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Bitterroot National Forest

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Bitterroot Valley

The Bitterroot Valley, one of the major north-south valleys of Northwest Montana, stretches south from Missoula and I-90 some 95 miles to the Idaho Border at Lost Trail Pass.

The principal thoroughfare is US Highway 93, a major route that runs from its northern extremity at the US and Canadian border to its southern extremity in southwest Arizona. The route follows the Bitterroot River, the dominant natural feature within the valley, and connects the cities and towns of the valley much as the river did when those settlements were first established in the late 1800's.

A secondary highway, which is much less busy and thus provides a more leisurely route for the sightseeing traveler, is the East Side Highway (MT 269) between Stevensville and Hamilton. This route presents better views of the Bitterroot Mountains as well as offering a more relaxing drive.

Surrounding the valley, much like the claw of a crab, is the Bitterroot National Forest which carpets the two mountain ranges on either side of the valley and connects and closes in upon the narrowing valley at its south end.

The lower Bitterroot Valley, that part from Missoula to Hamilton, is wider, flatter and more open and is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited area of Montana. Watch for old homesteads and solitary apple trees that mark the locations of what were once extensive orchards. Today, these lands are giving way to subdivisions that signal the growth and popularity of this beautiful valley.

Driving US 93 from Missoula, the traveler to Hamilton will see miles of highway lined with construction yards sporting new log houses in all sizes and stages of construction. Perhaps it's the rugged outdoor flavor of these soon-to-be homes, the beautiful valley, and the promise of realized dreams that has prompted growth so rampant that some say it could turn the lower Bitterroot Valley into the kind of congestion that many had hoped to leave behind.

The upper Bitterroot Valley, from Hamilton to Lost Trail Pass at the Idaho border, grows more narrow as you travel south as the mountain slopes and forest close in on the highway to form the apex of the valley.

Hamilton, the county seat of Ravalli County, is the largest of the cities with a population a little more than 4,000 people. Other communities include Conner, Darby, Stevensville, Sula and Victor.

Each of these communities lies within close proximity to the Bitterroot River and within the shadows of the towering mountain ranges that rise on either side of the valley. To the east are the Sapphire Mountains; lightly forested, drier and more rounded as compared to the neighboring range to the west, the Bitterroot Mountains. The Bitterroots present a formidable barrier to westward penetration in that they are heavily forested, with rockier and steeper peaks and deep craggy canyons.

The Kootenai, Nez Perce, Salish and other Native American tribes, often traveled or lived in the valley from time to time. The valley also was on the route chosen by the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805-06 and was along the path taken by the non-treaty Nez Perce during the Nez Perce War of 1877.

Today, the valley, its communities and the surrounding mountains and forests offer an abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities including camping, fishing, hiking, backpacking, horse pack trips, and hunting. The valley is peppered with bed and breakfast accommodations, campgrounds, ranches, guides and outfitters.

Related Sites

Bitterroot National Forest

Ravalli Republic. 232 W. Main, Hamilton, Montana 59840. Phone: 406-363-3300.

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