A weekend excursion to White Sulphur Springs, Harlowton, and beyond.
Tell most folks in Bozeman that you’re heading northeast of town, and they’ll gawk incredulously: “What mountains are up there?” Usually my response is sarcastic, or a downright lie: “Oh, it’s just prairie.” Which, in reality, means more rolling mountains, lush river-bottoms, and sagebrush draws for me to explore, free of the crowds swarming more south-westerly parts of the state.
To get a teaser for what central Montana is all about (one could spend years exploring the state's central and eastern regions) a good road-trip loop is the following: Townsend to White Sulphur Springs; through the Big Belt Mountains to Harlowton; then south to Big Timber; and finally back to Bozeman on I-90. Here are a couple of highlights and things to do along the way.
Bike Copper City
Copper City is the quintessential shoulder-season biking destination. As you're heading north on Hwy. 287, just past the Dolan horses on your left, there's a quick right-hand turn at the top of the rise. Bump along the dirt until you reach a large parking lot.
The trails at Copper City are superb, and tend to dry out within a day or two after a rainstorm. There is also a variety of loops for riders of every skill level. But fair warning—most of the trails are full of big, angular rocks. Leave your hardtail at home.
Note: This October, crews are re-grading the dirt access road. But fear not, Copper City rides well in November or December in some years. Check with SWMMBA for updates on when it will reopen. And to help keep the road in good condition, don’t drive it immediately following a big downpour or early-season snowstorm.
Fish for Walleye in the Missouri River Reservoirs
Canyon Ferry, Hauser, and Holter reservoirs—the first located just past Townsend, the latter two a detour through Helena—are chiefly known for their walleye fishing. Tactics are similar on all three. If bound to the bank, concentrate your efforts on shallow, rocky areas where walleye move in to feed as the water temperature drops. Chuck Mister Twisters or Rapala X-Raps from a rip-rap shoreline. Retrieve them painfully slow. A few cranks, pause a few seconds, a couple more cranks, pause, repeat. Water temperatures will be in the high 30s to low 50s (depending on the year and seasonal conditions), and the fish will not exert much effort for a meal. If you have a boat, try trolling crankbaits and pitching scented plastic jigs around submerged structure.
Part of the allure of walleye fishing is how predictable they are. Once you find a hot bite, take careful note of the conditions—water temperature especially. Then, in subsequent years, when those same conditions line up, you can almost expect to have a killer day on the water.
Wine, Dine, and Hunt in White Sulphur Springs
The big allure of White Sulphur Springs is, well, the hot springs itself. While not as developed as others in the Bozeman area, it’s all part of the appeal. The water is hot, and has a mineral feel that is sometimes filtered out at other hot springs. After a good soak, the Montana Roadhouse is a good place to enjoy a warm meal. Meat’s on the menu here—after all, we’re in cattle country. Burgers, fries, and beer are the classics. Afterward, you can hit the town for a bar hop, or get to bed early and rest up for a morning of hunting.
Next day, wake up well before dawn and hit the road to the outskirts of town. Pick a direction—there are mountains all around. One option is to purchase an over-the-counter whitetail doe tag (if you're a Montana resident) and try your luck chasing these spooky critters. Alternatively, bring along a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun and pick a field to wander in search of upland birds. A bird-dog will help, but isn’t essential. Check out the Stalk Hunting Guide for more details on the abundant opportunities in the area.
Small-Town Brewery Tour
The shortest path home from White Sulphur Springs is south through Livingston, but to finish out the weekend road-trip, a detour through Harlowton and Big Timber should be in the cards. And, after a morning chasing animals—whether successful or not—you’ll probably be in dire need of a beer. Gally’s Brewing Co. in Harlowton is our go-to. We recommend their wheat beers—after all, the brewery is located in Wheatland County, Montana. The 44 Wheat and Blood Orange Wheat are good light-beer options, considering there are still a few more hours of road-time and another drinking stop on this tour de small towns.
The highway from Harlowton to Big Timber traces the eastern edge of the Crazy Mountains. If conditions are bad (i.e., snowy & windy), it's one of the worst roads in the state. If that’s the case, consider spending a night in Harlow, or turning around entirely. But if you can run the gauntlet successfully, celebrate in Big Timber at Crazy Peak Brewing Co. These folks bottle their brews, too, so grab a sixer to bring home to your friends in Bozeman.
Upon return to the Big City (as you’ll hear folks in more rural areas refer to Bozeman), you too will see the value in being vague when asked, “What’s it like up there?” Maybe mention the breweries and the hot springs, but keep the brown-pow riding, fish stories, and near-misses on pheasants close to the chest. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.