area (406-834-3454), an intimate and out-of-the-way ski hill with 22 runs and 2,000 vertical feet. At $36 per lift ticket (2015-16), you can get your money’s worth “Riding the White Thunder” on a credible variety of terrain.
Polaris (pop. 107), named by miners for the polar star, has a fitting moniker for this area, as it’s a popular location for snowmobiles. From Polaris, it’s another 6 miles back to MT 278 and the end of your loop. Look for a few more of the beaverslide haystackers that epitomize this region. Turn left on MT 278 for the drive back over Badger Pass to Dillon.
Best Places to Bunk
Dillon: The town has a handful of comfortable chain motels and a few small indies, but unique options simply don’t exist. Probably your best bet is the GuestHouse Inn & Suites ($$, 406-6833636). While in town, you’ll surely notice the stately Metlen Hotel & Saloon on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Bannack Street. Built in 1897 along the Union Pacific tracks, the highly haunted palace is the only remaining hotel from Dillon’s prosperous railroad days. The Metlen, which has an attractive website, was for sale in 2015 and not yet available for lodging, dining, or imbibing all of which could change quickly, promising a truly memorable stay.
Jackson: Jackson Hot Springs Lodges ($$/$$$, 406-834-3151, Thurs.-Mon.) cabins and motels aren’t for everyone, but they can be just the thing for those seeking a less-crowded stay with soaking privileges. The cabins are improving and many come with fireplaces. Their sleeping rooms are just that barely big enough for a bed, and with walls so thin you can hear your neighbors think. There are about 30 tent spots, making it a popular stopover for cyclists, and there’s a welcoming bar in the spacious lobby. Jackson Hot Springs seemingly changes ownership every few years, but now the same folks who own Quinn’s near Missoula are in charge at Jackson, so brighter days might be ahead. wisdom: Brenda Huntley runs a neat and tidy place, all by herself, at the Nez Perce Motel ($, 406689-3254). She’s particular about the cleanliness of her rooms, and her rates are extremely reasonable. We like her place for a winter ski getaway, when the crowds are thinner but the powder is thicker. The Wisdom Cabin ($, 406-689-3260), once a gathering place for women during World War I, today is a light, bright, cheery one-bedroom place to hang your rod or skis. The cabin sleeps two in its remodeled interior; the original log exterior remains. You can make arrangements through owners Diane and Dennis Havig at The Crossings Restaurant. In winter, a crisp and wondrous time in the Big Hole, they offer a stay-and-ski package (Lost Trail Powder Mountain is nearby, in Sula) for $60 per night.
Polaris: A stunner of a log home and lodge, the Montana High Country Guest Lodge ($$, 406-834-3469), owned by sixth-generation Montanan Russ Kipp and his wife, Karen, caters to outdoor lovers of all types, but especially to hunters, anglers, and bicyclists. They have 12 comfy rooms that overlook gorgeous grounds with a centerpiece pond that’s attractive to flora, fauna, and fowl alike. They also have bragging rights to some of the best views of the East and West Pioneer Mountains. One-night stays are welcome, but a minimum of four is required for fishing, winter sports, and cattle-drive packages.
Wise river: The two Big Hole River Cabins ($$$, 406-491-4841) 2 miles outside of town are hand-built for comfort and accompanied by private access to some fine fishing on the Big Hole. Each cabin sleeps four and has all the fixings for a self-sustained stay. H Bar J Cafe ($, 406-832-9292) opened three cabins in August 2015 two of them studio-style and a larger one-bedroom with full bath, kitchen, and deck. On the flip side of the fishing scale are the Orvis-endorsed and high-end Big Hole Lodge ($$$$, 406-832-3252) and the Complete Fly Fisher ($$$$, 480-485-4915), both with multiday stays that include gourmet meals and guided fishing on the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers. dillon: On Cindy and Paul Peck’s 22 acres on Horse Prairie Creek are their homier-than-home Montana Guest Cabins ($, 406-681-3127). They cater to anglers and hunters thanks to their location near prime fishing on the Beaverhead and Red Rock Rivers as well as some of the region’s best public hunting lands. Bring your own groceries so you can enjoy your meals on the ample deck with expansive views.
Camping: The Dillon KOA Campground ($, 800-562-2751), west of I-15, is well-kept, quiet, and feels far from town even though it isn’t. It has a secluded area for 30 tent campers along the Beaverhead River, with a fine trout fishery right alongside. You can stay connected with their free Wi-Fi and stay buzzed with free coffee, cappuccino, or hot chocolate. On the paved loops along the Pioneer portion of the route are five small first-come, first-served primitive Forest Service campgrounds. The two most appealing are Lodgepole and Willow, both sheltered in the pines on the banks of the Wise River. The Mono Campground has five tent sites and is on a couple acres in the woods near the Coolidge ghost town.
Forest service cabins/lookouts: (Reservations: 877-444-6777 or www.recreation.gov.) The Birch Creek Cabin (406-683-3900, $20/sleeps four) requires driving about 12 miles north of Dillon on I-15 and turning west at Apex for another 8 miles into the mountains, but it’s the only Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest offering of its kind in the East Pioneers. The primitive cabin is isolated enough from the ubiquitous motor crowd that it’s popular with hikers and cross-country skiers looking to explore the range’s high lakes.
Dillon: For the best steak and fine-dining ambience in town, it’s the Blacktail Station ($$, 406-6836611, D). The western-themed restaurant, in the basement of an 1890 original and connected to Mac’s Last Cast Sports Bar, has more than Rocky Mountain oysters and substantial steak (sirloin heaped with grilled onions) to boast about. Other selections include fresh seafood (Alaskan king crab legs), pasta (house-made lasagna), some of the best ribs anywhere, and four entree-qualifying salads go for the Blacktail with blue cheese, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, and bacon. Sparky’s Garage ($/$$, 406-683-2828, B/L/D), next to the University of Montana Western, is like a scene from the Route 66 TV show, with the signage and decor to match. Consider the barbecue brisket, chili, and cornbread, or the catfish basket at a place that’s popular among the college crowd. La Fiesta Mexicana ($, 406-660-0915, B/L), known simply among locals as “The Taco Bus,” might be
One of the more popular drive-by Mexican food stands anywhere in the Northern Rockies. Whether it’s for the breakfast burritos or lunch tacos, the sizable portions and authentic taste keep bringing locals and tourists alike back for more. You can sit in the white converted school bus and watch the amiable cooks weave their magic in cozy confines, or sit outside on basic picnic tables. jackson: The Jackson Hot Springs ($$, 406-834-3151 Thurs-Sun) dining room has been driveworthy in the past, and all indications are that it will remain that way under the new ownership that took over in 2015. Expect to find traditional breakfasts in the morning, and dinner specials such as seafood and slow-roasted prime rib on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Plan a stay around their special events.
Wisdom: The crowd-pleasing Crossing Bar & Grill at Fetty’s ($/$$, 406-689-3260, B/L/D) has added a few gourmet touches to western-style comfort food. The resulting menu is heavy on the meat, yet not afraid to cross over to the green side with their salads and veggie sandwiches. Friday night is rib night, and the aroma alone coaxes people out of the hayfields. The Crossing took over the iconic Fetty’s bar location after a disastrous fire. The new menu is a melding of the original Crossing and a few Fetty’s favorites, like the Pioneer Burger and the Super Nachos. A bit of wisdom for these parts: the Antler Saloon ($, 406-689-9393) serves more than a good stiff drink or cold brew they make a dynamite pizza as well. And if you just need a pick-me-up or shot of caffeine, the Hook & Horn Trading Post (406-689-3272) has bona fide coffee, real western art, real good snacks, and is also the real deal for authentic western souvenirs.