Field Trip to Southwest Montana

Field Trip to Southwest Montana

Wildflower safaris are blooming in southwestern Montana. Here, a guide to the state's vibrant alpine meadows.

Looking for wildflowers in Montana's Gold West Country means finding the expected, like unhurried fishing lodges and corrals of horses, but also complete surprises. At 7,000 feet up in the Pioneer Mountains, 30 miles south of Butte, dense beds of blue-violet camas stretch for miles above the tree line. Winds off snowcapped Black Butte ripple through sky-blue Penstemon lemhiensis, or beardtongue, a snapdragon-like bud that grows only in these Montana meadows. The Tobacco Root Mountains, 40 miles west of Bozeman, hold fields of white locoweed, white-pink bistort, yellow glacier lilies, pink Jeffrey's shooting stars, fireweed, larkspur, and lupine.

Tours to the wildflower fields of Montana's southwestern corner are beginning to compete with the fishing, hunting, and rafting trips that have drawn outdoors enthusiasts here for decades, giving soft adventurers their own way of connecting with nature. Read on for the best places to view summer's Technicolor displays, along with the top lodges and flower experts in the fields.

Branham Lakes/Tobacco Root Mountains

The best hiking trail to Branham Lakes, which lie some 8,800 feet up the Tobacco Root Mountains, climbs through meadows of brilliant red and yellow Indian paintbrush and pink sickletop lousewort, whose one vertical petal rises like a sickle. From the base all the way up, the path is streaked with pale pinks and magentas.

WHERE TO STAY The silky-red Ruby River forms an oxbow around 700-acre Ruby Springs Lodge (2487 Hwy. 287, Alder; 800/278-7829 or 406/842-5250;; double cabins from $3,750 for the three-night minimum, including two daylong fishing trips), and the muted gurgling of this 10-mile stretch reminds guests that they're in fly-fishing heaven. For those who don't cast, the six cabins with heated tile floors in the bathrooms (summer nights can be chilly) and river-rock fireplaces are less than an hour's drive from the three major flower-viewing areas. After a day in the meadows, guests recharge with chef Micko Reijo's Muscovy duck breast, then roll over to the River Room for complimentary cocktails, which flow all night. • The four basic apartments that now occupy the early 1900's Craftsman house at the z (301 Mill St., Sheridan; 406/842-5960;; doubles from $65) are spare but functional. Most guests use the inn as a base, spending the bulk of their days roaming the parks, relaxing on the porch, or wandering through the tiny homesteader town of Sheridan (population 800).

THE GUIDE Biologist Allen Schallenberger, a native Montanan, leads flower-peepers to Branham Lakes and other viewing areas, providing binoculars, guidebooks, and countless Grizzly Adams-type stories. His Experience Montana (Sheridan; 406/842-5134; $300 a day per vehicle, each with a maximum of five people) has been operating since 1988; if there's a hidden field of Indian paintbrush or mountain heath, Allen will definitely know about it.

Gravelly Range/Black Butte

The Gravelly Range Road makes a 50-mile loop from Ennis to Alder. At the trip's 9,000-foot apex, silver-blue lupine mix with yellow-and-white mule-ears, a daisy-like aster that gets its name from its broad green leaves. Tours climb the spine of one of Montana's southernmost mountain ranges, rewarding hikers with 100-mile views into Yellowstone and open grassland displays.

WHERE TO STAY Nick Kern and Christine Stark, the owners of Potosi Hot Springs Resort (1 S. Willow Creek Rd., Pony; 888/685-1695 or 406/685-3330;; double cabins from $1,440 for the three-night minimum, including meals), have their own wildflower spreads just past the property's three hot-spring pools. The four creekside cabins, lined with blond wood and heated by woodstoves, sit near a canvas tepee, which doubles as a spa. Fly-fishing devotees have come here for years, and with the Gravelly Range entrance just an hour down the road, flower-hunters are discovering the lodge, too. No matter what sort of adventurers they are, guests all wind up back at the resort in time for dinners of elk tenderloin with Montana morels in port-and-cream sauce, prepared by Christine, a self-taught chef. • Erected in 1910 to accommodate railroad traffic en route to Yellowstone, the grand Sacajawea Hotel (5 N. Main St., Three Forks; 888/722-2529 or 406/285-6515;; doubles from $58) still conjures up images of horse-drawn carriages and cowboys. Many of its recently renovated 31 rooms are furnished with antique claw-foot tubs and period beds, and rocking chairs line the colonnaded porch.

THE GUIDE Dan and Lois Pence of the Great Divide Wildlands Institute (1475 Cosgrove Lane, Dillon; 406/683-4669;; day trips $125 per person, two-person minimum) enhance their walking tours through rainbow-hued fields with tales of the Wild West. On clear days, visibility stretches 100 miles west into Idaho and southeast to the Tetons, and more than 250 species of flowers—including elk thistle, phacelia, and parrot's beak—can be seen.

Vipond Park/Pioneer Mountains

Drive to the top of 25-mile Canyon Creek and Quartz Hill roads, which rise out of Melrose on the Big Hole River, and the whole atmosphere changes. Ghost towns from the mining era give way to a wet, silent meadow with little else besides acres of flowers. The white-bark pine forest on the plateau shades alien-looking green gentians, with their foot-tall flower spikes; the white flowers of wild valerian, a natural sedative; and scores of other species. The most concentrated displays in the state are found in Vipond Park (park is a mountaineering term meaning "high alpine meadow"), which is easily accessible: the drive up and down, leaving from the town of Dewey, can be done in three hours.

WHERE TO STAY Guests who snag a suite at the Old Hotel (101 E. Fifth Ave., Twin Bridges; 406/684-5959;; doubles $125, breakfast included) should prepare for a little bit of Scotland in the middle of Montana. Chef-owner Jane Waldie, a transplant from the Scottish Highlands, has kept the 1897 house spare and rustic, placing an English antique dresser here and a Mackintosh-style stained-glass window there. Each of the two suites has its own entrance and sitting room and accommodates up to four people. Even those who can't get a room come to the Old Hotel for breakfast—such as "potty eggs," a Scottish dish of baked eggs with cream and butter (like coddled eggs)—or elaborate dinners: stuffed cremini mushrooms, chile-honey-glazed pork tenderloin, or rack of lamb with raspberry-chipotle sauce. • The main house at Healing Waters Fly Fishing Lodge (270 Tuke Lane, Twin Bridges; 406/684-5960;; doubles from $950, including meals and fishing trips) sits in a grove of cottonwoods, where trout ponds dot the landscape. The inn's seven guest rooms are outfitted with Western touches (Indian textiles, rough-hewn wooden nightstands) and creature comforts (oversized tubs, private decks looking onto the Ruby and Tobacco Root Mountains). Fly-fishing is what the understated lodge built its reputation upon—owner Greg Lilly is the son of Bud Lilly, whose iconic Bud Lilly's Trout Shop in West Yellowstone helped fuel the growth of the sport in the sixties—but the Lillys have sent clients wildflower-hunting for years (ask about their secret spots).

THE GUIDE A mountain-tanned California native with a Ph.D. in zoology, Catherine Cain moved to Montana in the eighties and turned her enthusiasm for nature toward local flora. On guided tours with her High Country Discovery (220 S. River Rd., Divide; 406/267-3377;; day trips from $300 for up to two people, $50 each additional person), Cain finds indigenous species like two-inch-high pale-pink bitterroot, the state flower, and will gladly dig up wild onions and water chestnut-like spring beauties, which she'll work into a picnic lunch.

Dean Kuipers writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times. His story about snowshoeing appeared in the February 2002 issue of Travel + Leisure.

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