After spending a nice day with my children and grandchildren along US Highway 89 north of Great Falls, it was time to begin the long trip back to Kentucky the next day. I would begin the return trip with a quick jaunt south on I-15 to Great Falls and then south on US 87/89 towards Kings Hill Pass on the Kings Hill Scenic Byway, which runs along US 89 from the US 87 junction to the US 12 junction just north of White Sulphur Springs, Montana.
Before moving on, I should mention that on the previous day we made a quick stop in Conrad, Montana to see if there is anything interesting there. Conrad is south of Shelby and just off of I-15, so it is easy off and easy on. Conrad is just a bit smaller than Shelby. Not too much, but they still have a nice looking old theater and an old 70s style motel. A nice stop for the nostalgic-minded.
Since it was early morning, I didn’t stop in Conrad on the way to Great Falls. Rather, I was in town before sunrise and on to US 89 south, which joins with US 87. I had to head east through town past Malmstrom Air Force Base just as the sun came up. It was a beautiful Montana morning.
US 87/89 passes by Belt, Montana, but I didn’t drive through there on this trip as I wanted to get down US 89 and into Yellowstone and US 212 over Beartooth Pass. Just shortly after passing by Belt, US 87 continues east and US 89 breaks off southward toward Monarch, Montana and pretty much follows Belt Creek, which at the time I was driving the route, was a raging creek with all of the winter runoff in full force. This is the beginning of the Kings Hill Scenic Byway.
I reached Monarch, Montana at about 7:30 AM. Monarch was originally established to service the silver mines in the area. It is near the Sluice Boxes State Park.
The drive through the Lewis and Clark National Forest is very nice on a spring morning. Wildlife was in abundance and the raging Belt Creek could be heard, the smell of pine in the air. It was very refreshing (with the car windows down of course!) Soon enough, I was passing through the town of Neihart.
Neihart had a few unique things so it was well worth a short stop for a look/see.
I always like the unique shops on road trips, and Neihart offered one of those up in GJ’s Junkers Delight….fun signs, unique metal art
From Neihart, US 89 begins to offer a spectacular drive through the Rocky Mountains and gets you up to Kings Hill Pass which hits an altitude of 7,385 feet. Kings Hill Pass is part of the Kings Hill Scenic Byway which passes through the Little Belt Mountains in the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana, United States.
As the altitude climbed I could see that there were ski resorts and then I came across the Showdown, Montana sign near the summit of Kings Hill Pass. Created in 1936 and originally called King’s Hill Ski Area, Showdown is a small-scale ski area that caters mainly to weekend skiers. It also has nice summer activities for bikers, hikers and campers.
From Kings Hill Pass US 89 heads down hill towards White Sulphur Springs, Montana.
The end of the Kings Hill Scenic byway is about 3 miles north of White Sulphur Springs, which sits at the base of three mountain ranges. A truly beautiful setting.
From White Sulphur Springs US 89 continues south towards Livingston. This portion of the drive has some spectacular mountain views, especially of the Crazy Mountains (also known as the Crazies). I can envision the awe of pioneers as they realized they would have to get past them.
Wyoming lays claim to being the pronghorn capital of the world, but Montana has to be a close second. Some of my best pronghorn photos have come in Montana. I saw a small group by the road near Wilsall and stopped for a visit.
From the Wilsall area I continued south towards Livingston, Montana. The mountains scenes were breathtaking on this section of US 89 near Wilsall. I knew that on the other side of the mountains sits the city of Bozeman, where I lived from 1971-1973. I loved Bozeman.
Wilsall, along with Clyde Park, is in the Shields River Valley. The Shields River was named by Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in honor of John Shields when they arrived here in July 1806. This area was also visited by the famous trapper, trader and scout Jim Bridger in the 1860s.
The above sculpture by local artist Gary Kerby was dedicated in 2006. Titled “Welcome to the Shields” it is nicknamed “Thunder Jack.”
And of course, I finally found a nice wall mural on this trip. This one on the side of the Mercantile building takes you back to the early 1900s in Wilsall. This was painted by Gary Kerby, the same artist that made the pioneer sculpture pictured above. Gary is a resident of Wilsall. Kerby has painted murals in Montana (I saw another of his works in Cut Bank last year), Oregon and Washington.
Continuing south on US 89, there are miles of open range ranchlands with the amazing mountains in the background.
Livingston, Montana is one of those wonderful communities nestled in the mountains (like Leadville, CO – see my post about Leadville). There are old buildings, old neon signs, and majestic mountains framing the buildings. I spent 30 or 40 minutes in Livingston to capture the feel of this town. The town is also touted as the “Original Gateway City to Yellowstone National Park.”
After a breather in Livingston it was on to Yellowstone National Park via US 89. From Livingston, the highway basically follows the Yellowstone River, which was running very heavy due to runoff from the mountains. The mountain scenery at this point is amazing.
Not too far south of Livingston I came across a small wayside chapel with a splendid view of the Yellowstone River and Emigrant Peak (10,915 feet) of the Absaroka Mountain Range. The chapel was built in 1968 and had once sat on a small hilltop overlooking Yellowstone River adjacent to the rest area on US Hwy 89. It’s been a landmark as well as a curiosity. The chapel is always open providing shelter and a resting place for weary travelers. The chapel is 12 foot tall including its steeple; the building is 10-by-14 foot with stained glass side windows. There are eight wooden seats facing a white cross on the pulpit.
I soon found myself in the touristy town of Gardiner, Montana. The town definitely caters to the tourists and adventurers. It is also home the entry point for the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park and the massive Roosevelt Arch. Constructed under the supervision of the U.S. Army at Fort Yellowstone, its cornerstone was laid down by President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. The top of the arch is inscribed with a quote from the Organic Act of 1872, the legislation which created Yellowstone, which reads “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”
And thus ends my journey on Montana’s US as I enter through the Roosevelt Arch into Yellowstone National Park and eventually into Wyoming.
From this point I entered Wyoming on my way to Mammoth Hot Springs and US 212 which will take me across the northern section of Yellowstone National Park and into the Beartooth Mountain Range. That will be the subject of my next post!
As I continued my trip in Montana, I spent some time with my daughter and her children in Shelby. From there I proceeded to head back to Kentucky the “back roads” way over a number of US Highways and State Highways.
My goal was to travel the majority of Montana’s US 89 during this trip. I did not hit the portion north of Browning to Alberta on this trip, though I have traveled it in the past. In fact, over the years I have traveled US 89 from the Canadian border all the way to Mexico (back when US 89 went that far). This post will cover the section of US 89 north of Great Falls and I will follow with a second post covering the portion of US 89 in Montana south of Great Falls.
Sometimes called the National Park Highway, U.S. 89 links seven national parks across the Mountain West. In addition, fourteen other national park areas, mostly national monuments are also reachable from this backbone of the Rockies. The highway goes through prairies, mountains and deserts and, in my opinion, is the most scenic US Highway in America.
My wife flew out to Montana so I took her down to Great Falls and spent the night there. The next morning she had an early flight, so I dropped her off and then headed north on US 89 from Great Falls and would travel all the way to US Highway 2 near Browning and then back to Shelby for one more night with the family.
US 89 near Great Falls merges with Interstate 15 until Vaughn, Montana, where it cuts northwest towards Glacier National Park. In the early morning, this is a fabulously beautiful drive along the eastern edge of Glacier.
The first town along US 89 north is Fairfield, where the highway continues northward. I pulled into town on an early Monday morning and things were still quiet. Like many small Montana towns, there are old neon signs, old buildings and a unique personality.
Fairfield is also the southern gateway to Freezeout Lake, which can be seen from US 89. This lake is a spring home to snow geese and swans as they fly north to Canada in the spring. I drove by a bit late to see the swarms of birds, but I did catch a couple of bird shots as I drove by.
Route 89 continues north into beautiful country on the approach to the town of Choteau, which is a southwestern gateway to Glacier (the town refers to itself as “The Front Porch to the Rockies”).
The town is the northern terminus of US 287 which actually starts in Port Arthur, Texas, about 1,791 miles away. (I actually drove a good portion of US 287 on a previous trip to Texas from Dalhart through Amarillo and Wichita Falls into the Dallas area.) As I pulled into Choteau from the south I was greeted by two grumpy looking cowboys (in the Ace Hardware parking lot). I contacted Ace owner Steve Nyland to inquire about the pieces and learned that they were made by Lincoln, Montana born artist Rick Rowley who now runs the Lost Woodsman Studio in Sedona, Arizona (which, by the way is ALSO on US 89 in Arizona) and is world renown for his art.
Choteau is home to a beautiful old courthouse, a 70s style motel and a few other unique things.
The folks at the Old Trail Museum are ultra friendly and there is a lot to see there including paleontology exhibits, grizzly bear exhibit, an art studio and a luscious ice cream shop! A great place to bring the kids…and that is why we came with the grand kids.
The next town north of Choteau is Bynum, Montana. The town is home to yet another dinosaur museum, the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, another Dinosaur Trail stop. The center includes the world’s longest dinosaur, a skeletal model display of a Seismosaurus, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Other displays include the first baby dinosaur remains found in North America and the actual remains of other new dinosaur species.
This is another one of those very small towns, but it does have a unique character in that it has a dinosaur museum in a giant T Rex that you can see from the highway. Great for a photo opportunity!
Another few miles up the road US 89 meets Montana 219 which leads to Pendroy and then on to Conrad on Interstate 15. Pendroy, Montana is a sparsely populated little place.
My biggest excitement about Pendroy was the discovery of some unique yard art outside a house there. It included a wind chime made of oxygen tanks, a metal bear sculpture, a metal gal on an old tiller and more.
The drive north on US Route 89 really offers some spectacular views of the mountains to the west and they are extra beautiful when the sun is coming up.
The next town on US 89 is the historic town of Dupuyer, Montana. The sign below says it all, calling is a “colorful cattle town” and the “oldest town between Fort Benton and the Rocky Mountains.” I found it to still be colorful.
While driving into Dupuyer, I noticed a unique cemetery on a hill west of town with the flag flying high and the Rockies in the background. I decided to veer off the road a bit onto Dupuyer Creek Road and catch some of the scenery and was glad I did.
The road was also lined with colorful wildflowers all on bloom on this early morning.
Then, what struck me as fun was the “Boot Fence.” I had seen one similar on a highway in Idaho in 2013. Each post had its own boot on it. I have also seen it in Texas. I wondered about the tradition and found a few write-ups about the tradition. A search in Google images shows dozens of photos of boots on fences.
Many ranchers wear cowboy boots and like everything else, they eventually wear out. Ranchers are very resourceful and when this happens — they put the boots on top of the posts to keep them covered and prevent rain water from seeping into the posts and rotting them out.
Sometimes, a rancher will put boots on the fencepost to honor the passing of a beloved horse, a hired hand or fallen comrade. Also, before telephones were invented, a rancher would indicate he was home and the workday was over by hanging boots on the fence. Whatever the reasons, it is an interesting tradition in the west.
Finally, back on US 89 I was tempted to visit the Dupuyer Cache, but they were still not open when I drove by at 8:45 AM.
A couple of miles north of Dupuyer on US 89 is a cut off to Valier. In and of itself, Valier is not too exciting of small town but it is scenic as it borders Lake Frances, a great bird estuary. On the afternoon leg of my trip with my grandchildren we ventured to Valier on our way to Choteau in order to take a ride out to “Rock City.” It is a six or seven mile drive due north of town. This is not the same Rock City that is located near Chattanooga, Tennessee and has advertisements on barns all over the southeast. Rather, this Rock City is a natural “city” of rock formations that have been eroded away by the Two Medicine River. (See my detailed post about here)
To get to Rock City you drive north towards Cut Bank out of Valier on Cut Bank Highway and as the road turns west, you continue north on a dirt road which eventually turns into a little path that’s kind of bumpy and probably more suited to a four-wheel-drive or a large base vehicle.
On the approach through prairie lands and farmlands, a big Valley, a chasm opens up in front of you. The Two Medicine River flows down below and it was quite a strong current at the time we visited due to all the glacier runoff as spring had gotten started.
Hundreds of strange rock formations dot the landscape, creating many eerie features. Many of the formations are 12 to 20 feet tall and many have big flat tops on them indicating massive amounts of water in wind erosion over but I would assume is centuries of time.
For the adventuresome person, hiking down to the river is probably quite possible as there are many locations that are not beholden with cliffs. On this occasion we walked around through many of the formations, but didn’t venture down into the canyon itself.
To me, though much different in appearance, it was not unlike Coal Mine Canyon which is located on the Navajo Indian Reservation east of Tuba City, Arizona. Like Coal Mine Canyon, it is an undeveloped geologic location that might otherwise be a National Monument or a State Park. But in both cases neither of these appear to be headed in this direction. Both require going down narrow dirt roads and paths to get to them. Both have unique and otherworldly formations. And both have big chasms with beautiful scenes.
Continuing north on US 89 I entered the Blackfeet Reservation at its southern entrance. And, similar to the East Entrance in Cut Bank (see photos in THIS POST), there are two scrap metal Indian Chiefs that greeted me. The same artist, Jay Polite Laber has put these sculptures at all four directional entrances to the reservation.
From this location looking west, one can see the grandeur of the massive snow covered mountains of Glacier National Park.
June 8, 2013: I had a free day in Rexburg, ID so I thought I would take a day trip into the heart of Idaho. I visited old nuclear sites, sagebrush filled grasslands, ancient volcanic flows, rugged (and jagged) mountains and riverine landscapes . It was an awesome day of geographic and scenic diversity. Here is my map of the trip:
I decided to leave early so I could catch all of the day’s sunlight. It would be a long day. After heading south to Idaho Falls, I stayed on US 20 west and made my way to the gravel road that leads to the small, nearly ghost town of Atomic City. I had seen earlier reviews on the town on Roadside America. I could see that the content of the article was a bit dated as I made my way into the small town. Atomic City was, at one time, a boom city due to the growth in nuclear research facilities in the area, namely the Idaho National Laboratory and its many secret test facilities in the area.
About 12,000 years ago hunters came to this area for big game such as mammoths, camels and giant bison. Looking at the landscape now, it is difficult to imagine.
The town used to have a store, a bar and a Texaco gas station. The gas station used to house the bar. Both appear to be closed now. In fact, the gas station does not even have the Post Office sign on it any longer. but the vestiges of the old town still remain…
Despite the ghostly appearance of the town, from May thru September the weekends are pretty active here with the Atomic Motor Raceway, which still offers locals the opportunity to race their dwarf karts, minis, modifieds and other stock cars. They had no event the day I was there.
There are some old potato barns and wildflowers that caught my eye in Atomic City as well. A sign that there is still some semblance of life….
I left the town of about 20 people and headed west on US 20/26 towards the town of Arco next.
Along the way there was a nice new Rest Area that had some history included, especially concerning the Nuclear Work in the area.
Arco, Idaho is a town of about 1000 people and is located in Butte County, Idaho. Originally known as Root Hog, the original town site was five miles south at the junction of two stagecoach lines (Blackfoot-Wood River and Blackfoot-Salmon). A suspension bridge that crossed the Big Lost River funneled traffic through the settlement. The town leaders applied to the U.S. Post Office for the town name of “Junction.” However, The Postmaster General thought the name too common and suggested that the place be named Arco for Georg von Arco (1869–1940), an inventor and pioneer in the field of radio transmission, who was visiting Washington, D.C. from his home country of Germany at the time. The town later moved four miles southeast when the stage station was moved to Webb Springs at Big Southern Butte. When the Oregon Short Line railroad arrived from Blackfoot in 1901 the stage lines became obsolete and the town of Arco moved northwest to its present site.
Arco was the first community in the world ever to be lit by electricity generated by nuclear power. This occurred on July 17, 1955, powered by Argonne National Laboratory’s BORAX-III reactor at the nearby National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS), which eventually became the site of the Idaho National Energy Laboratory, a predecessor of the current Idaho National Laboratory.
Arco is also known for “Number Hill”, a butte behind the city with a bunch of numbers on it. History of the hill states that the tradition began with the 1920 graduating class of Butte County High School when they painted a 20 up on the hill. Since that time the tradition has continued with each class adding their years to the hill. There is now even a cafe in town named after it.
A few more scenes from Arco
The USS Hawkbill SSN-666 (also known as the Devil Boat) was launched in 1969 and was decommissioned in 2000. The sail was sent to Arco to be added to the Idaho Science Center, which is housed in Arco.
Though many had come before, the official name “Craters of the Moon” was coined by Robert Limbert who was the first man to thoroughly explore and promote the area. The name became official in 1924 when the area was established as a National Monument.
The lava flows here were a result of fissure eruptions that would create cinder cones due to the high fluidity of the basalt flows that allowed gasses to escape. Sunset Crater in Arizona is very similar to this.
Lava flows called “aa” are basaltic lava flows characterized by a rough or rubbly surface composed of broken lava blocks called clinker. This is really rough stuff and scary to walk on.
There are a number of Cinder Cones in the park, some of which may be climbed by visitors.
I was very fortunate in my timing in the park as many of the native wildflowers were in bloom. These wildflowers struggle for the little water and naturally space themselves, pretty amazing.
And a few more lava photos…
From the Craters of the Moon I headed down the “Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway” for what I consider to be the real HIGHlight of the trip….
And then passed by Goodale’s Cutoff
The road goes on forever through the lava…much easier today then it was for the emigrants
Carey, Idaho is basically the Gateway to Idaho 75 heading into the Sawtooth Mountains. Actually, Carey is located at the junctions of U.S. Routes 26/93 and 20 and is the commercial center of the Little Wood River Valley. It was founded by a group of Mormon colonists led by Cyrus Joseph Stanford in 1883 who named the town “Marysville.” It was renamed “Carey” with the arrival of his younger brother, Thomas C. Stanford in 1884.
And then onto Idaho 75 and a new scenic byway
I would have to say that this drive was probably one of the more stunning mountain drives I have ever been on. The jagged look (thus Sawtooth) of the range is impressive and awe inspiring.
The first town on ID 75 is Bellevue, Idaho, which is Idaho’s only chartered city. The town was established in March 1882 and currently has a population of about 2300. It is nestled in the foothills at 5.170 feet, before advancing up into the higher altitudes.
Then there are the continuous stream of scrap metal animals, like this bear at a garden shop in Bellevue…
From Bellevue it was north to Hailey and then into the Ketchum/Sun Valley area. From Bellevue the climb began and the mountains north began to look regal and grand.
I arrived in Ketchum around noon. This is a touristy town, obviously with the Sun Valley ski resorts and all of the summer mountain activity. As with many of these kinds of towns, unique art abounds. Here are a few “artsy” things I saw in Ketchum….
The above twig and branch sculpture, called “Centerpiece” was made by artist Patrick Dougherty, a North Carolina artist who works with tree saplings as his medium. This was made in 2010for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, which will be building a new facility on the grounds where Centerpiece stands. Dougherty has over 230 creations on exhibit all over the world. See more of his work here.
And then there are the unique places in town:
The Pioneer Saloon… Or the Commercial Club as it was called originally, was opened in the 1940’s as a gambling casino operated by Otis Hobbs. A few years later the casino was closed and the American Legion then took it over and used it as a meeting hall. For a short time, the building was converted into a dry goods store. In the mid 60’s, the Pioneer was redesigned as a restaurant. The present version of the Pioneer Saloon dates from 1972 — hence the phrase “Where were you in 72.”
From the Ketchum/Sun Valley area I continued north on ID 75 into the mountains. On this day I happened to be heading north while the Sawtooth Relay was in action. I saw runners for miles and thought it was just a marathon. Turns out it is a 62 mile relay race with teams of 6 running from Stanley, ID to Ketchum, ID along ID 75. It is a fund raising event that apparently had over 300 teams in 2013. I saw many of the team vans along the road.
The drive eventually got me to Galena Pass, which is at a little over 8700 feet.
Galena Summit marks the divide between the Big Wood River and Salmon River drainage areas. Just a bit more down the road is the Galena Overlook, which offers an expansive view of the Sawtooth Range to the north and the headwaters of the Salmon River in the Stanley Basin below.
The view from Galena Overlook was awesome. The blue lake in the bottom center will be seen in another photo from lake level as I ended up on that road below in the valley.
Just a small stream here, but turns into a mighty big river as it goes down the hill (which will be seen later in this post)
From this vantage point the rugged Sawtooth Range is clearly in sight….
From this area, as I ventured further north, I came to the Sawtooth City historical marker and then into the area around the crystal clear Alturas Lake.
The scenery from here was awe-inspiring as many of the views of the snow covered peaks also offered scenic carpets of flower covered meadows.
I continued north towards Redfish Lake and then into Stanley. I wanted to stop at Redfish Lake, but my time was running short. But the scenery was amazing…
Stanley, Idaho….I could SOOOO move here (in the summer at least). Stanley is is the hub point for three different Scenic Byways (The Sawtooth, the Ponderosa Pine and the Salmon River). It sits in a valley surrounded by mountains at a little over 6200 feet in elevation. It is a town with a number of small resorts/motels and a couple of places to eat. Wikipedia says the population in 2010 was 63, but it appeared to be closer to 200 to me.
It had been a long day so far and I was hungry, so I stopped in at the Mountain Village Express (part of the Mountain Village Resort) to find something to eat. Turns out they make breakfast all day and an omelet sounding appealing!!
Perhaps one of the most scenic photos I have ever taken….
I hated to leave Stanley, but I had to begin the winding descent along the Salmon River back into Rexburg. I went through Lower Stanley and then followed the Salmon River Scenic Byway. At first it was still rugged mountains and a raging river, enticing to rafters and kayakers (and probably bears too…)
The mountains soon began to fade away in the background as a more desertish/volcanic landscape. Nonetheless, this was rugged country full of deep gorges, steep hills and to me was reminiscent of western movie scenes.
As I approached the historical marker above, there was a County Sheriff taking radar. It is a downhill road and Clayton is on the county line. I stopped for a couple of photos and a small chit-chat with the sheriff who told me that Clayton is practically a ghost town. The sign above says it all!
As I hit US Route 93 from ID 75, I headed southeast towards Mackay, ID on US 93. To my excitement the mountains were not all gone. Indeed, I headed toward a new set range of mountains and drove through some pretty spectacular canyons as I entered the Grand View Canyon then out into the Lost River Valley which then opens up to an awesome view of the Lost River Mountain Range, which is home to the 9 highest peaks in Idaho.
Mount Borah is the highest mountain in Idaho at 12,667 feet and one of the most prominent peaks in the contiguous states. This mountain was named for William E. Borah, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1907 until 1940. A major earthquake fracture in October 1983 that was 26 miles long and 7 miles deep surfaced forcing the Lost River Valley to slide away from Mt. Borah. The valley subsided 9 feet after the quake.
Funny thing — along the way I came across a fence about 40 yards or more covered with boots and shoes….
Continuing south on US 93 i rolled into the small town of Mackay (prounounced MacKee locally).
Mackay is home to the Mackay Mine Hill which still allows tours, some of them apparently pretty grueling.
I made my way down US 93 back thru Arco and then to US 26/20 until the junction with Idaho 33, where I then proceeded east back towards Rexburg thru the small town of Howe.
This was a 13 hour road trip with an amazing diversity of scenery, geography and landscapes. Probably one of the more amazing day trips I have ever taken to this point in terms of variety and excitement. I really could have spent three days doing this and really digging in deeper. Maybe next time….