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Skalkaho Highway Drive, Ravalli County

The Skalkaho Highway Drive, often known simply as Skalkaho Pass is a forty-five-mile drive situated between the Bitterroot and Phillipsburg Valleys. The road is a mix of paved roads climbs through the Sapphire Mountains and explores some of the most remote parts of Montana.

We will take a closer look at Skalkaho Highway scenic drive, and all the sights and activities you can expect along the way.

Skalkaho Highway Drive, Ravalli County – A Complete Guide

Primitive and isolated, this pass was once used as a trail by tribes indigenous to the area, the Skalkaho Highway now follows Montana’s Highway 38 for its entire length, the drive is a lengthy car drive (make sure to top off on gas before entering).  This route is highly ADA-accessible and friendly for wheelchair users. Understandably, the route is closed during the winter, it typically opens around May.

scenic drive stats
Image: TxBuell9SX

Scenic Drive Stats

  • Length: Approximately 45 miles from one end to the other
  • Time: Around 45 minutes to 1.5 hours to complete, depending on stops and attractions
  • Highlights: include the Skalkaho Falls, Sapphire Mountains, fantastic fishing along West Fork Rock Creek, lush forests, a running stream, and scenic mountain views

History Along the Skalkaho Highway Drive

history

For centuries, this southwestern area of Montana was thriving with indigenous cultures, some closely linked and others deep enemies. Fishing, camping, and living close to the land all attracted people to this greater area of Montana.

But more importantly than societal relationships, the Skalkaho Pass was often used by numerous indigenous peoples as a trail, connecting them from one mountainous valley to another – for food, connection, and trade.

Indeed, the word “skalkaho” in Salish translates directly to “many trails.” At different points in time, you could find Salish and Ktunaxa families around the Bitterroot Valley, although the current day Sapphire Mountain range is mostly remote, offering no gas-filling stations along the pass.

Fast forward to the early 20th century: the pass itself was opened in 1924 to connect neighboring but disparate communities with the mountain ranges for mining and exploration. And at over 7,000 feet above sea level, we’re grateful for the steadying paved roads that mix in with the rockier terrain along this drive.

And while the Sapphire Mountain range that follows the Skalkaho Drive is named for the scintillating blue stone found in these mountains, we’re more interested in the natural undiscovered gems of Skalkaho Pass.

Although not as expansive a drive as, say, the Going-to-the-Sun drive in Glacier National Park, the unique features of this pass connecting two distinct mountain ranges have attracted tribes, pioneers, locals, and travelers along the way.

Where to Start?

where to start

So, where does the Skalkaho Drive in Ravalli County start? You actually have two different options, given your speed, time, and current base – east or west.

The west-to-east portion of this drive begins just three miles south of Hamilton, one of our favorite spots to stop and get a Huckleberry Honey Ale at Bitter Root Brewing from April to August (There’s a local tip for you!). We highly recommend topping off your gas in Hamilton, as you’re now well aware that you’ll be driving straight into a gas desert.

Driving east, you’ll steadily gain elevation until you reach the edge of the Sapphire Mountains and the border of the Bitterroot National Forest. This is where the going gets good, ascending a curvy road to the Skalkaho Pass and eventually the picture-worthy Skalkaho Falls – rushing through dense forests before shooting you out into wider expanses.

Once at the top of the pass, the winding trek sees you losing elevation, but not before hitting West Fork Rock Creek, a fantastic spot for fishing and camping (More on that later!).

As the drive exits the national forest, the views open up even further, taking you east towards the Philipsburg Valley, where the route technically ends. But this section of the drive has plenty to appreciate, surrounded by towering mountains between Rock Creek Road and Highway 1. Keep going!

Driving the Skalkaho Highway Drive from the opposite direction? The east-to-west drive is just as beautiful, starting in Philipsburg and transforming into the Sapphire Mountain range with a sweet creek running along your left side. Be aware that the road does narrow as you continue onwards through the pass towards Skalkaho Falls.

Do we have a favorite direction to enter this scenic drive from? It depends on our MO, but we do always love the wide opening on the eastern side of the pass. You can’t go wrong with either – that’s the honest truth.

Main Attractions along the Skalkaho Drive

main attractions

Skalkaho Falls

This inspiring Skalkaho Falls comes after a long drive from the east and a significant drive through the forest from the west, making it the perfect stopping point to stretch your legs and take in the beauty.

Cascading 150 feet down a craggy mountainside, these falls culminating from Skalkaho Creek are typically most accessible from early spring to late autumn, as with most of the pass.

Keep an eye out for mule deer, moose, and bears near the falls, and always be bear-aware – especially if you’ve taken out food for a picnic.

More than anything, these waterfalls are a convenient few steps away from the main road, so it only makes sense to stop and enjoy them.

West Fork Rock Creek

Traveling along the western portion of Skalkaho Pass? We highly recommend stopping at West Fork Rock Creek for a night of primitive camping, a few hours of fishing, or exploring its spider-fingered trails.

While we’ll include more in our lower Recreational Activities section, West Fork Rock Creek stands as the main attraction due to its high accessibility, cabin rental, and most importantly, just a short 20-minute drive from the falls.

After Rock Creek, head about 15 minutes east towards Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, one of the world’s largest sapphire mines, to try your hand at mining these exquisite gems.

Recreational Activities along the Drive

activity

Passing through Ravalli County, the sweeping curves of the Skalkaho Highway Drive aren’t the easiest to traverse, and while we don’t recommend its narrow pathways for trailers, these grounds offer potent opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, camping – even a cabin rental.

Hiking, Biking, & Skiing

You’ll find numerous hiking and biking trails along this stretch of the forest, from 26 miles of groomed trails to even more backcountry routes for the more adventurous explorers and primitive campers. Check out the gorgeous Fuse Lake, Stony Lake, and challenging Dome Shaped Mountain.

Be on the lookout for mountain goats along your treks, especially at Dome Shaped Mountain! Also highly recommended? Try hiking the edge of the Skalkaho Basin, but we definitely recommend preparing snacks and plenty of water for this one.

Just outside of the pass, you’ll find the gorgeous Mud Lake trail, which we promise is more alluring than it sounds!

Much like traveling on foot, those with two wheels can juice all kinds of thrills out of the area surrounding Skalkaho Drive, one of our favorites being the Skalkaho-Gird Trail #86. But we’ll warn you that this trail isn’t for the faint of heart, so with that, experienced biker friends, happy trails!

During the wintertime, most of the pass is closed due to treacherous road conditions, but the first ten miles heading east are plowed for automobiles. After that, pull out your snowmobile or skis, because they’re definitely the best mode of travel. Go for it!

Swimming & Fishing

Our favorite spot to fish along Skalkaho Pass is definitively the West Fork Rock Creek which hugs the western edge of the pass.

If you’re feeling adventurous, grab some buddies, fishing poles, and a raft to traverse along the pass, making stops to fish as needed. Try to catch some grayling at Fuse Lake, one of the lakes we mentioned earlier – or, closer to Philipsburg, we always recommend the beautiful Willow Creek to try your luck at trout.

Feel like dipping in the water beyond a fishing raft? There are numerous spots along the creek paths to hop in, but due to the sheer drops along some of the pass, we’d only suggest swimming in flat, wide regions.

Play it safe, and you’ll be rewarded with stunningly refreshing water and some good ol’ evaporative cooling.

Camping & Lodging

While there are plenty of backcountry camping sites along the Skalkaho Drive due to its presence within the national forest, some of our favorite spots can be found near West Fork Rock Creek. If you’re into exploring more isolated terrain, by all means, head further west – there’s an adventure waiting for you.

You’ll probably get a clear night under the Milky Way wherever you pitch your tent. More specifically, we love the six first-come, first-serve sites at Black Bear Campground right off of Skalkaho Creek, but you may also love the Crystal Creek Campground which has numerous hiking trails splitting off into the Sapphire Mountains. Best part? Both are free, but so are your backcountry options – your call.

Need something a bit more cozy? Reserve a spot at the West Fork Rock Creek Cabin along the creek of the same name.

Sure, it’s rustic, but it’s a step up from backpacking and tents for those who don’t want to be continuously immersed in nature. This historic structure asks that you treat it with respect for the next generation of cabin campers along the Skalkaho Pass.

As for hotels, you certainly won’t find any along this corner of Ravalli County, but head west into Hamilton for our favorite Time After Time Bed & Breakfast or east into Philipsburg for the Broadway Hotel. And even though we’d rather keep it to ourselves, we have to share the excellent Ranch at Rock Creek – it’s epic.

Trail Routes

rout

With countless trails at your disposal along Skalkaho Pass, there are numerous routes to explore, complete with creeks, wildlife viewing, soaring mountains, and a huckleberry or two. Here are two of our favorites out of many:

Fuse Lake

5.2 miles – A relatively short hike, the out-and-back trek to Fuse Lake involves quite a bit of rocky terrain and steady footing.

We’re suckers for lake hikes, and this one is mostly shaded with minimal water crossings, abundant with wildflowers, bear grass, and wildlife sightings. An absolute treat!

Stony Lake

7.4 miles – At just about four hours long, Stony Lake makes a great day hike, especially if you’re staying at the nearby Crystal Creek Campground we mentioned earlier.

There is a gradual descent down to Stony Lake that treats you to lake views and gorgeous mountain sightings, but our favorite part is the abundance of huckleberries. Bring your fishing pole for this one – Stony Lake has quite a few trout!

Conclusion

While not one of the most popular scenic drives in Montana, you’ll find plenty to do along the Skalkaho Drive in Ravalli County.

Whether you’re fishing along Rock Creek, adventuring into the backcountry for primitive camping, or just visiting the falls before heading into a neighboring town, this drive is one we’ll keep coming back to.

Have you ever been, or do you plan to visit this storied area of the Montana wilderness? Let us know!

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