Wise River, Montana

Will Beck
Last Updated: March 4th, 2023

The Wise River originates in the Pioneer Mountains and flows north northwest to join the Big Hole River. The river resembles a mountain creek and is said to be one of the fastest-flowing tributaries in North America.

Over its 30 miles course, the river offers plenty of breathtaking scenery and fly fishing opportunities.

A Guide to The Wise River, Montana

History of the Wise River

history of wise river
Image: TravelingOtter

In the early 1800s, the Wise River region was a “buffer” zone for native American tribes such as the Shoshone, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and Salish.

This would change in the 1810s-1840s when the American Fur Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, and the North West Company exploited the area for animal fur pelts.

In the 1860s, miners flocked the region after discovering gold mines on the Nez Perce Reservation. The miners exploited every valley, creek, and nook in search of the mineral.

In 1873, prospectors discovered silver near Coolidge in the Pioneer Mountains. They opened the Elkhorn Mine and formed the Boston Mining Company.

The Pioneer Mountains Byway was established in 1989 and runs alongside the Wise River, crossing over a valley rich in the history of gold mining.

Geography & Stats

The Wise River rises from the southern section of the Pioneer Mountains and flows approximately 30 miles to its confluence with the Big Hole River. The river runs through beautiful mountain scenery from its source, tumbling over boulders and rocks. It flows from an elevation of 5,607 feet (1,709 m).

It flows north-northwest within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest before joining the Big Hole River, approximately 0.6 miles (0.97 km) north of the small mountain town of Wise River. The Wise River runs along the north half of the federally designated Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.

The paved Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is 49 miles long, following the Wise River to its source. It offers scenic views of the Wise River and the Pioneer Mountains. The road has several turnouts, allowing visitors to explore remote areas such as the Elkhorn Mine and the ghost town of Coolidge.

Visitors who wish to drive towards the source of the Wise River can cross the other side of the mountains and follow Grasshopper Creek. The route bisects the rugged Pioneer Mountains between Highway 278 and Highway 43.

The 40 miles of backcountry offer opportunities for fishing, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, crystal digging, and camping.

The Wise River is an anglers’ hotspot, thanks to its popular fly fishing sections.

The Wise River is a Class II river with plenty of mountain whitefish, fluvial Grayling, and Westslope cutthroat trout. Wildlife within the Wise River region includes the rocky mountain elk, sage crane, northern bog lemming, curlew, and pronghorn.

Attractions & Activities

Wise River’s location offers plenty of breathtaking scenery and opportunities for recreational activities. Here are some of the best attractions and activities available in the Wise River region.


Pioneer Mountains

pioneer mountains
Image: James St. John

Visitors to the Wise River may want to explore the source of the river in the Pioneer Mountains in Beaverhead County. The mountains cover 2,000 sq. mi. (5,200 sq. km.) in the southwestern part of Montana. The paved Wise River Road divides the Pioneer Mountains into the West Pioneers and the East Pioneers.

Mount Fleecer, Tweedy, Torrey, Odell, and Baldy Mountains are the highest peaks. The East Pioneers have the highest peaks and hold over 30 high lakes, including the Grayling, Hidden, and Sawtooth Lakes. Mountain goats and pronghorn inhabit the higher sections of the range and the grassland foothills.

The West Pioneers hold lakes such as Torrey, Cherry, Granite, and Green Lakes. It’s also home to mountain goats, black bears, wolverines, elk, moose, and pronghorns. The western section of the range is heavily forested with old-growth trees such as lodgepole pine and whitebark pine.

Visitors can head to Crystal Park within the Pioneer Mountains to mine quartz crystals. The mountains are great for hiking, camping, and fishing throughout the year.

Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is the largest national forest in Montana, covering 3.35 million acres. The forest lies in Granite, Deer Lodge, Jefferson, Powell, Beaverhead, Silver Bow, Gallatin, and Madison counties in the southwestern part of Montana.

Visitors to this forest can head to the Beaverhead section to explore ranges such as the Pioneer, Sapphire, Gravelly, Centennial, and Bitterroot mountain ranges.

The Deerlodge section is home to Flint Creek Range, the Tobacco Root Mountains, and parts of the Elkhorn Mountains. History buffs can explore ghost towns, such as Coolidge, that serve as reminders of the history of mining in this region.

Beaverhead-Deerlodge is home to grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, black bears, Canadian lynx, cougar, elk, mule deer, coyote, moose, and bald eagles.

Visitors looking for recreational pursuits can enjoy wilderness trekking, sightseeing, camping, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, and fishing.

Wise River Ranger District

The Wise River Ranger District is a popular tourist attraction in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Visitors exploring the forest and the river can find several campgrounds and picnic areas within the station. Some of the best campgrounds in Wise River Ranger District include:

The site allows plenty of recreation, such as fishing, hiking, hunting, nature viewing, picnicking, horseback riding, and winter sports.

Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns

canyon creek charcoal kilns
Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns is an interesting site for visitors exploring the abandoned structures of the mining and smelting activities in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The site features 23 brick-domes charcoal kilns built in the 1880s to turn trees into charcoal.

The kilns provided charcoal for the extraction of silver in the mining town of Glendale from 1884-1900. Visitors can find numerous interpretive signs on the walking paths as they explore the kilns. A tour of Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns allows one to learn how the kilns worked during the 1880s and explore them in and out.

Photographers can capture souvenir pictures of the restored whitewashed kilns and several abandoned ones.



The Wise River varies from small to large streams with willow-lined banks and boulder-strewn beds perfect for fishing.

Anglers driving along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway can find ideal spots to catch rainbows, cutthroats, and brook trout. Some sites are also perfect for catching the Rocky Mountain Whitefish and the Arctic grayling.

Fly fishing and dry fishing are more common in this river. On average, anglers can catch fish of about 11 to 12 inches in length.

When fishing, anglers should concentrate on sections with fallen timber, large boulders, and undercuts as they tend to harbor a lot of fish.



Visitors to the Wise River can find several campgrounds to spend a few days exploring the river and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Most campgrounds are within the Wise River Ranger District. Campgrounds in this region charge reasonable camping fees.

Campgrounds near Wise River feature several campsites, vault toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, clean water, and RV campsites. Visitors can enjoy recreation such as fly fishing, hiking, stream fishing, and swimming near the campgrounds.

Nature Viewing

nature viewing at wise river

Driving on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway offers breathtaking views of the Pioneer Mountains. Granite peaks of over 10,000 feet are visible on the eastern section, while the western side stretches with forested terrain.

The route has interpretive sites that tell the history of the Pioneer Mountains and the various natural scenes.

The area has accessible hiking trails for nature lovers who wish to explore the Wise River valley, Wise River, and Grasshopper Creek.

Visitors can hike on Torrey Lake Trail, Lacy Creek Trail, Upper Seymour Lake, and Odell Lake. Hiking in this region allows visitors to see wildlife, lakes, ghost towns, and abandoned mining areas.

Wise River Facts

  • Wise River is considered one of North America’s fastest-flowing tributaries.
  • The river rises on the southern side of the Pioneer Mountains.
  • The Wise River flows north-northwest for approximately 30 miles from its source.
  • The Wise River flows at 5,607 feet (1,709 m) in elevation.
  • The Wise River region has a rich mining history, with several ghost towns and mining camps dotting the area.
  • The river is a perfect habitat for mountain whitefish, fluvial Grayling, Westslope cutthroat, rainbow, and brook trout.
  • The Wise River is a Class II river.
  • The river is accessible via the 40 miles of Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.


How deep is Wise River? The depth of the Wise River varies from point to point. The river’s lower section flows through a rocky canyon with deep pools and fast-flowing water.

How long is Wise River?The Wise River is approximately 30 miles (48 km) from the source to its confluence with the Big Hole River.

How wide is the Wise River? The upper section of the Wise river is wide compared to the lower section, where the river passes through a rocky canyon.

Where does Wise River start? The Wise River starts at the southern section of the Pioneer Mountains in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Where does Wise River end? The Wise River ends at its confluence with the Big Hole River near the town of Wise River.

Which way does Wise River flow? From its source, the Wise River flows north-northwest through a mountainous and forested area towards the Big Hole River.

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About The Author

Will Beck

Will is a true digital nomad, taking his work on the road at every opportunity. His first love is coffee, with travel a close 2nd. He loves nothing more than hitting the road in his self-build campervan and visiting off-the-beaten-path places, away from popular tourist destinations.

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