Once the interstate highway system cut a wide swath across the state of Montana, transit plans for travelers from inside and outside the state have been increasingly predictable. Cities along the interstate system, for example, saw the greatest increase in population and commerce. Places along the interstate saw more tourists, too.
In 2013 Glacier National Park had 2.19 million visitors, while Yellowstone National Park, which straddles the Montana-Wyoming border, had 3.18 million visitors. Montana’s 52 state parks, by comparison, had a total of 2.11 million visitors. If you have never visited Glacier National Park or Yellowstone National Park then yes, you need to go. But, if you have already been there (especially more than once) then I can tell you that there are other interesting places and adventures that can be found elsewhere in the great state of Montana, too.
As I have traveled across the state making Montana photography I have stumbled onto many places that are off the beaten path that are worthy of attention. I hope to profile those places from time-to-time in this blog. Because if you are like me, you too enjoy venturing down the paths less traveled by. In this first article I will profile the small town of White Sulphur Springs, Montana.
White Sulphur Springs:
At a mile high in elevation, and nestled between the Little Belt Mountains, Castle Mountains, Big Belt Mountains, and the beautiful Smith River, is the quiet little Montana town called White Sulphur Springs. It is a quaint place, well off the beaten path. It seldom sees much traffic except when motorcyclists drive through in August on their way to the Sturgis motorcycle rally and when vehicles are rerouted along I-90 because of an accident or flooding. But being off the beaten path is what makes White Sulphur Springs special. It is quiet. It is unassuming. And it possesses all of the charm you would expect from a western mountain town, minus the trappings of the tourist traps along the major highways. If you are driving from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier National Park along Highway 89, or if you were lucky enough to win a ticket to float down the Smith River, then you really owe it to yourself to see everything White Sulphur Springs and greater Meagher County has to offer.
Where to Stay:
The best room in White Sulphur Springs hands down is room 105 at the Tenderfoot Motel & Cabins. While this inn is not the Waldorf Astoria, room 105 offers comfortable accommodations, including two queen size beds, a kitchenette, and a spacious bathroom. The motel also has a nice outdoor swimming pool for the few summer months when it is warm enough to use it. There are other fine lodging opportunities in White Sulphur Springs too, but based on my experience staying and working in White Sulphur Springs, room 105 is simply the best.
If tiny motels are not your style and you prefer to rough it a little then I recommend camping beneath the stars at Gipsy Lake, which is approximately 10 miles due west from town. Also, you won’t find many (if any) grizzly bears or rattlesnakes in this part of the Montana, so you won’t have to sleep with one eye open.
Where to Eat:
White Sulphur Springs is small, but it has many places to eat, so picking one can be difficult. So rather than highlighting a restaurant in particular I will instead profile the best dishes and foods White Sulphur Springs has to offer.
My favorite food to eat when I’m in White Sulphur Springs is something I was not familiar with until I first arrived here. To the unfamiliar, it is called side pork and it is served at the Truck Stop Cafe. Side pork is the same cut as bacon, but the meat is not cured or smoked. In a state better known for its beef, they somehow hit a home run with something made from pork. And the side pork at the Truck Stop Cafe is the bomb, especially when served with fried eggs and hash browns. This place also offers a friendly atmosphere. Stop in for breakfast and you will likely find local ranchers and businessmen holding court in the middle of the restaurant as they sip on unusually strong cups of coffee. CNN they are not, but they are friendly and eager to share their interpretation of the day’s news.
I also recommend breakfast at the Branding Iron Cafe, soup at Dempsey’s Tavern, fried chicken a the Mint Bar, pizza at the original Stage Line Pizza, and steak at the Montana Roadhouse are also highly recommended. And if you visit on a Wednesday afternoon in the summer, be sure to look for the Hutterites selling vegetables and baked goods at in the parking lot of the Spa Hot Springs motel. I highly recommend the zucchini bread.
Top 10 Things to See & Do:
1. Float down the Smith River from Camp Baker to Eden Bridge.
2. Take a dip in the natural mineral pools at Spa Hot Springs.
3. Explore the many scenic and rugged roads to and from White Sulphur Springs (see below).
4. Play a round of golf at Arrowhead Meadows Golf.
6. Hike the Gipsy Lake Trail.
7. Go fishing or boating in Newlan Creek Reservoir, Smith River, or Gipsy Lake.
8. Stop and shop at Red Ants Pants. And if you come in late July be sure to attend the Red Ants Pants Music Festival (see below).
9. Visit the Castle Mansion Museum and soak up some history. The tour is well worth the $5 price of admission.
10. Visit the old ghost town on the south side of Castle Mountains. Known as Castle City or Castle Town, it once boasted 2,000 residents when silver was discovered in the mountains. There is a sign that warns you about not trespassing on private property, but if anyone gives you grief just tell them you will be walking along the public rights-of-way that still exist to this day between the properties.
BONUS: Go elk hunting. There aren’t many places in these United States that offer better elk hunting than Meagher County, which has White Sulphur Springs as its county seat.
Scenic Ways to Get There:
White Sulphur Springs is located smack dab in between Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, Livingston, and Lewistown, so it is very easy to get there, but some routes are more entertaining and enriching than others. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Known as the Kings Hill Scenic Byway, Highway 89 through the Little Belt Mountains and over Kings Hill Pass at an elevation of 7,393 feet is an exceptionally fun drive. But if you don’t like driving in the winter (which you know is exceptionally long in Montana) I might recommend approaching White Sulphur Springs from the east side on the much more sanguine Highway 12 instead.
2. If you visit White Sulphur Springs in the summer, and if you have a good set of tires, then the cross country drive on gravel roads from Ulm, Montana can be quite fun. It affords those not from Montana a wonderful opportunity to see the state as it once was before aslphalt, concrete, and people from California found their way to the state. Just take Millegan Road to Upper Millegan Road to Lingshire Road and then Fort Logan Road and several hours later you will find yourself in downtown White Sulphur Springs. Also, be sure to bring a map with you and plot your course before you leave. GPS is NOT a reliable option in this part of the country.
3. Duck Creek Road from Highway 284 outside of Townsend through the Big Belt Mountains is another adventurous path into White Sulphur Springs. It is best if you travel this route in a vehicle with high clearance and 4-wheel drive. Be sure to only travel this route in the summer, too. The views along the road are spectacular and it will take you right past Gipsy Lake.
Best Time to Visit:
1. The 4th weekend in July coincides with the fabulously spectacular Red Ants Pants Music Festival in White Sulphur Springs.This is by far the best time to visit White Sulphur Springs, but you won’t find an available hotel rooms unless you plan your trip a year or more in advance. You can camp at the music grounds, though. This music festival is easily one of Montana’s gems.
2. On Labor Day weekend when White Sulphur Springs hosts a PRCA rodeo.
3. Late spring when the wild flowers are blooming in the mountains.
4. Winter, when skiing and snowmobiling can be enjoyed and a dip in the natural mineral pools at Spa Hot Springs are most enjoyable.