Springs under the Sun

A small town with a big reputation.

White Sulphur Springs isn’t your average, sleepy, 1,000-strong Montana town. Located about an hour and a half north of Bozeman via Bridger Canyon and U.S. Hwy. 89, this proud, side-country village is billed as a “a small drinking town with a big elk-hunting problem.”

Beginning in April, river lovers filter through this rural, middle-Montana burg to launch on the magical permit-required five-day float trip on the Smith River, which runs through a limited-access 60-mile canyon. If a permit for the Smith wasn’t drawn, party-goers come for Red Ants Pants Music Festival, an outdoor jamboree that draws nearly 20,000 square-dancing, beer-drinking Americana aficionados. If they didn’t spring for festival tickets, they come in the fall to hunt elk, or in the winter to ski, or any old time to soak in the namesake hot springs.

If the river gods smile upon you with a river permit, you’re in for days of tall limestone cliffs, fantastic fishing, and one of Montana’s best breaks from normal life. This family-friendly adventure has only a couple of minor rapids and is guaranteed to create lifelong memories.

Fishing options abound, beyond the headline fishery. Nearby Newlan Creek Reservoir offers several varieties of trout, plus kokanee salmon. The headwater forks of the Smith and Musselshell rivers offer better-than-expected small-stream trouting, and Martinsdale Reservoir, Sutherlin Lake, and numerous ranch ponds provide excellent angling.

Every July, Montana’s favorite three-day-long party comes to town: the Red Ants Pants Music Festival. While headliners like Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band stoke the crowd, side stages, food trucks, and events like the crosscut competition, trailer backing, and the beard and mustache competition epitomize Montana-style fun. Come prepared for thunderstorms, as the topography often ushers intense squalls through this valley.

In fact, we're giving away two tickets plus camping passes to this summer's Red Ants Pants festival. Sign up here and they could be all yours.

Nearby mountain ranges like the Little Belts and Castle Mountains (so named for a series of granite columns and the Musselshell-forks moat) provide trails with relatively few users. One of the area’s best hikes is out of the Grasshopper Campground in the north end of the Castle Range, which is about 10 miles out and back along rambling creeks between modest peaks. Trails less-traveled in the Little Belts include those along the uppermost forks of the Judith River.

Speaking of the Castle Mountains, a relatively intact “ghost town” named Castle Town rests in peace on the southeast side of the range, about an hour’s drive from White Sulphur. Wild West legends like Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary Burke took to Castle Town in search of an honest life after years of debauchery around Deadwood, South Dakota. Built on the silver rush of the 1880s, Castle Town had a population twice that of modern-day White Sulphur Springs, a school, jail, furniture store, and a plethora of saloons and brothels. It was quickly vacated in the 1890s after the price of silver plummeted, however. Permission is required to tour it, but much of it is visible from National Forest Development Road 581.

Numerous in-town and out-of-town campgrounds (both public and private) afford rustic overnights under the quiet purview of the Milky Way. We recommend a stay at Conestoga Campground, on the quiet outskirts just a half-mile from Main Street, with a large grassy field for lawn games and a quaint pond that attracts all kinds of wildlife.

Come fall, the area’s public land offers decent success rates for elk, antelope, deer, and black-bear hunting. If you can get on private land, even better (you’d best believe the animals know the difference).

Snow-season skiing gives way to summertime mountain biking at Showdown Ski Area, northeast of town on the Kings Hill Scenic Byway. Just beyond Showdown is Sluice Boxes State Park on crystal-clear Belt Creek, which offers an eight-mile whitewater float through a vertically walled canyon. The creek has good summertime fishing for small cutthroat up high, and brown trout downstream of the canyon.

Wrap up your vacation with a hoppy ale at Two Basset Brewing, or a soak in the outdoor pools at Spa Hot Springs Motel before a burger at Bar 47. Or indulge in some downtown shopping, which includes apparel for Montana’s hard-working women at the Red Ants Pants outlet, the eclectic Twin Sister’s Trading Company, and a stop at the Castle Museum. For more in-town recommendations, drop a line to the Meagher County Chamber.

There’ll be some whiskey waiting.

If you want to delve into the history, culture, and landscape around White Sulphur Springs, Ivan Doig's This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind is a must-read. Also, check out our story of misadventure in the Castle Mountains, inspired by Doig's book.