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