Road Trip: Big Sheep Creek Byway
The town of Dillon sits at the crossroads of state Highway 41 and Interstate 15, on the banks of the Beaverhead River, in Beaverhead County. Named after the unique rock formation on the Jefferson River that the Shoshone described as being shaped as a beaver’s head, Beaverhead County is the largest in Montana. Roughly the size of Connecticut, with a population just shy of 10,000, this area is resplendent with vistas truly encompassing the term Big Sky. Massive tracts of public land make it an adventurer’s paradise—especially for those seeking to forgo congestion and traffic lights.
Only a stone’s throw from the infamous Big Hole River, Dillon is a trout angler’s dream. Year-round, the Big Hole and the Beaverhead rivers yield some of the largest trout landed in Montana. (Rumor has it, the Beaverhead is top of the list for number of trout over five pounds.) Stop by a local fly shop for current information.
La Fiesta Mexicana is Dillon’s most unique dining experience. Locals love the taco bus, and the place often has a line out the door at lunch, so don’t arrive right at noon. Owner Alejandro Pelayo’s brothers have similar establishments in West Yellowstone, Island Park and Ashton, Idaho.
Forgot your rain jacket? Stop into the Patagonia outlet on Idaho Street. Thirsty? The Moose Bar at 6 North Montana Street is the place to meet with folks from all walks of life.
From Dillon, head south on I-15 about 40 miles, toward the town of Dell. This will take you along the Beaverhead River (there are plenty of fishing access sites if you’re hankering to catch a lunker), through the stunning Clark Canyon, and by the oddly desolate Clark Canyon Reservoir, which is a duck hunter’s delight.
Dell is a friendly little town with a service station and a classic old general store. Also on Main Street is a small sportsman’s lodge, the Stockyard Inn, and Yesterday’s Café, a great little spot where you need a cowboy hat and boots to fit in. If you forgot to fill up on gas in Dillon, fill up here. From Dell, head southwest on the Big Sheep Creek National Backcountry Byway, a two-lane gravel road that winds through some of the most dramatic and stunning country in Montana. Thousand-foot scree slopes and rocky crags tumble to the creek basin, revealing a more beautiful scene with each turn in the road.
You may pass an occasional rancher’s pickup heading to Dillon to get supplies, but more likely you’ll see bighorn sheep, deer and elk. Although the area is just over 6,000 feet, it sees relatively little precipitation in the valleys, keeping most roads open year round. Winter wildlife viewing can be fantastic, as the animals come out of the mountains seeking food and a more hospitable climate.
The topography changes continuously, as canyons open into broad meadows, and bottlenecks become even narrower canyons. If you’re equipped with four-wheel drive and feeling adventurous, there are many high mountain lakes and trails to explore. But be extremely careful and conservative in wet conditions, because the roads here have high clay content, so any moisture makes it seem as if you’re driving on ice.
There is some private land along the river and a few large ranches, however this area is mostly Bureau of Land Management land surrounded by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Countless opportunities for hiking, hunting, horseback riding and fishing exist here. Those along for the scenery through the car window won’t be disappointed either.
About eight miles from the interstate is a campground with outdoor facilities called Deadwood. There are also many other spots to pitch camp on public land.
The roads seem to go on forever. You could spend a day exploring the main roads, or weeks getting into the backcountry— just make sure to bring your DeLorme Gazetteer, topo maps and your adventurous spirit.
Will Casella’s company, the Bozeman-based Phasmid Rentals, provides outfitted rental vehicles and itinerary planning for travelers seeking off the beaten path adventures.
Photos and story by Will Casella Explorebigsky.com Contributor
This story was first published in the winter 2011/12 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.