Gravelly Range wildlife tour.
Outside Bozeman’s readers are not limited to the young and fit, the climbers of frozen waterfalls, the runners of Bridger Ridge. My 88-year-old mother, for instance, also loves to get out and experience Montana—but her expeditions must be made in a vehicle. Hence, the Codger Tour—a series of road trips fit for the family's kings and queens as well as its court jesters.
Some of the most soul-satisfying scenes in southwestern Montana can be found on the Gravelly Range wildflower tour—a summer tradition shared by codgers and the young and energetic. Each year the Ennis division of the Beaverhead National Forest guides folks through this vast natural botanical garden. At O/B’s press time, this year’s tour was planned for July 2—call the ranger station (406-682-4253) to confirm.
“It’s our twelfth annual tour,” says Mark Petroni, head ranger in Ennis. “We go from 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet and see different species in bloom at each elevation. We never know what we’ll find—it changes every year, depending on how much moisture there’s been.”
The guided tour convenes at the Ennis Ranger Station at 10 am. “Bring a sack lunch, water, clothing for cold weather, and a vehicle with good clearance,” Petroni advises, adding there is very little walking involved, so the tour is ideal for codgers. “We’ve had as many as 100 cars on the tour,” Petroni says. “That gets a little unwieldy. It’s usually 35 or 40.”
What makes the wildflowers so spectacular in the Gravelly Range? “It’s a combination of elevation, volcanic soil, and natural communities of plants,” explains Petroni. He says the area is in great ecological shape even though it was very heavily grazed by hundreds of thousands of sheep in the past and is still grazed by cattle, sheep, and wildlife. With a limestone and volcanic foundation, the Gravellies are geologically interesting and seismically active. “It’s a growing mountain range, rising much faster than most ranges,” Petroni says.
The tour reaches the 9,000-foot elevation at about 3pm, and the caravan members are turned loose to find their way back down to the river and to Ennis.
If you can’t make the midweek date for the Forest Service tour (or if you shudder imagining the dust even 35 cars will raise on semi-maintained roads) try the do-it-yourself version. The official tour takes Varney Road past the fish hatchery and then heads up into the mountains. When my codger and I explored the area last year, we crossed the river 20 miles south of Ennis at the McAtee Bridge. Instead of taking the wide road into the talc mines of Johnny Gulch, we bore to the left until we found signs leading to Johnny Ridge. We found wildflowers galore, wonderful trees evocative of fairy tales (at higher elevations, fir, spruce, and lodge pole pine are replaced by white bark pine, the character actors of the conifer world) and a tempting road that leads down the other side of the range to the Ruby Valley (if only we’d filled up the gas tank in Ennis!).
Speaking of which, Ennis—the little Madison County town that likes to brag that it has less than 1,000 people and 11 million trout—is much more than just a place to gas up. A few decades ago the town got duded up like a western movie set, but Main Street has outgrown the fakey look and seems quite sincere these days. Clearly this is not one of Montana’s dying small towns: The Madison Valley Hospital and the public library are expanding and the First Madison Valley Bank looks remarkably prosperous.
Ennis has the highest per capita ratio of outdoor sculpture of any town I know of—you could keep a carload of kids occupied for an hour making a list of all the critters along Main Street. During the summer months, the galleries host art walks, but as with wildflowers, you can easily do your own. The pièce de résistance is in Wild Rose Park on Main Street: Jim Dolan’s “A Wreck Waiting to Happen,” a Rocky Mountain melodrama immortalized in steel.
There’s a wide range of eateries—on our most recent visit we checked out Yesterday’s Restaurant and Soda Fountain in the Ennis Pharmacy. The food was great, the prices reasonable, and the menu combined the best of today’s and yesterday’s cuisine (meaning you can order an entree salad, which was unknown in towns like Ennis in the Norman Rockwellian days of yore).
Check ennischamber.com or ennismontana.org for overnight accommodations. If I had my druthers, I’d book into the Jeffers Inn B&B (406-682-7000) just outside of Ennis on July 1 so I could show up at the ranger station the next morning and get a good place in that wildflower caravan.