“Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.”—Theodore Roethke
I’d been fortunate to embark on many quick weekend trips around in 2014. Now that it’s April of 2015, I’m itching to break out of this cold weather slump and embark on a few road trips. It’s easy to stick to the main highways and Interstates when your destinations are city-to-city in Montana, but last year I found myself visiting a number of small towns and rural areas that are further ‘off the beaten track’.
One such route is along Montana Highway 38—through the Sapphire Mountains and over Skalkaho Pass. Many maps don’t readily show MT-38 clearly at all. It might come up on your GPS if you’re really looking for it, but it’ll only indicate that a road exists and not what the conditions will be like. And in Montana, that can mean the difference between a fun afternoon and getting stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Lucky for my mom and I on a September Sunday in 2014, conditions were ideal for a venture over this little-known mountain pass. We had decided to spend the day in Philipsburg after a watching my brother play ice hockey in Butte on Friday, and then spending Saturday at a women’s retreat at Seeley Lake. We had a great time wandering the unique shops of downtown Philipsburg, and by the afternoon we decided to try making it back to the Bitterroot Valley through Skalkaho Pass rather than taking the usual (longer) route up MT-1 to I-90 West for Missoula, and then south from there.
The top of Skalkaho Pass sits at 7,250 feet (2,209.8 meters) above sea level, and it takes you past West Fork Rock Creek and Skalkaho Falls as you journey between the Phillipsburg Valley and Bitterroot Valley.
Skalkaho Pass doesn’t boast of many incredible views, but it has a few unique sites you won’t readily see elsewhere. Skalkaho Falls are always worth stopping to see, especially on a hot summer day. The breeze coming off the water is quite refreshing! Since we were travelling through at the end of September, the autumn colors were just starting to turn on the leaves… yellows and reds mixed with the evergreen foliage to create colorful masterpieces draped over creeks and cliffs.
Although… to call MT-38 Skalkaho Highway a ‘highway’ is a bit of a stretch. Sure, it’s paved from Hamilton to the base of the Sapphire Mountains, and it’s paved from the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine to MT-1 Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway. That’s about it.
The road over the mountains is gravel and dirt (sprinkled with a few large rocks here and there), and it’s very narrow in places. There are spaces to pull off to the side and let someone pass, but many stretches are single-lane and potentially treacherous with tight curves and many blind corners. Much of the road becomes washboard and has occasional potholes, so keep a wary eye open for changing road conditions.
The route is 45 miles (72.42 km) in length, although the distance between Hamilton and Philipsburg is just over 64 miles (103 km) and travel time is about an hour and a half by car… which is important because you’ll find no fuel services along the way. A few smaller dirt roads branch away from the main road on the east side of the pass, so be aware that you don’t get lost off the main road.
As for traffic, it’s very much a ‘road less traveled’… so you’ll generally get two types of drivers: 1) those who drive at a snail’s pace and crawl around corners (but will generally pull over and let you pass once they notice you’re behind them), or 2) those who drive so recklessly that they’re likely to send you or themselves off the cliff… literally.
If you’re planning to haul a trailer or camper up there, it is possible (though technically not legal according to the Montana State Travel site). If you do risk taking a trailer, keep in mind that the turnouts are extremely limited and there are no barriers keeping you on the road. We talked with a woman in Philipsburg who told us she’s hauled her horses with truck and trailer over the pass before, but only going the direction from Philipsburg to Hamilton because she’d be on the inmost side of the road. She also said she made sure to honk her truck horn when driving around the blind corners to alert any oncoming vehicles she couldn’t see.
Although I’ve never biked it myself, I’ve heard from personal friends that mountain biking over the pass is a great activity on a clear summer day. Without stops, it averages about 6.5 hours from Philipsburg to Hamilton.
This is a seasonal road, meaning it’s only fully open starting Memorial Day Weekend at the end of May (weather permitting) and closes when hunting season ends in November. Conditions are just too hazardous in the winter with the high elevation, and it’s not practical to keep it plowed when there are better alternative routes through Missoula or south through the Big Hole Valley. Sometimes winter/spring road damage may delay the road opening, which happened in 2014 when sections of the road were washed out and delayed opening to early September.
My mom and I also had no cell phone reception for most of the journey, so be sure to let someone outside your party know where you are going and when you expect to be at your destination.
Another interesting feature is the amount of fire scars you can see in the forest. Sure, driving south of Darby on US Highway 93 through the Bitterroot Valley will also show barren trees from forest fires (or what’s left of them). Yet, driving east to west on Skalkaho Highway that afternoon, I had never before come upon a fire scar so suddenly… you drive over the top of the ridge and you’re right in the midst of blackened trees and easier visibility. It doesn’t last very long, but you can see just where the 41 Complex fire burned during most of September 2011.
Aside from the fire scars, you may also notice patches where Mountain Pine Beetles have brought serious damage to the forest in this area. You can usually tell when an area has been hit when you see standing trees with no needles or brown/orange needles that are scattered among healthy trees with green needles. It has become a serious problem in Montana (and you can learn more about it here if you’re curious).
The drive through Skalkaho Pass is a gorgeous experience, with plenty of places to stop and take pictures. A few side roads also offer areas for camping, specifically the Black Bear Campground on the Bitterroot National Forest side (6 camping sites) and the Crystal Creek Campground in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National forest side (3 camping sites). People also enjoy mountain biking during the summer, as well as cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter (in certain sections).
Overall, I’m glad my mom and I had decided to take this route back home. Last time I had been through Skalkaho Pass, I was a very young girl, and my memories are fuzzy. I did remember exactly what the falls looked like at least, but that’s about it! It’s certainly not a well-known road, but it may be fun for a change of pace. If summer of 2015 takes me to Philipsburg, I’ll certainly be taking this ‘road less traveled’ once again.
If you ever get a chance to see this scenic route, please let me know what you think of it. Are there any roads where you live that are sparsely traveled and deserve some attention for scenic admiration? I’d love to see it someday!
“It’s a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.” –Lucius Annaeus Seneca