Codger Tour #3: The Castle Mountains.
It's not just the young and fit—the climbers of frozen waterfalls, the runners of Bridger Ridge—who long to get out and experience what makes Montana special. I’ve been making sure that my 87-year-old-mother, a native Montanan, gets out and about and onto the roads less traveled. Perhaps you know a “codger” who would also like to get out into the real Montana. If so, try this road trip.
Raised on fairy tales as most of us were, there’s something almost magical about the word "castle." And the discovery that there is an entire small range of mountains with that name less than 100 miles from the Gallatin Valley was a revelation to my own codger. “I’ve lived in Bozeman more than 60 years and I never heard of the Castle Mountains,” my mother said.
But there they are, floating just north of the higher, pointier Crazy Mountains. The Castles were named for their granite cliffs and outcroppings, rising like battlements above the prairies. These mountains, which would demand respect if they were in New England or Pennsylvania, are a wonderful, secret jumble of forests, meadows, cliffs, old mines, and small canyons with a terrain so friendly you could run cattle there—which people do.
During the 1880s the Castle Mountains loomed high in Montana’s economy when a mineral boom led to over 1,500 claims for silver, lead, some copper, gold, manganese, and iron. The financial panic of 1893 killed off many of the mines, which were already hard-pressed to make a profit due to exorbitant transportation costs for heavy ores.
To find your way into the Castle Mountains, head north of Livingston on U.S. 89 and turn east about four miles past Ringling onto Montana 294, a pleasant, paved road heading to Martinsdale. You could continue all the way to Martinsdale and visit the Bair Family Museum, a collection of antiques and memorabilia acquired by the family of a wealthy sheep rancher whose daughter is the namesake of the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings. Call 406-572-3314 to be sure they’re open, or visit bairfamilymuseum.org.
If you’re looking for adventure, however, turn north at Lennep (about 16 miles after leaving U.S. 89). Bear left and after a few miles of idyllic rural farmland, you’ll pass through the remnants of Castle town. Continue on this road—it’s rough and steep in a few places, but posed no threat to the underside of my Subaru Legacy (which is two inches lower than an Outback). The road will take you right over the mountains, providing not only adventure but expansive views and a glorious sense of being alone, except for some cows.
We found a shady spot for a picnic right by a burbling brook the Forest Service had kindly labeled “South Bonanza Creek.” A fork near the top of these rocky hill-mountains offered us the choice: Checkerboard or Fourmile. We chose Fourmile and came out of the mountains near two very clean, well-equipped, and absolutely uninhabited Forest Service campgrounds. There are three camping spots available at Richardson and 13 at Grasshopper. If you’re looking for a quiet place to car-camp and contemplate nature without the accompaniment of other people’s music choices, keep these campgrounds in mind. There are apparently lots of good hiking trails that begin in the campgrounds, so while your codger reads or naps, you could explore the Castles on foot.
Beyond the campgrounds, the Fourmile road will spill you out onto U.S. 12 just four miles east of White Sulphur, and you'll have an easy drive back to Bozeman on U.S. 89 and I-90.