Three off-the-beaten-path riding areas By Lane Lindstrom
Montana is known as Big Sky Country, and under all that sky are dozens upon dozens of off-road riding areas that appeal to riders of all sorts—from technical to mild and from thrill seekers to mellow.
The western one-third of Montana is laden with mountains, more specifically the world-famous Rocky Mountains. The land flattens out some as you head east across the state, with different topographies offering different riding opportunities.
Of all the riding areas spread out across the state, we’ve chosen three that, while not as famous and popular as some in Montana, are worthy of a trip to Big Sky Country to try. They are spread out among the western mountainous area of Montana.
We only saw a handful of other riders during our rides in each of these places. In one area, we never saw another vehicle the entire day. Let’s start from the north and work south.
Tucked way up in the northwest corner of Montana, Libby offers spectacular riding experiences in the Purcell Mountains. You can access the mountains from several spots, including from Libby (population 2,628), if your vehicle is street-legal.
That’s exactly what we did, heading north on Highway 27, crossing the Kootenay River (yes, the river and national forest have different spellings) and then heading west on Kootenai River Road. Once we reached Quartz Mountain Road, it was all uphill. Libby sits at 2096 feet, and we rode up to 5768 feet.
This part of Montana is heavily forested, which can be a bit frustrating at times if you want to see the surrounding area. Since we had just one day to ride the area, we mapped out a route where we could see as much country as possible while still not having to rush too much. We took Quartz Mountain Road (FR600) all the way to Loon Lake. We hung a right on 17 Mile Road, which passes along the northeast side of Loon Lake. The lake isn’t huge but is amazingly scenic.
Our next destination was Big Creek Baldy Mountain (elevation 5,768 feet). We knew from a previous snowmobile ride that this was the place to really take in views of the entire area. To get there from 17 Mile Road, we rode to where it intersects with Pipe Creek Road/FR 68, headed north to FR 336 and turned right, went a little ways, and then turned onto FR 309. We were in for a little surprise when we were almost to Big Creek Baldy Mountain. During the summer, the half-mile road to the summit is gated. We parked at the Lincoln County SnoKats’ warming hut, which is accessible in the summer as well, and then made the trek up to the lookout.
We weren’t disappointed. The views are just as stunning in the summer as they are in the winter. You can easily see Turner Mountain Ski Area, clear over to Idaho to the west and darn near to Canada to the north. The 360-degree views show off the Purcells and surrounding mountains well.
When we headed back to our UTV, we took a trail along the East Fork of Pipe Creek, back past Loon Lake and then over to FR 4681/FR 4654. These were a couple of our favorite trails of the 90-mile ride that day. FR 4654 has a great combination of awesome scenery, and the trail has some “character” with lots of switchbacks and precipitous sections. Parts of the trail are steep on both sides, with one side going vertical and the other side dropping off. There are even stretches where you could press the throttle some for quick bursts of speed. You pass Quartz Mountain (6280 feet), which looms high above the trail.
Eventually, FR 4654 meets up with Quartz Mountain Road, and from there we headed back to town.
While we stayed northwest of Libby that day, there is also plenty of riding south and east of town.
YOU COULD TRY: A fun side trip (via car/pickup) are the Kootenai Falls, about 12 miles west of Libby on U.S. Highway 2, the main highway that runs through town. From the parking area (big enough for a truck and trailer) you walk/hike to the falls. There is a suspension bridge (if you dare) that crosses the Kootenay River and trails that go along the river and offer up close views of the falls. The falls drop 90 feet in less than a mile, with the main falls dropping 30 feet. It’s worth the time and effort to get there.
ESSENTIALS: Libby/Purcell Mountains
LOCATION: Northwest Montana
FULL SERVICE TOWN: Libby (population 2,779)
INFO: Libby Chamber of Commerce, www.libbychamber.org
Down the road and east of Missoula about 25 miles is the Garnet Range of the Rocky Mountains. As riding areas go, especially in Big Sky Country, this is a fairly compact riding location. It may be small, but it’s big on fun, scenery and history.
If history is your thing, then the Garnet Range offers plenty of it. The real fun is that you can do all your exploring from the seat of your side-by-side or ATV on the myriad of mountain roads and trails.
On top of the history list is Garnet, which sits at the head of First Chance Creek. It is one of the best preserved ghost/mining towns in Montana. Named for the semi-precious stone found there, Garnet (elevation about 6000 feet) dates back to the late 1890s. Today, it has about 30 buildings that have been preserved. There is also a Visitor Center where you can get more information about the former mining/ghost town. Check out www.blm.gov/
visit/garnet-ghost-town for more details about the area. We spent some time in Garnet, walking around the former mining town. It’s well worth a stop if you’re anywhere in the area. Garnet is managed by the BLM and Garnet Preservation Association.
Up the dirt road is Coloma, another ghost town. This one got its start in the mid 1890s. There are other ghost towns in Garnet Range as well.
While Garnet (and other ghost towns) should be on your list of stops in these parts, they aren’t the only area highlights. Running through the heart of the Garnet Range is the Garnet Range Back Country Byway, a 12-mile-long mountain road that climbs 2000 feet through the mountains. Of course, there are dozens of trails that branch off that offer additional miles of backcountry exploring.
One of those trails leads to Union Peak (elevation 6,801 feet). At the top of Union Peak is a lookout that was built in 1963. Unlimited views await a trip to the top. Other spots where you can see the surrounding mountains and valleys include the Blackfoot Valley Scenic Overlook and Garnet Scenic Overlook. The mountains are timbered, but there are enough breaks in the trees and other clearings to provide wide-open views of the impressive scenery and vistas.
The Garnet Range—surrounded by the Lolo National Forest on three sides (north, west and south) and Interstate 90 (south) and Montana Highway 200 (north)—has a riding elevation that ranges from between 3500 and 6800 feet.
We rode the Garnet Range for a day, leaving from near Greenough and heading towards Garnet on a crisp October day. There are a lot of fun sections of trail, though none were very difficult or technical. We never did make it over to the Union Peak side of the mountains. We had plenty to explore on the side of the range we were riding.
YOU COULD TRY: Fishing in the Blackfoot River, a river known for its excellent fishing. The river runs along the northern edge of the Garnet Range. We tried the drift boat, and while we were successful in the fishing department, we were very mesmerized by the beauty of the surrounding area and the opportunity to see it as we floated down the river.
ESSENTIALS: Garnet Mountains
LOCATION: West-central Montana
FULL-SERVICE TOWN: Missoula (population 75,516)
INFO: Destination Missoula, www.destinationmissoula.org or Southwest Montana, www.southwest
GRAVELLY RANGE/SNOWCREST RANGE
No signature destination or centerpiece attraction here. Just riding and exploring the dozens of trails that sit in valleys and go along ridge tops, cross creeks and meander through stands of trees, and high-mountain deserts and rangeland. This is the kind of area that you need to take the side roads and explore.
There are long north/south trails on both sides of the Gravelly Range. The western one, Forest Road 100/Centennial Divide Road, follows alongside the Ruby River with the impressive Snowcrest Range. It lived up to its name while on our ride. There was still snow on the mountaintops in late June on the west side and foothills that lead to the Gravelly Range on the east side. The eastern trail, Forest Road 290/Gravelly Range Road, is a bit more adventurous as it weaves through the Gravellys.
There are at least four or five trails that cross over the Gravelly Range from the Centennial Divide Road, giving you access to either valley at several spots up and down this part of Montana. Our plan was to ride up Gravelly Range Road from the south where it starts at Metzel Creek. That is northwest of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We would head north and then return on Centennial Divide Road.
Our plans were foiled, though, because at the junction of FR 290 and FR 9629, just about where FR 290 starts to climb to Eureka Basin, there was a gate across the trail stating the road was closed from April 1–June 30. We missed it by just a few days. So we backtracked down the valley, headed over to the Centennial Divide Road and traveled north again. At every trail that headed east towards the Gravelly Range Road there was a gate with a sign saying the same thing: “To Prevent Wheel Ruts and Soil Erosion; to Prevent Disturbance to Elk Calving Area.”
Even though we missed riding more of the Gravelly Range Road, we did experience a little of just about everything on FR 100. We started our trek where we parked the truck at Red Rock Pass (elevation 7120 feet), which marks the border between Idaho and Montana. We headed west towards Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge before eventually going due north towards Gravelly Range Road. We were a little surprised to find sandy trails along the north side of the national wildlife refuge. Those trails were fun to ride on and added variety to our ride that we weren’t expecting.
The Centennial Divide Road runs through a fairly wide valley between the Snowcrest Range and Gravelly Range. The farther north we went, the more narrow the valley became. We did try a couple of side trails that were not closed/gated, including FR 163, which goes through a narrow gap along Warm Springs Creek before climbing the mountain towards the Gravelly Range.
Once back down to where FR 100 meets the valley, we took South Valley Road back to Red Rock Pass. It’s an especially scenic section of the road as it runs along the Continental Divide that separates Montana and Idaho. The trail/road is at about 6600-6700 feet, while the Continental Divide towers between 2000-3000 feet above that.
About our only company on the day’s 140-mile ride was antelope, deer and a few rabbits.
There are ways to access the Gravelly Range from the east (when the Gravelly Range Road is open), as well as from the north through various routes. About the only thing you need to really plan for is making sure you have enough fuel. Towns with gas are pretty few and very far between in those mountains.
YOU COULD TRY: On a return trip we would like to explore staying at the Vigilante Station, a forest service cabin just off Centennial Divide Road: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/bdnf/null/
ESSENTIALS: Gravelly Range/Snowcrest Range
LOCATION: Southwest Montana
FULL SERVICE TOWN: Ennis, MT (north end, population 993),
www.southwestmt.org; Island Park, ID (south end, population 266),
INFO: Ennis, www.southwestmt.org; Island Park Chamber of Commerce, www.islandparkchamber.org