Hiking Southwest Montana’s Bitterroot Valley

BY SUSIE WALL  

There are plenty of options for getting outside around my hometown of Missoula, but when looking for a specific trek to satisfy my time constraints and willingness to put lungs and legs to the test, I head south down Highway 93 to the Bitterroot Valley. I find the variety of trail options staggering along this stretch of road from brief strolls around a shimmering lake to day-long treks deep into the backcountry. 

HIKING TO SWEATHOUSE FALLS 

Early last June I met up with Kerry, my frequent hiking partner, at the Sweathouse Creek trailhead, four miles west of Victor. This hike was new to both of us so we were eager to try it with a goal of reaching Sweathouse Falls 2.5 miles up the trail. A short walk from the parking lot brought us to the official trailhead, then we forked right and entered the forest. I found the large wooden sluice boxes snaking beside us for the first several hundred feet, fascinating as they signified a once robust mining enterprise along Sweathouse Creek. 

Kerry and I fell into a comfortable rhythm chattering away and stopping to identify blooming wildflowers and listen for bird calls. The trail climbed steadily about 1,400 feet in elevation and as we ascended the path, which narrowed, forcing us to squeeze through large rocks lining the trail. Ice had yet to melt on the protected ground. Excitement built as we heard the falls in the distance. Upon reaching our destination, we stood atop a wide smooth rock, daring to peer over the precipice marveling at the powerful water gushing below. We exchanged whoops and high fives in celebration of a perfect hike. 

ASCENDING SAINT MARY PEAK 

The high peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains beckon in the height of summer, so my friends Molli, Marie and I jumped at the opportunity in late July to reach the top of Saint Mary Peak towering over the valley at 9,300 feet. We left early knowing we were in for a long day as the drive to the trailhead alone is over 12 miles from Stevensville. It was a relief to finally get out of the car and start what was, at first, a gradual climb. My nerves kicked in with my slight fear of heights, but much to my relief there were no places on the 3.5-mile climb where I had to hug the side of the mountain. 

The hike requires a gain of almost 2,500 feet in elevation and once we popped out of the trees and onto the final stretch to the jagged peak, the exertion spent to ascend each rising foot began to take a toll. But the stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valley below made every step well worth the effort. A retired fire tower sits at the peak’s pinnacle and offered us the perfect backdrop to snap pictures documenting our achievement in anticipation of well-deserved bragging rights to our friends back in Missoula. 

AN EASY HIKE TO BEAR CREEK FALLS 

Looking for a quick hike last September, my husband Dave and I headed out one morning to Bear Creek Trail, seven miles west of Victor. The trail extends well into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, but we chose Bear Creek Falls as our destination giving us a 3-mile roundtrip hike with 400 feet of elevation gain. The wide trail ran through a shaded pine forest for most of our walk and gave us plenty of protection from the hot sun. Our only exposure occurred as we passed through four old rock slides. I have short legs and small feet so normally I dread rock-hopping, 

but here kind trail fairies had cut right through the fallen boulders so I had no trouble. We took the time to stop and listen for the squeak of pikas as they darted among the boulders. 

Once at the falls we noticed the creek was nearly level with the trail so we had the perfect view of water rushing over flat rock, cascading down a series of shallow descents. After a brief stay to take it all in, we turned back toward the trailhead marveling at how we had the woods to ourselves despite the beautiful morning. 

For more information about visiting Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, go to glaciermt.com 

TIPS FOR HIKING IN THE BITTERROOTS 

  1. Always check road and trail conditions before setting out as snow tends to linger, and creeks swell into the summer months. Websites like alltrails.com and trailforks.com are good resources.
  2. Dogs are allowed, but leash restrictions are often imposed. Read the signage at the trailhead for specific rules.
  3. Large furry creatures frequent these trails. Be aware of your surroundings, especially with small children and dogs and consider packing bear spray.
  4. Trails are very popular, especially in the height of summer. Start early to nab a parking spot and avoid heavy traffic on the trail.
  5. Dress for changing weather conditions. Mornings are usually calm, but afternoons can bring in mixtures of thunderstorms and baking sunshine.