As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, more people are visiting America’s national parks than ever before. Last year Glacier National Park in Montana had 2.4 million visitors and Yellowstone National Park – mostly in Wyoming though it borders Montana and Idaho – had 4.1 million visitors.
For a state with barely 1 million residents, that sends us a lot of company. And while both Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park are American jewels, visitors often see little more than a four-lane highway to and from Montana when visiting each national park. They also make the same mistake when driving between the two parks.
Former newsman Charles Kuralt once said, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.”
Montana is crisscrossed with dirt roads. In fact, 76 percent of Montana’s roads are gravel. And while it may take only six hours to drive the 400 or so miles between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks if you take the main-traveled road, there are other routes that will let you experience more of the tranquility of Montana’s interior and the spirit of the state’s frontier past.
Where to Begin
There are 54,000 miles of gravel roads in Montana that will take you through acres of open range, farms, and seldom-visited and still-very-much-empty wild areas. But if you are driving between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, there some routes that are better than others.
At a mile high in elevation, and nestled among the Little Belt Mountains, Castle Mountains, Big Belt Mountains, and the beautiful Smith River, is White Sulphur Springs.
White Sulphur Springs is well off the beaten path. It seldom sees much traffic except when motorcyclists pass through in August on their way to and from the Sturgis motorcycle rally or when automobiles are detoured from I-90 because of a car accident or flooding.
It is quiet. It is unassuming. And it possesses all of the charm you would expect from a western mountain town. If you are driving from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier National Park along Highway 89, or if you were lucky enough to float down the Smith River, then you really owe it to yourself to see everything White Sulphur Springs and greater Meagher County have to offer.
Conveniently located on roads that radiate toward Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, Livingston, Lewistown, and Billings, it is easy to get to White Sulphur Springs, but some routes are more entertaining and enjoyable than others. Here are a few of the best (and hidden) drives that will allow you to experience this state in ways few others do:
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 beautiful drive. And it is an easy drive. Unless you don’t like driving in the winter, which, you know, is exceptionally long in Montana.
2. If you are driving between the parks in the summer and have a good set of tires (that means seven-ply tires – not the one- or two-ply that come standard on most vehicles) , then the cross-country drive on the gravel roads between and White Sulphur Springs and Ulm, Montana, are quite fun.
For those not from Montana, these roads offer a wonderful opportunity to see the state as it once was before asphalt, concrete, and people from both coasts found their way to the state. If you are coming from the north, 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. Or reverse the directions if you are coming from the other way. Also, be sure to bring a map with you and a full tank of gas. You are much more likely to pass a herd of elk on this route than another car. And remember, GPS navigators and cell phones are not reliable options in this part of the country.
3. Duck Creek Road from Highway 284 outside of Townsend through the Big Belt Mountains is another adventurous way to drive to White Sulphur Springs. But 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. The views along the route are spectacular, and the views along hiking paths near the crystal clear lakes on the mountain top even more so.
4. Like Duck Creek Road, Confederate Gulch Road also connects to Highway 284 outside of Townsend and crosses the Big Belt Mountains. In 1864 Confederate soldiers on parole from the American Civil War discovered gold in Confederate Gulch, which led to other gold strikes up and down the canyon. Diamond City (46°35′50″N 111°25′26″W) sprung up on this road overnight and became one of the most active mining towns in Montana. Your drive along Confederate Gulch Road will take you right through Diamond City, though very little evidence of this once roaring gold town exists today. Continuing north you will ultimately connect to Benton Gulch Road. Seven miles later you will come to a Y in the road; turn right and you will drive into White Sulphur Springs. Turn left and you will connect later with Lingshire Road. And from there you can follow the directions above to Ulm, which is just south of Great Falls.
5. If you drive north from Yellowstone National Park on Highway 89, you will come to a sleepy town called Ringling. Bits of the 1974 Clint Eastwood movie “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” were filmed there. Turn east a few miles up the road to Lennep and follow National Forest Road 581. Along this route you will find another beautiful old rural church in Lennep, drive through a ghost town called Castle Town, see wildflowers, drive through herds of cattle, and end up in Checkerboard, where, if you are lucky, you can catch a maggot race at the Checkerboard Bar.
Once you have made your way north from each of those roads, I recommend following Highway 89 along the eastern Rocky Mountain front. Especially if you are driving from Yellowstone, be sure to enter Glacier National Park in the wee hours of the morning just as the sun comes up. Not only will you avoid the herds of tourists and feel like you have the park all to yourself, the sun from the east will illuminate the mountains spectacularly as you drive west and provide stunning opportunities to make photos. And you will be driving against the grain of traffic on Going to the Sun Road, which will make your visit much more enjoyable.
Montana is a very large state. And while both Glacier and Yellowstone are must-sees, the views, and roads, and towns, and experiences in between are often just as special (if not more) because you don’t have to experience them with a million other visitors at the same time. If you have never driven the more hidden roads of Montana, you owe it to yourself to do so. With a healthy sense of adventure, the right planning, and a little patience, you won’t be disappointed.
Top 10 Things to Do in White Sulphur Springs:
- Float down the Smith River from Camp Baker to Eden Bridge.
- Take a dip in the natural mineral pools at Spa Hot Springs.
- Play a round of golf at Arrowhead Meadows Golf.
- Ski at Showdown or go snowmobiling on the 200-plus miles of groomed snowmobile trails in the Little Belt Mountains.
- Hike the Gipsy Lake Trail.
- Go fishing at Newlan Creek Reservoir, Smith River, Sheep Creek, or Gipsy Lake.
- Stop and shop at Red Ants Pants. And then go next door and have a delicious craft beer from 2 Basset Brewery.
- Visit the Castle Mansion Museum and soak up some history. The tour is well worth the $5 price of admission.
- 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.
- Have breakfast early in the morning at one of White Sulphur Springs’ fine diners and enjoy a cup of coffee with local farmers and ranchers. And be sure to order the side pork instead of the bacon. You’ll love it. And if you are in town on a Wednesday in the summer, get a loaf of zucchini bread from the Hutterites, who will be selling vegetables and baked goods in the Spa Hot Springs parking lot.
Best Time to Visit:
- 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.
- On Labor Day weekend when White Sulphur Springs hosts a PRCA rodeo.
- Late spring when the wildflowers are blooming in the mountains along the routes detailed above.
- Winter, when skiing and snowmobiling can be enjoyed and a dip in the natural mineral pools at Spa Hot Springs is most enjoyable.