Show Pony

The story of a one-horse town.

They say he stood five-foot-two, based on Civil War military records, but his character and perseverance must have made up for what he lacked in height because the man called Tecumseh Smith (aka, Smith McComsey and knick-named “Pony” for his small stature) ended up with a town in Montana named after him when he discovered gold there in the late 1860s. 

Pony. Pony, Montana. I’ve also seen it called Pony, USA—just because they can, and there really is no other place like it. It sits assuredly at the base of the Tobacco Root Mountains in southwest Montana, an hour from both Bozeman and Butte. While less than 100 families live there today, back in the gold rush days of 1860-1870, the town exploded to 5,000 people along with “numerous businesses including a creamery, two Chinese laundries, a Chinese restaurant, real-estate offices, hat and tailor shops, a blacksmith shop, rooming houses, a movie house and an electric power plant.” At its height, there were twelve saloons, a slaughter house, a music band, and a baseball team. Probably due to its slam-bang success, Pony even had electricity before New York City. Driving through the stop sign–free town today is like driving back in history. Many of the old buildings still remain, including the historic assay office, Isdell Mercantile Company building, the Pony Hotel, and the old Morris Bank. The Pony School, built in 1902, houses an old wood-floor gymnasium that we were lucky enough to dance on during our wedding reception along with 100 of our closest family and friends.

While Pony and its mountains are home to plenty of moose, bear, mountain lion, deer, and elk, legend has it the town is full of ghosts, too. I have friends in town who have verified various sightings, friends who I can count on to not be making things up. My friend Jim has told me about a family he knows who were actually confronted by a ghost in one of the oldest houses in town and told to “leave now.” It only took a second with a spectral confrontation to make that particular Pony resident boot-scoot-boogie for the closest door. Another incident involved a friend being in an upstairs room in an old Pony house, hearing noises from downstairs. When my friend went downstairs to investigate, all he saw were smoke rings floating near the old chair in the parlor.

If you’re not afraid of ghosts, and you want to get out into the real Montana where cowboys on horseback actually still run their cattle up and down the highway to their generations-old family ranches (lucky you if you hit the day just right and have the privilege of getting “stuck” in a cattle drive on the Pony Road) and the Pony Bar treats you like one of their own (providing you behave like one of their own and don’t come walking in with shiny new boots that haven’t seen a day in muddy pastures), then this town is for you. The trout fishing is world-class. Norris Hot Springs is a 15-minute drive away. The Tobacco Root Mountains are filled with trails and lakes, old broken-down miner cabins, and memories yet to be made.

For all these reasons, when I first drove into Pony 12 years ago and found a remarkable piece of land for sale just outside of town, I knew I had found something precious. The area is full of natural hot springs and this particular property had water bubbling right out of the ground along with Charcoal Creek running through it. The views in every direction were jaw-dropping. My heart swelled. This, I believed, was the place to establish a legacy for my family using funds from my dad’s estate. He dearly loved Montana, and when he died in 2006, I began looking for ways to memorialize him. I knew in my bones that he would have loved this place. I could feel him there and hear the excitement in his voice telling me how important it is to have water like that on your property, or have views that stretched the horizons of God’s land.

I sat on those 115 acres for a few years, pulling our camper out there and staying as often as I could. When the time felt right, I drew up plans for a small cabin. It was carefully marked out and placed on a quiet hillside, overlooking both the lower Madison and Gallatin valleys, with the Bridger Mountains framing the eastern vista and the Gallatin Range on the south side. We worked many years on it. We lost blood, sweat, tears, and plenty of dollars. But when I sit in the porch swing on our wrap-around deck, blanket across my shoulders and drink of choice in my hand, not a speck of sound to be heard except for the bluebirds, the warm sun on my face, I truly feel like there is nowhere else on Earth I would rather be (and that is saying something, let me tell you). The sunrises off the deck are other-worldly, and the simple lack of commotion is soul-satisfying. My safe place. My quiet place. My sanctuary.

Pony is magnificent for so many reasons. I love that it hasn't changed (much), that it is fiercely proud to still be “Montana.” I'm pretty sure “Pony” the man would be delighted that he would still recognize his old hometown and get along with the people who live there. There is richness in being able to call yourself a Pony, America resident—and it has nothing to do with the gold in them thar hills. 

Outside Pony
The area around Pony overflows with outdoor opportunity—whether you’re a hiker, biker, climber, skier, or angler, there’s tons to keep you busy for a day, for a weekend, or all summer long.  

The Tobacco Roots are full of trails, and the best biking can be found on the Curly Lake Highline Trail, a 24-mile beast starting near Mammoth. For a shorter ride, check out the “Pony Loop,” which combines fun, technical trail with long, winding downhill, and offers a 10-mile tour with around 2,300 feet of elevation gain. Start at the North Willow Creek trailhead and climb about three miles up to the junction—to the right is a daunting and fun rock garden leading up to Hollowtop Lake; to the left is a more relaxed loop through marshy meadows. 

If two wheels aren’t your jam, your feet can get you plenty of places near Pony. Head up into the ‘Roots for strenuous uphill and beautiful views. Nearby lake options include Albro, Hollowtop, and the twin Sureshot lakes. Peak-baggers can head up Bradley, Hollowtop, or any other mountain that beckons—there are plenty. Keep in mind that many trails are multi-use; expect to share certain sections with dirtbikes and ATVs.

T-Root rock is some of the coolest around, but there’s not much beta or bolting, let alone a slew of established routes with anchors. No matter—the convenience-minded can head down the highway to Revenue Flats, for drive-up sport routes and abundant bouldering, while the ambitious can lace up approach shoes and head in virtually any direction for sheer walls, stunning views, and, most likely, first ascents. 

Anglers rejoice—the waters near Pony are typically uncrowded, relative to Bozeman. Both Willow Creek drainages—North and South—hold small rainbows and browns in abundance, and the mountain scenery is spectacular. Alpine lakes abound in the Tobacco Roots and many can be accessed by 4WD. For bigger quarry—and less solitude—head down the highway to Harrison Lake or the Jefferson River.

A dozen 10,000-foot-plus peaks rise high above Pony, and most years, thin white lines wind down their visages well into August. Drive as far as you can, then bike as far as you can, then hoof it up Hollowtop Mountain, Mount Jefferson, or Potosi Peak, and find a skiable chute—or, more likely, series of chutes—to take back down. The only thing better than skiing in shorts is drinking a cold beer in those same shorts, hours later, while bellied up at the Pony Bar.

—Cordelia Pryor