Head west for a Bitterroot multi-sport.
Bozeman has it all, there’s no doubt about it. And when a place has it all, it’s hard to venture out into unfamiliar territory. But there are plenty of treasures west of the Continental Divide, too. Come fall, the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula is one to relish.
Like many rivers in Montana, the Bitterroot flows south to north, between the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the Sapphire Mountains to the east. Within this sweeping valley lie a series of small communities still offering the friendly small-town hospitality growing ever rarer within the confines of sprawling, bustling Boz Angeles.
Rain is falling hard, just as it has for the whole week. While moisture is typically a good thing, the prospect of wet trails and muddy rivers putting a damper on my weekend plans seems more and more likely. I’ve spent the past few afternoons staring out of my cozy office window while clicking back and forth between fishing reports and weather forecasts. The Bitterroot Chamber proved to be an invaluable resource in this case when planning the trip. I was able to research climate trends and knew what to expect when I got there. Alas, it's shaping up to be a soggy weekend, but the forecast out west holds a glimmer of hope, so we decide to act on it. Surely, we can find something worthwhile to do. With that, we load road-trip supplies in a drizzle and set off on a puddle-ridden road with a packed car and wilting expectations.
As soon as we hit I-90, the sun miraculously appears and the last of the rain is wiped from our windshield. A few hours later we reach Missoula, an opportunity to stock up on supplies while the shops are in abundance. The Trail Head sells climbing and fishing gear to get us set up with climbing ropes and fly lines, and they have some gear swap events scheduled that seem worth checking out. After our stop, we turn south with no specific destination in mind other than the river. We wind through Florence and Stevensville, then Hamilton and Victor. Every town tempts us to stop, and we succumb to the allure of Red Barn Bicycles. The fabled yet unassuming barn is filled wall-to-wall with state-of-the-art bikes and equipment—one can drop in for a tune, some new gear, or a full bottom-up bike build. Afterward, with a setting sun, we keep our sights on getting to camp, opting for a site along the East Fork. With plenty of options, including both primitive and developed sites, we have no problem finding a secluded spot along the river. There's nothing like whiskey around the fire and Montana Whiskey tastes better than any other. After a quick bite and some stories around the fire with drink in hand, we’re off to sleep.
In the morning, we awake to the river’s chatter. The early birds—or in this case, trout—are after their worms. The caddis are hatching and the buzz in the air is so strong it can be both heard and felt. We casually sip morning coffee while rigging up. Once in the water, it doesn’t take long to get action, and I’m quickly reminded how exciting fishing big dries is. The strikes are lively and the presentation easy to manage. Putting away the rods isn’t easy, even as the heat of the day arrives, but there is more on the agenda.
We’re eager to sample the valley’s climbing, and after some discussion, we settle on a crag called the Tick Farm up Mill Creek. Some of the climbing in the Bitterroot is undergoing access issues, but Mill Creek offers a public route all the way to the crag. In the spring and summer, this area is congested with wood ticks, but as the weather grows colder after the first frost, they become less active. After ticking off (ha) a couple of routes in the sun, we head south again to Painted Rocks State Park for the night. The park’s rock features are magnificently colored with hues of greens and oranges and yellows. It is easy to see how it got its name. Serendipitously, we chat it up with a local climber who generously shares his local bouldering guide. Climbing small rocks was not on our itinerary, but he does give us some beta for biking the next day, which proves to be quite useful. Needless to say we've worked up an appetite, so we stop by the classic eatery in town, Bitter Root Brewing, for local suds and some grub.
The next morning’s fishing is productive, but admittedly my head is elsewhere. Instead of droppers and doubles on my fly rig, all I can think of is rock drops and double jumps on my mountain bike. So, we pack up camp and head to the Sapphires, which host some of the best biking in the area. While on the way, we notice a quaint breakfast joint called the Red Rooster that looks worth a stop. Turns out we can take a quick lap through the drive-thru to snag some breakfast burritos. Armed with tortilla-wrapped sustenance, we are ready to ride. With not much upkeep, the trails feel slightly more rugged than I’m used to, and a sense of adventure accompanies us on our ride.
After half a day in the saddle, we are properly dirty, sweaty, smelling like fish, and potentially tick-covered. It’s time to head back—back to the valley we call home. Bozeman and Missoula. East and west. The rivalry will surely live on as long as time itself, but at the core of each, running deep through our veins, lies the path of adventure. Within that, we find harmony.