As one of the most breathtaking regions of Montana, the Bitterroot Valley offers postcard-worthy mountain views, a storied past, friendly towns along Highway 93, and close access to greater Missoula.
The best part? This 95-mile drive south connects continuously to the free-flowing Bitterroot River, perfect for fishing, swimming, boating, and picnicking right off the highway.
With the Bitterroot Mountains to the east, the Sapphire Mountains to the west, and a gateway to both the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and Yellowstone – all before continuing south into Idaho – you truly get the best of modernity and the natural world along the Bitterroot Valley. What’s not to love?
Read on for the unique history of this gorgeous area of southwestern Montana, our favorite main attractions, and, of course, the best fishing, swimming, camping, and skiing the area has to offer.
Bitterroot Valley Scenic Drive – A Complete Guide
Locals and travelers alike come to the Bitterroot National Forest via the Bitterroot Valley route for the surrounding areas and activities like hiking, camping, hunting, and horseback riding. As a major highway, expect faster speeds with numerous places to stop for recreation.
Scenic Drive Stats
- Length: Approximately 95 miles in length
- Time: This scenic drive takes around an hour and forty-five minutes to complete, not including small town or nature escapades
- Highlights include: the sparkling Bitterroot River and its many tributary arms, the first non-indigenous settlement in Montana, Lake Como
History Along the Bitterroot Valley
With 95 miles of Montana history and recreation to explore, it’s nearly impossible for a history buff to drive straight along Highway 93 without stopping.
Starting with the name, Bitterroot Valley: although Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were credited with naming the bitterroot plant (Lewisia rediviva), it should come as no surprise that this root has been used by indigenous peoples in the area for centuries.
Indeed, the Shoshone, Ktunaxa, Salish, and Nez Pearce people – to name only a few – all harvested and revered this root that eventually became Montana’s state flower. These days, it’s easy to see traces of the pain-relieving bitterroot: in the Bitterroot Valley, Bitterroot Mountains, and Bitterroot River.
Beyond the root itself, the mountains – Bitterroot and Sapphire – surrounding this scenic drive hold great cultural significance for the many indigenous peoples who have lived on its land.
Heading down towards Stevensville in Ravalli County, this town seamlessly merged frontier life, Salish indigenous culture, and Jesuit faith in the mid-19th century, creating the first non-indigenous settlement in the state.
Starting as an experiment in faith, the prodigious and beloved Father Ravalli set the tone for today’s tight-knit Stevensville community.
The first true inhabitants of the Bitterroot Valley area were the Salish people and their ancestors, but European settlers, homesteaders, fur traders, and explorers were inevitable, creating both bridges in culture and deeply intense clashes.
After numerous governmental confrontations, the Bitterroot Salish moved to the Flathead Reservation, where they currently reside – but their connection to the land here remains fruitful.
These days, you’ll find numerous shadows of their existence in the area, from Stevensville deep into the mountains.
Where to Start?
Starting just below Missoula, this scenic route travels around 95 miles south to Lost Trail Pass before launching you into Idaho.
Follow US-12 W out of Missoula for 10 miles until you hit Highway 93, the direct vein of the Bitterroot Valley – but don’t forget to stop in one or more of the charming towns along the way or camping overnight in the mountains.
Some of our favorites include Stevensville, Hamilton, Lolo, and Darby, with the amazing Lake Como, but any town along the way acts as a catalyst for fantastic outdoor recreation – creeks, hiking trails, lakes, trout, campfires, marshmallows.
Main Attractions along the Bitterroot Valley Scenic Drive
St. Mary’s Mission
Stevensville’s St. Mary’s Mission was a pivotal moment in the history of the Bitterroot Valley, acting as the first non-indigenous settlement in the entire state – with a twist.
Back in 1841, Father Anthony Ravalli was recruited from Italy to help build the mission after persistent requests from select members of the Salish tribe.
This community pact bridged cultures – Jesuit and indigenous – while Renaissance man Ravalli was an effective communicator and advocate for this union of faith.
Today, the mission has a museum – including the living quarters of Father Ravalli, his built furniture, and pharmacy – that hosts cultural events, still tirelessly working to connect cultures in understanding as its founder did so many years ago.
If you can only visit one town along the Bitterroot Valley Scenic Drive, this is our top recommendation!
Just a thirty-minute drive east from Hamilton into the Sapphire Mountains, add some cushion room to visit the impressive Skalkaho Falls along the Skalkaho Pass.
The billowing falls cascade 150 feet and offers a fantastic opportunity to stretch your legs. If you’re visiting the area in or after June, spend a night out at Black Bear Campground before heading back into Hamilton and hopping back onto 93.
Recreational Activities along the Drive
Hiking, Biking, & Skiing
With mountains in nearly every direction, the Bitterroot Valley offers a uniquely stunning hiking experience for all levels. One of our favorite ways to get into the great outdoors is via the Bitterroot Mountains to the east – more specifically to the Bear Creek Overlook.
The hike to this overlook is relatively easy, flowing through an open forest with plenty of switchbacks to keep you occupied.
The view at the top is spectacular, with views of Bear Creek and the surrounding mountains, and if you visit in late summer, you just may score some huckleberries.
Or, check out the 7-mile hike near Darby to Lake Como, offering even more picturesque views and a waterfall. We also love the hike following Kootenai Creek, especially beautiful as Autumn rolls around.
Plenty of biking and skiing is to be found in the Bitterroot Valley, as well – one of our top hits being a 15-mile downhill ride called the Route of the Hiawatha connecting Montana to the surprisingly beautiful Idaho. While it’s extremely family-friendly, we also recommend checking out the TransAmerica Bike Trail that crosses the Bitterroot Valley.
As a bonus, Lolo Hot Springs is along the trail, so don’t mind if we do… Speaking of Lolo, you’ll find plenty of less-trodden spots here and in Darby to engage in some winter fun – snowmobile rentals, skiing, and more.
Swimming & Fishing
The beautiful Bitterroot River travels alongside this scenic route, offering plenty of drop-off points to catch a line or cool off. You’ll find some extraordinary trout fishing along the riverside, and with fourteen fishing access sites, we trust you’ll find your new favorite. Don’t forget to try Lake Como and Painted Rocks Reservoir!
Looking to swim while traveling through the Bitterroot Valley? We’ve already mentioned the hot springs – a local favorite! – but there are so many remote mountain lakes to consider for a dip, come summertime.
Of course, if you’re short on time, take a moment to dip into the Bitterroot River before heading into your next adventure, also a fantastic spot for canoeing, kayaking, or floating down the calming river waters.
If you have a bit more time, make the trek up to Mill Creek Falls near Hamilton. And Lake Como is the local favorite for boating, big or small. So many options!
Camping & Lodging
Camping along the Bitterroot Valley is a treat, offering remote access to primitive sites in mountain ranges to the east and west, but being on the well-traveled highway also provides numerous inns, lodges, and hotels.
We highly recommend the first-come, first-serve Lake Como Campground, especially for those in need of ADA-accessible camping sites. We’ve already suggested the 6 sites at Black Bear Campground along the Skalkaho Pass in the Sapphire Mountains, but it’s worth noting that this canyon vista site is both cozy and tucked away.
Just east of Stevensville, we love the Gold Creek Campground, a smaller accommodation with 4 sites that are popular with horseback riders. We could honestly keep going on campgrounds for a while, just because they’re that plentiful in the valley, but let’s move on to less, um, rustic accommodations.
If you’re planning your trip well in advance, check out the beautiful Bitterroot River Lodge outside of Hamilton, which we love for its stunning views – perfect for a family fishing trip.
Further south down 93 near Sula, you’ll find the fantastic Lost Trail Hot Springs Resort, offering some of our favorite cabins to stay in after a rejuvenating soak in the springs.
Of course, if you’re looking for something close to home, check out Hamilton’s Quality Inn or our top pick, the Bitterroot River Inn also in Hamilton.
Do we have a long list of our favorite hiking trails in the Bitterroot Valley? Absolutely! Do we have time to share every single one with you? Unfortunately not. Fear not, though: these are our favorites. You’re welcome.
Mill Creek Trail
Make time for this trail in your itinerary. It only includes a beautiful waterfall! We love this 4.5-hour hike for its numerous shady spots (we’ll take it!), plentiful huckleberries, and of course, Mill Creek Falls.
Be careful with your littles if you take them here, as the rocks can get slippery near the base. The upper lakes are absolutely stunning, as well, so you’re really getting the biggest bang for your buck along Mill Creek Trail.
Blodgett Canyon Trail to Waterfall
A bit more populated than Mill Creek, the Blodgett Canyon Trail is a bit shorter but just as gorgeous – although if you’re looking to extend it out, the canyon trail frays out a whopping 26 miles!
The trek out to the waterfall has a good mix of shaded and unshaded spots, and we can understand why it’s so populated by horseback riders: it can get pretty rocky at times (Bring good shoes!).
Once you get to the waterfall, make the extra effort to hike to the upper falls – it’s gorgeous.
As you can see, there’s plenty to do along the valley’s truly scenic route, from fishing to hot springs to take in some great Montana history.
Do you have a favorite hike (or five!) in the Bitterroot Valley? Let us know!