The Bitterroot Valley is one of Montana’s most popular destinations for both tourists and families looking for a peaceful place to live and visit.
Ask new residents what drew them to live in the Bitterroot and you’ll get the same answer every time—the beauty of the valley. The pristine and natural wonder of the Bitterroot Valley is its greatest resource. The relatively straight and narrow valley is hemmed in on both sides by public land, which provides a wealth of year-around recreation as well as a scenic backdrop to the relatively easy pace of life here.
The valley is almost wholly contained by Ravalli County, the second fastest growing county in Montana behind Gallatin County. The county’s borders are defined by the Bitterroot River’s drainage system—from the gentle looking peaks of the Sapphire Mountains to the East and the rough rocky peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains to the West. In between is a valley comprised of six small towns, small farmsteads and ranches, and a world-famous river.
From north to south the valley’s communities are: Florence, Stevensville, Victor, Corvallis, Hamilton and Darby. Ravalli County has about 40,000 residents, but the communities themselves have remained small and quaint. Hamilton is the largest at nearly 5,000.
Access to the valley is primarily along the busy U.S. Highway 93, which runs north and south through western Montana. However, a more peaceful drive can be found on the Eastside Highway, which run from Florence to Hamilton on the east side of the Bitterroot River. This road traces through some of the valley’s most vibrant and picturesque farm and ranch land.
The first white settlers in the valley were Catholic Jesuit priests, who set up a missionary near present-day Stevensville. St. Mary’s Mission was a remote outpost built to minister to the Salish, Kootenai, and Flathead Indians which all lived or traveled through the valley, taking advantage of the abundant wildlife and temperate climate. Lewis and Clark traveled through the valley on their journey to the Pacific Coast and found friendly Indians willing and ready to trade and help.
In 1841, Jesuit priest, Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet established St. Mary’s Mission. Soon after DeSmet established the mission Father Anthony Ravalli came to minister to the Salish, and he became the most famous and beloved of the Jesuit missionaries.
Today, visitors can tour the historic mission in Stevensville. The mission’s director Colleen Meyer is excited to announce the visits to the mission are increasing this year as more people are discovering the holy beauty of Montana’s past.
For more information on St. Mary’s Mission, visit their Web site: http://www.saintmarysmission.org.
Up the valley from Stevensville is the Bitterroot’s largest town, Hamilton. The history of Hamilton is tied directly to one of Montana’s most famous mining moguls, Marcus Daly.
Daly, an Irishman, came from the East Coast and established the Anaconda Copper Mine in the 1880s near Butte. The mine helped usher Montana into the industrial age of wealth and resource extraction.
Daly discovered the Bitterroot Valley and loved its scenic beauty and peace. He bought a large homestead near present-day Hamilton and set about remodeling it into a mansion respective of the wealth he had acquired. Daly also hired architects and planners to design the city of Hamilton.
Today the Daly Mansion is a centerpiece for tourism in the Bitterroot. The Georgian Revival style home has 24,000 square feet, 25 bedrooms and 15 bathrooms. The grounds of the mansion are reminiscent of a southern plantation, with hundreds of trees providing shade in the summer and keeping the enormous lawn lush and green.
The Daly Mansion is now owned by the state of Montana and is open for tours and weddings. For more information, check out their Web site: www.dalymansion.org.
The Bitterroot has been called the “Banana Belt” of Montana. For some reason the temperatures here are milder than elsewhere in western Montana. The growing seasons here are a little longer and the winters are a little easier.
When settlers arrived to the Bitterroot, the valley was primarily a high desert climate. The east side was mainly sagebrush and dry grasslands. The west side consisted of great expanses of old ponderosa pine groves and many stream bottoms, lush with wildlife habitat.
The first farmers saw the potential of farming the east side of the valley and set about building an immense and complicated network of irrigation ditches and canals. The biggest of these is the Big Ditch, which draws water from Como Lake, just north of Darby. The Big Ditch was built very early in the 1900s and carries water north down the valley, nearly to Florence.
The land below the Big Ditch became some of the most productive farmland in western Montana. Over the years farmers have raised grain, corn, vegetables, apples and cherries. Today, farming is mostly done in small operations and local vegetable farms that raise produce for local Farmers’ Markets and residents.
The early settlers also discovered a valley abundant with wildlife. Wetlands dotted the entire valley along the Bitterroot River. The river bottoms on both the east and west side of the valley was also home to deer, elk, bear, moose, and a variety of other critters.
Today, two wildlife refuges in the valley work to preserve that natural habitat and wonder.
North of Stevensville is the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, which is a federally operated refuge consisting primarily of wetland and river bottom habitat. Lee Metcalf is home to some of the valley’s most treasured birding opportunities and is a key point on the Bitterroot Birding and Nature Trail.
The Birding and Nature Trail was established in 2005; it directs wildlife enthusiasts to 25 bird and nature watching sites in and around the Bitterroot Valley. For more on the Bitterroot Birding and Nature Trail, look on the Web at: www.montanabirdingtrail.org. For more information on Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, go to their Web site: www.fws.gov/leemetcalf.
About a mile north of the town of Corvallis, in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, sits Teller Wildlife Refuge, Montana’s only private, nonprofit wildlife refuge.
Teller consists of about 1,200 acres of active farmland, upland and wetland wildlife habitat. It’s home to an abundance of wildlife, from deer and Moose, to ducks and ringneck pheasants, as well as a chorus of songbirds.
Conservationists Otto Teller and Phil Tawney established Teller in 1985. Both Tawney and Teller were passionate about the Bitterroot Valley and preserving its natural heritage. The Teller works with local schools, landowners and conservation groups to provide conservation and land stewardship education.
Teller is open for scheduled visits and tours. To see more about the refuge and schedule a tour or volunteer on work projects at the refuge, look at their Web site: www.tellerwildlife.org.
The Bitterroot River is a world-famous fly-fishing destination. Its popularity has grown dramatically through the past decade and now on any given day numerous guides from the Bitterroot and Missoula Valley’s can be seen with clients casting and floating along any stretch of river.
The Bitterroot River begins at the confluence of its East and West Forks south of Darby. From there the river meanders through incredible timbered river bottoms and farmlands and by each town in the valley nearly 90 miles to its confluence with the Clark Fork River near Missoula. Numerous public access sites make the Bitterroot a fisherman friendly river.
The Bitterroot is known for its dry fly-fishing. Stoneflies hatch in the spring and continue to mid-summer. Mayfly hatches also start in the spring and continue well into the fall. The Bitterroot River is also famous for its mid and late summer “hopper” fishing.
With fly-fishing shops dotting the entire length of the valley, information on fishing is readily available.
The Bitterroot Valley is also blessed with easy access to the 1.6 million acre Bitterroot National Forest. Trail access is readily available for hiking and mountain biking on both the east and west sides of the valley.
The west side of the valley is also bordered by the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, which is a gateway to the mountain heart of Idaho and western Montana. Mountain biking isn’t allowed in the wilderness, but hikers and horse packers can enjoy thousands of miles of trails leading to hundreds of lakes and streams.
For more information on hiking, camping and wilderness access, look on the Web at: www.fs.fed.us/r1/bitterroot.
For more information on mountain biking local trails, look on the Web at Chad DeVall’s shop, Red Barn Bicycles: www.redbarnbicycles.com, or call Randy Leavell at Valley Bike and Ski at 363-4428.
Dining and Lodging
Listing all the dining and lodging options in the Bitterroot Valley is nearly impossible. This is a place geared to cater to the local tourist looking for a night out or the traveling soul wanting to slow the pace for a while.
Dining options in the Bitterroot Valley are numerous and varied. Many of the communities in the valley have unique restaurants and cafes where diners can find standard western cuisine or eclectic dining.
In Stevensville, the Food Fetish combines class with outstanding taste. Give their diverse menu and laid-back atmosphere a try. For information or reservations call 777-2133.
In Victor, the Victor Steakhouse boasts some of the best beef in the valley. For reservations call 642-3300.
In Hamilton, The Spice of Life Eclectic Cafe offers diners a break from the standard table fare. The Spice serves locally grown and organic foods, from their salads to their steaks.
Also in Hamilton is the valley’s lone microbrewery. The Bitter Root Brewery is a popular local hangout, with unique and carefully crafted beers as well as a simple and delicious Brewer’s Grill.
The Bitter Root Brewery also has live music Thursday and Saturday nights. This is as good as it gets for local watering holes and is a must-see if you’re in Hamilton.
In Darby there’s the Little Blue Joint restaurant, specializing in handmade pizzas and a lively atmosphere. For more information, give them a call at 821-1110.
The Bitterroot Valley is home to numerous rental cabins, many of which can be found by doing a Web search. The most helpful site I’ve found is: http://www.vrbo.com/vacation-rentals/usa/montana.
Hamilton is also home to several motels, including Super 8, Best Western, and The Bitterroot River Inn and Conference Center.
Several local lodges can host families or groups...
Chief Joseph Ranch, south of Darby, provides patrons a rustic taste of luxury. For more information, check out their Web site: www.chiefjosephranch.com.
The Bitterroot River Lodge gives guests a pristine view of the Bitterroot River, while providing the peace of solitude of a treasured Bitterroot experience. Look on the Web at: www.bitterrootriverlodge.com.
For a simpler taste of luxury and solitude, look into the quaint and quiet Deer Crossing Bed and Breakfast: www.deercrossingmontana.com.
If you want to experience the mountains as well as delicious food, check out the Lost Horse Lodge: www.losthorsecreeklodge.com.
~ Greg Lemon is a freelance writer who lives in Hamilton, Montana.