Inside the Bitterroot Valley

Exploring Montana's iconic Bitterroot Valley

By Amity K. Moore — The Bitterroot Valley is in a state of transition. It used to be vast, open country of agricultural land, bordered by forested hills and steep snow-topped peaks.

And it still is, only there's less room for agriculture amid the residential subdivisions. The economy still depends in part on the farming and timber industries, but of late tourism and construction are contributing significant shares as well. And next door to long-time Bitterrooters, a crop of newcomers is moving in, bringing some of their tastes with them.

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As a result, the towns that make up the Bitterroot offer a range of services to please the locals and newcomers alike. Here's a sampling. Where to eat: Across the economic board, good food is important. There are several notable restaurants that do their best to offer healthy, organic alternatives, the ingredients for which are grown right in the Bitterroot.

For breakfast or lunch, visit Maggie's (363-5480) in Hamilton, where you can get espresso and a hearty omelette, or a daily special like the deliciously spiced chicken curry over basmati rice. Spice of Life, also in Hamilton, dishes up locally produced foods with ethnic flair.

New to Darby is the Bear's Lair (821-2218), where homemade lasagna and unique pizzas (The River Runner with grilled salmon, red onion and spinach with a garlic parmesan sauce) satisfy the heartiest of appetites.

In Stevensville, you can't beat the 50 cent ice cream at Mary's (777-5097) or the freshly baked goodies at the Olde Coffee Mill (777-2939). You'll find fresh seafood and steaks at Food Fetish (777-2133).

For a more remote dinner, head to The Broad Ax (821-3878), located seven miles from Sula. Diners are treated to binoculars to watch bighorn sheep and other wildlife from the restaurant's many windows. Where to sleep: Because the Bitterroot is drawing more visitors, more bed and breakfasts, lodges and hotels are cropping up each year.

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A young customer at Old West Antiques in Darby, Montana. (Photo for Montana Living by Amity K. Moore.)

There are many to choose from that offer great views, breakfasts, outfitting and comfortable rooms. But the best-of-the-best is Triple Creek Ranch. It's as luxurious as your own private cabin - complete with hot tub - can be. A bit spendy perhaps, or not, once you consider that all your meals, most activities and drinks are included. Dinner is open to the public by making a reservation at 821-4408.

Where to shop: Locals will point you to Missoula when asked where they shop. But the Bitterroot, particularly in Stevensville and Hamilton, has its share of home décor, gift and clothing stores.

Besides, there are several unique reasons why one might want to travel from Missoula to the Bitterroot. For one, there's George Gulli's Totem Poles (Phone 961-4160). The outside of his roadside shop located north of Hamilton doesn't look like much, but Gulli carves with perfection. Another artisan, Ken Rumbaugh, handcrafts guitars from local ponderosa pine and other woods (363-0357).

And it could be that the Bitterroot is the Treasure State mecca of antiquing. It seems there are antiques stores that pop up with each turn of your head. The most notable may be Old West Antiques (821-4076) in Darby, where all kinds of western artifacts are housed. And if the owner doesn't have it on display, he probably has it in storage.

Darby also boasts H&H Hat Co. (821-3300), where custom cowboy hats are made. In Stevensville, don't deny yourself the sweet confections from Charbonneau's Chocolate (777-0808). Don't worry; there are plenty of places to hike it off.

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Photo for Montana Living by Nelson Kenter

What to do: Hike Trapper Peak. It's a steep, difficult hike up 4.2 miles that will offer rewarding views of the surrounding area. If that kind of exercise is not your thing, there's rock climbing at Blodgett Canyon, or fly fishing the Bitterroot River. If you're more of a soft adventurer, then follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and pause at Travelers Rest State Park (273-4253) in Lolo. The Corps did, and in spite of the contemporary crop of trailers and ranchettes, it's easy to see why.

Get more historical perspective at St.Mary's Mission (777-5734) in Stevensville or at the Daly Mansion (363-6004) outside of Hamilton. The grounds at both places are available for free inspection, or take a guided tour of either for a nominal fee.

St. Mary's Mission is essentially the foundation of white settlement in Montana, for it was to this place that the Jesuits arrived bringing with them the knowledge of religion, farming, reading and writing. Copper baron Marcus Daly's summer home, the Daly Mansion, is a treasure of Victorian opulence. The home was built some 40 years after the Jesuits' arrival. Got kids? Saddle up at Wildlife Adventures in Victor (642-3232).

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Apples were once a Bitterroot Valley export.

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John Fecteau photo/Montana Living

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John Fecteau photo/Montana Living

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John Fecteau photo/Montana Living

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John Fecteau photo/Montana Living