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The Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway, Beaverhead County

Got an adventurous soul and clamoring for your next great adventure? The Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway personifies the rugged Montana spirit with 55 miles of remote views, uninhabited landscapes, and plenty of primitive camping for the daring.

Located in the far southwest corner of Montana and pressed up against the Idaho border, this route runs between the tiny town of Dell and Highway 324 near the Clark Canyon Reservoir.

But beyond its end markers, the backcountry byway makes for some stunning views of Big Sheep Creek, the Tendoy Mountains, the Beaverhead Mountains, the Continental Divide, and the gorgeous Medicine Lodge Valley – even a few bighorn sheep, if you can spot them.

Read on for more on this unique Montana byway in Beaverhead County that still has traces of ancient indigenous life, untethered to society but firmly placed within the greater Montana ecosystem.

While it may be remote, the Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway offers fantastic places to fish, camp under the stars, and howl at the full moon. Let’s get into it!

The Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway, Beaverhead County – A Complete Guide

The Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway is a dirt road that becomes nearly impassable when wet and is best to traverse in a dry season. The best time to arrive is May through October, but the road remains open in the winter. The closest town with gas is Dell and the closest accommodations can be found in Dillon.

Scenic Drive Stats

scenic drive stats big sheep

  • Length: Approximately 55 miles in length
  • Time: This scenic drive takes around an hour to complete
  • Traffic: is minimal here:,light to non-existent
  • Terrain: While 4WD vehicles are not required, the mostly gravel road spits out onto a dirt road that can sputter even high-clearance vehicles
  • Highlights Include: Big Sheep Creek, the Tendoy Mountains, the Beaverhead Mountains, the Continental Divide, the Medicine Lodge Valley, stories around the campfire

History Along the Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway

big sheep creek history
Image: Teo Romera

The history of the area surrounding the Big Sheep Creek byway extends far behind the present-day understanding of life in Montana – or our nation, for that matter.

Driving through this region, it’s clear that natural life continues here in an all-encompassing manner, far removed from light pollution, society – even gas stations – beyond a few isolated ranches.

Originally home to the Shoshone-Bannock, Bitterroot Salish, and their more nomadic ancestors, the people who came through this unchanged area hunted sheep, deer, elk, fish, and more as part of a greater subsistence way of life.

Traveling along quiet roads, one can imagine indigenous camps in the canyon or mountain bases, before they were stamped out by homesteaders and European settlers.

Even these homesteaders play a role in the history of the area, though, clearly taking only what was necessary for their survival to leave pristine surroundings for us to enjoy.

Move further north and you’ll hit Bannack State Park, the grounds of a former gold mining town that now hosts an even lonelier existence than their nearby byway.

Where to Start?

where to start big sheep
Image: Mats Skölving

More than most byways of the Treasure State, this one is less traveled, both scenic and empty in all the right ways. We recommend starting in tiny Dell, topping off gas, and getting road snacks before hopping on the byway through an open valley approaching the Tendoy Mountains.

From here and for the next 10 miles, you’ll follow Big Sheep Creek into Big Sheep Canyon, a fantastic spot to either point out or fish for trout – or camp.

At mile 17, the signage becomes confusing, but turn right onto the Cabin Creek route to continue along the byway. At this point, you won’t be able to miss the expansive Medicine Lodge Valley ahead and the Beaverhead Mountains to the west.

From here, the good condition gravel road takes a turn for the worse, echoing out onto a two-way dirt road: take a right here to continue along the byway.

While providing excellent views of the Beaverhead Mountain range, the last two dirt road miles are the most treacherous, so drive with extra care here, especially in or after wet conditions. Pay attention to the steep grade hill right before the sign for Old Bannack Road – and keep going.

Then, the byway rushes back onto a wider two-way gravel road – you did it! – swooping past the Tendoy Mountains on the west and a few dotted ranches along the way.

Drive until you get to Highway 324, at which point we recommend checking out the Clark Canyon Reservoir and its accompanying campgrounds.

Main Attractions along the Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway

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Big Sheep Creek Canyon

If you’re already traveling along the byway, take the time to pull off once you get to narrow Big Sheep Creek Canyon, surrounded by the undulating Big Sheep Creek – a natural choice for you and your fishing pole.

Thanks to the Bureau of Land Management, there’s a great open area along the creek for fishing, picnicking, and relaxing before venturing out for the perfect camping spot.

And keep an eye out for bighorn sheep here, as well as deer and other wildlife! The numerous mountains extending even further out make for a fantastic photo op, whether you’re camping overnight or stretching your legs before hitting the trails.

Clark Canyon Reservoir

Although not directly within this backcountry byway, many travelers head east towards Clark Canyon Reservoir after the route, an especially fine idea after a night of camping in the wilderness.

But more interestingly – and perhaps unsurprisingly – this reservoir is the site of Camp Fortunate, where Lewis and Clark’s expedition met the Lemhi Shoshone people, who we already know inhabited this region.

And furthermore, fellow famed traveler Sacajawea was reunited with her people here after being kidnapped during a buffalo hunt in 1800.

Offering 17 miles of shoreline, boat ramps, fishing sites, campgrounds, and a marina, this reservoir is a highlight for history nerds as well as their relaxation committee.

If you’re already here, travel the extra miles to the nearby Bannack State Park!

Recreational Activities along the Drive

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A remote peek into life before the frenzy of industrialization, the Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway offers a resting spot for the wide-eyed explorer to take in Montana’s wild beauty via fishing, camping, and nearby swimming.

Below are some of our top suggestions for a smooth ride.

Hiking & Biking

Little pockets of hiking and biking exist along the byway, branching out like tributary arms from the main road artery.

We’ve seen a few bicyclists come through Big Sheep Creek, but traveling during the dry season is recommended due to uneven and inconsistent roads after even mild precipitation.

Be prepared for screaming downhills and an unsteadying steep uphill as you get closer to 324. It’s doable, but stay hydrated!

However, hiking around Big Sheep Creek and its accompanying canyon is highly recommended, as well as traveling the 20 or so miles down towards Idaho for even more hiking paths.

Swimming & Fishing

Out in these vast expanses that bring “America the Beautiful” to life, you won’t find too many places to fish or swim – with one gorgeous exception: Big Sheep Creek.

This glistening, clear waterway edges through the canyon walls, providing easy bank access to rainbow trout and brown trout.

And as isolated as southwestern Montana can be, it’s a deeply refreshing spot to dip in after a long bike ride. The nearby Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers are great fishing and swimming alternatives!

While we already mentioned Clark Canyon Reservoir above, it’s worth noting that this spot has prolific rainbow trout and plenty of spots for camping. Speaking of…

Camping & Lodging

It’s true: you won’t find intentionally marked camping sites along the Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway, but this is where we invite you to widen your perspective on the landscape.

Not only does this byway offer boundless primitive camping spots, but it also provides the opportunity to reflect on previous inhabitants of the land doing this exact thing.

Whether it’s indigenous tribes, homesteaders, or gold miners searching for the next frontier of excellence, this land remains poetically unchanged by the marks of society – and we like it that way. So, pick a spot and enjoy your ghost stories!

That said, some may prefer a less adventurous night’s sleep not involving sheep, so note that the isolated landscape is home to sporadic dots of ranches and accommodations, all before heading into Dillon, Dell, or Lima.

Once out of the swooping pass, venture to Clark Canyon Reservoir for 96 alternative camping sites, from Horse Prairie to Cameahwait to Beaverhead and beyond.

Or head further north to the state park for even more campground opportunities – one tipi and two campgrounds total.

Also check out Montana’s Medicine Lodge Adventures, which offers stunning mountainous views of the byway and more thorough homes and cabins. While they do provide the option to camp on the grounds, this site is the best of modernity in a grounding environment. (Bonus points: rent a paddleboard or ATV and have it delivered to your cabin door!)

You’re not going to find many spots like it, either, unless you make your way further into Dillon. We do love the Goose Down Ranch in Dillon, where the owners have clearly worked to make their cabins feel like home after a long day of adventuring.

Looking for something even more modern day? Dillon is your best shot, with the fantastic Backcountry Angler and mainstays – Quality Inn, Best Western Paradise Inn, and FairBridge Inn Express.

Trail Routes

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Clark Canyon Reservoir

Just a bit east of the byway, this reservoir has already been noted for its prolific campgrounds, historical significance, and fishing, but we recommend taking this trail route – on two wheels! – through the birthplace of American expeditions.

This trail is also well-loved for fishing, so if you happen to be driving or walking along with your (leashed!) dog, you’ll find plenty of little inlets to get some moments of solitude before heading further into the wilderness.

Birds Eye View Loop

While most people take the typical Bannack Ghost Town Loop, a short walk through the well-preserved buildings of Montana’s past, we recommend finishing it off with this nearly 4-mile loop partially along an old wagon route to Salt Lake City.

If being the star player of your very own Oregon Trail isn’t enough excitement for you, take note of the bright wildflowers, interpretative signs, and great views of the ghost town below.

It should go without saying, but watch out for rattlesnakes along the path! They’re just trying to get over to the ghost town…

Conclusion

Although the Big Sheep Backcountry Byway may be remote, it activates our inner adventurer to new depths and reminds us of our country’s checkered but beautiful past.

With so many fishing, swimming, and camping opportunities, we’re proud to recommend this byway and its surrounding areas to Montana newcomers.

How about you – do you have a favorite spot along the byway? Anywhere you’d like to visit? Let us know!

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