On Day 5 of Cycle Greater Yellowstone 2016, cyclists will ride beside one of the most beautiful rivers in all of Montana, tour through the seldom visited, but sublime Pioneer Mountains on the Pioneer Scenic Byway, and discover historic towns with a timeless role in the settling of the west.
From Divide, cyclists will head southwest passing by the Fleecer Mountain Wildlife Management Area and enter a canyon riding parallel to The Big Hole River on Highway 43. This canyon stretch of The Big Hole River passes through a small town called Wise River where cyclists will turn south onto the Pioneer Scenic Byway. Gradually ascending to 7,800 feet, this 49 mile byway takes cyclists into the heart of the Pioneer Mountains. These mountains are replete with truly unique species of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, mountain meadows, willowy river bottoms, lodgepole pine and old growth white bark pine forests, clear lakes and streams, and geologic and historic highlights.
Few places in America can be portrayed as an ecological treasure, but those are the exact words Howie Wilke used in his book The Big Outside to describe the Pioneer Mountains in Montana. Spanning 2,000 square miles, the Pioneer Mountains are located in Southwest Montana and are part of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Because of the remoteness and lack of human development, there are animals and plants living there today that Lewis and Clark documented while on their expedition of the Corps of Discovery 212 years ago.
The Pioneer Mountains are divided into two subranges by the Wise River and the Pioneer Scenic Byway: The East Pioneers and the West Pioneers. Their terrains are very different from each other. Granite peaks rising above 11,000 ft in elevation are to the east, while gentler, forested landscapes characterize the west.
The Eastern Pioneers have rugged, heavily glaciated peaks and possess not only the highest mountains in the entire range, but also the tallest peaks in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Mountain Goats inhabit the high cliffs, while pronghorn dwell in the lower elevation grassland foothills.
There are more than 30 high lakes nestled in the eastern half including Grayling Lake, which contains Arctic Grayling fish. They are listed as a species of concern by the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service. In addition, Arctic Grayling are native to Montana, and they are known to migrate up to 60 miles between habitats in The Big Hole River. Lewis and Clark noted these, "new kind of white or silvery trout" in 1805. Moreover, the lakes and streams are also home to Rainbow Trout, Brooke Trout, and Montana's State Fish the Westslope Cutthroat Trout, so named for the red slashes near the lower jaws.
In stark contrast to the East, the West Pioneer Mountains are much gentler and thickly forested. These mountains rise east of the Big Hole River Valley, and have many lakes hidden among the forested landscape that contain perhaps some of the last pure strain of population of the Arctic Grayling south of Canada. Moose, elk, mule deer, black bear, pine marten, coyotes, northern goshawk, wolverine, and beaver reside here in various micro-niches throughout the ecosystem. The forest is comprised of evergreen conifers such as the endangered white bark pine, douglas fir, and lodgepole pine. Additionally, there is a stand of lodgepole 500 years old and is considered to be the oldest known anywhere.
As abundant and forested as this mountain range is, it didn't escape the attention of miners throughout history. There are many abandoned gold and silver mines scattered throughout the Pioneers including unmarked, open shafts and pits. One area wrought with old mines is Trapper Creek.
As cyclists continue heading south on the Pioneer Scenic Byway, they will see Crystal Park, which attracts rockhounds of all ages in search of crystals and sapphires.
Before leaving the Pioneer Mountains, cyclists will pass by Elkhorn Hot Springs and Maverick Mountain ski area. And lastly, towards the end of the byway, riders will go through Polaris, a town of about 76 people with a rural school house and post office, until it intersects with Highway 278. From 278, cyclists get to experience the old west at Bannack State Park, the site of Montana's first major gold discovery and territorial capital. Bannack is considered a National historic landmark and is well known for its western re-enactments. After a visit through the state's best preserved ghost towns, the route continues east on 278 for about 48 miles and then gets onto Interstate 15, where riders finish their day's journey in Dillon.
On Day 5 of this year's tour, cyclists have the opportunity -- that even many Montanan's don't get -- to travel through and experience this ecological treasure.
"Bannack State Park." Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. Retrieved on April 30, 2016. http://stateparks.mt.gov/bannack/
"Fishing and Hiking in the Pioneer Mountains." Big Sky Fishing. Retrieved on April 29, 2016, from http://www.bigskyfishing.com/Mountain-Fishing/pioneer_mountains.htm
Wolke, Howie (1992). The Big Outside. New York, NY: Harmony Books. pp. 124-125.
Cunningham, Bill (1995). Wild Montana. Helena, MT: Falcon Publishing, Inc. pp 166, 169.
"Pioneer Mountains, MT" Summit Post. Retrieved on April 29, 2016, from Summit post.org
"Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway." USDA Forest Service Beaverhead-Deerlogde National Forest. Retrieved on April 29, 2016, from https://fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5363829.pdf
"Arctic Grayling -- Thymallus arcticus." Montana Field Guide. Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Retrieved on April 29, 2016, from http://fieldguide.mt.gov/speciesDetail.aspx?elcode=AFCHA07010
Google maps. Retreived on May, 3 from https://www.google.com/maps