Montana road trip 2022, part IV: Skalkaho Highway and Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway

(Read parts I through III of this series here)

When one says the word “highway,” one generally envisions a paved road with two or more lanes and fast speed limits. Montana Highway 38 – the Skalkaho Highway – meets none of these criteria.

The present-day path of the Skalkaho Highway is a former trail used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by Native Americans. In fact, the word ‘Skalkaho’ comes from the Salish Sq̓x̣q̓x̣ó, which means ‘many trails.’ The highway was built in the 1920s and is the only direct connection between Hamilton and Philipsburg, Montana. It cuts through the Sapphire Mountains, winding through the forest as it ascends to an elevation of 7260 feet (2213 m). Our original plan was to drive the highway in the westbound direction, beginning on the Philipsburg side and ending in Hamilton. But because it’s unpaved and the area had recently received multiple inches of rain, we elected to switch up our itinerary and let the road dry out for a couple days before attempting it. We got stuck on a dirt road on last year’s trip, and it was not an experience we were eager to repeat.

Fortunately, the road was dry by the time we departed Hamilton on day 5 of our road trip. The first few miles are paved, but eventually the road turns to dirt. It’s reasonably well-maintained, but there are some potholes (one of which bounced a hub cap right off the car, as we later learned) and a lot of curves; slower speeds are required. There are also some sections with rather steep drop-offs on one side. If this is the kind of thing that makes you nervous, it’s recommended to drive the highway from east to west so you’re on the protected side of the road.

Skalkaho Highway

The highlight of the highway is Skalkaho Falls. It’s right next to the road, you can’t possibly miss it. With all the recent rain, the waterfall was raging. It was beautiful!

Skalkaho Falls

The high point of the road is Skalkaho Pass. If you’re envisioning an expansive open area with views, you’ll be disappointed. It’s not that kind of pass; it’s just the place where you stop going up and start going down. On the way down, we made a brief stop at Mud Lake and drove a little ways down Sand Basin Road.

Mud Lake was about as attractive as one might expect, given its name
Sand Basin Creek

Eventually, we once again reached pavement. It took us approximately 45 minutes to drive the 21 mile (34 km) unpaved stretch, which is about what I’d read in my research. From here, it was a quick and scenic drive to the eastern terminus of the highway.

Approaching the eastern terminus of the Skalkaho Highway

Our final destination for the day, though, was Dillon, Montana, so we turned south onto Highway 1, which we followed to I-15 southbound. After just a few miles, we exited I-15 at the tiny town of Divide on the Big Hole River. A town which, by the way, may want to consider coming up with a slogan that isn’t “Gateway to the big hole.”

Big Hole River Canyon

From Divide, we traveled west on Montana Highway 43 through the Big Hole River Canyon before turning south onto Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. We hadn’t originally planned to drive this byway, as it’s a much less direct route, but I’m glad we did.

Grasshopper Valley overlook
Site of the Maurice family homestead
Grand Vista
View from the high point of the highway

In addition to views, the two biggest attractions on the byway are Coolidge ghost town and Crystal Park. To reach Coolidge, follow signs east onto a gravel road and drive for 5 miles (8 km) to the parking area. From here, walk 1 mile (1.6 km) up the old road to the town. Coolidge was established in 1914 by William R. Allen and named for his friend, President Calvin Coolidge. The town was built around the Elkhorn Mine. However, the mine was never very profitable and by 1932 the town was abandoned.

The town is nestled in the trees, so you have to really walk around to find all the structures. The town is relatively large but completely falling apart. It has clearly not been maintained or renovated.

First glimpse of Coolidge
No idea how this happened…
One of the few buildings that has been partially maintained
I assume this is why you can no longer drive all the way to Coolidge. It shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently it does… please don’t do this.

In addition to the trail through town, I recommend also following the side trails to the Elkhorn Mine entrance and the mill. We walked all three, and our total distance was 3.2 miles (5.1 km), with an elevation gain of 290 feet (88 m).

Entrance to the Elkhorn Mine
View from the walk up to the mine
Old mining equipment

The Elkhorn Mill is the largest ore mill ever built. It’s huge! We marveled at not only the enormous size, but also the fact that they managed to get all this concrete up here way back in the early 1900s.

Elkhorn Ore Mill

After thoroughly exploring Coolidge, we headed for Crystal Park. The soil here is rich in quartz crystals, and it’s open to the public for digging. There is a designated digging area; you pay a $5/car entry fee, bring your own supplies, follow the path from the parking lot, and start digging. Here are the rules. We spent about an hour here and came home with so many small crystals. They’re not worth anything, but I don’t care. They’re a fun memento of our trip.

Digging for crystals (wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty)

We ended our day in Dillon, Montana with some beer and a riverfront campsite, and stopped briefly at Clark’s Lookout State Park the next morning on the way out of town. The park is not much more than a couple signs and a short trail to a high point, which William Clark (of the Lewis & Clark expedition) used to survey and map the Beaverhead River Valley.

L-R: Porter, bock, honey rye, witbier
Dillon and the Beaverhead River from Clark’s Lookout
Not the most vertical handstand I’ve ever done… let’s blame it on the fact that it was early in the morning and I hadn’t finished my caffeine yet

And then we headed off for a day of Montana mining history. More on that next time. Stay tuned!

20 thoughts on “Montana road trip 2022, part IV: Skalkaho Highway and Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway”

  1. The Skalkaho Highway seems a bit sketchy, but the scenery is beautiful, especially that waterfall. The ghost town looks like an interesting place to wander around and explore the abandoned buildings and old mining equipment. I got a good laugh about your visit to Crystal Park. Seems like it was a successful visit!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful part of the world to explore! Digging for crystals certainly sounds like a fun activity; it is a great way to rediscover your inner child as you dig in the dirt for treasures. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like you, I also assumed highways to be all about paved roads and fast speed limits…not so much for Skalkaho! The drive looks scenic all the same, and to see Skalkaho Falls all of a sudden alongside the road is a wonderful surprise!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mountain roads are the best and worst, sometimes at the same time. So many pretty mountain roads in Montana. We took the Going to the Sun Road to St. Mary’s just after it opened one June and there were still 12 foot high snow banks along it. What the H was a tagger doing visiting the old mining town. Some people. Thanks for sharing Diana. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve driven Going to the Sun in similar conditions and it’s so strange to be driving next to so much snow!

      And I had the same thought… why would you bring spray paint to a ghost town? Some people indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

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