By G.I. Wilson
For the Keizertimes
Montana’s Pintler Loop Drive is one of the Big Sky Country’s gems, and gems have special meaning to the Pintler.
A long day’s drive from Keizer can get you to Drummond, where Montana Hwy 1/Pintler Loop Drive leaves I-90, some 50 miles east of Missoula. We would not recommend you make this drive in one day. There are far too many scenic options along the way.
Jo and I fuel up at Drummond. It is mid-afternoon as we head up Hwy 1 for today’s destination, Philipsburg, 26 miles away.
We are in cattle country. Grasslands are dotted with herds of black Angus. Hundreds and hundreds of black dots scattered across the green spring landscape.
We gain elevation as we wind our way up Flint Creek drainage. Flint Creek is known for hefty brown trout. Our literature from Montana Tourism says to watch for moose feeding on stream-side willows, but mid-afternoon is not a good time to see feeding wildlife.
The most apt description I have seen of Philipsburg is: an old turn-of-the-century mining town, coming into its second boom, tourism.
Main street has one stoplight. (We learn later it is the only stoplight in Granite County.)
We check into our hotel for the night. The Broadway Hotel was built in 1890 and restored/remodeled in 2003. Owner, Sue Jenner, gives us the grand tour; each room has a unique theme. Her pride in the restoration job she has completed is obvious.
The hotel has received recognition from: CNN.com, The London Times, and The Oregonian, to name a few.
We enjoy a quiet dinner at the Silver Mill Restaurant, which is “a must” in Philipsburg. The fresh, mile-high air makes for great sleeping.
We are aware that we will only be able to get a glimpse of the wide array of experiences Philipsburg has to offer. We are on a tight schedule with 2 ½ days for the Pintler Loop. This will have to serve as a scouting trip for when we return.
After a hearty continental breakfast with Jenner, we head for a few of the experiences we have heard about.
Earlier on I referred to the Pintler Loop as a “gem.” There are real gems in the area. Sapphires are found in the surrounding mountains. Because of time constraints, Jo chooses the easiest way to “pan” for these gems. The Sapphire Gallery offers the opportunity to sift through a bag of rocks. She came up with six, large enough to be fired and cut. The finished product will be mailed to us after the process is completed.
After the “panning” experience, we browse/gawk at the dazzling displays of gems in the Gallery. The Gallery is a “must see” in Philipsburg.
Next door to The Gallery is the Sweet Palace. Last year they sold: five tons of taffy, five tons of fudge and 3½ tons of caramels, all of which are made on site. There has to be another ton or so, of various other candies.
I can’t resist a visit to the Flint Creek Outdoor Store and Outfitters. I know it will mean compounding my yearning to hit one of the local trout streams. Matt Churchman confirmed this to be a world class trout fishing destination. Mountain fed streams like Rock Creek, produce heavy rainbow, brook, brown and bull trout. A bulletin board is covered with wide grins and beautiful trout. “The area is great habitat for trout and wildlife,” Churchman explains. “Just about every time I float Rock Creek, I see moose.” (Back home, I was visiting with Doug Wright, from Dallas, Oregon, and mentioned Rock Creek. “Rock Creek, some of the finest trout fishing I have ever experienced.” Wright adds, “I was busy catching trout when this bull moose came within a few feet of me, sniffed the air and moseyed off. Sure sent my heart pounding.”
Time to leave Philipsburg. Things we want to visit like the Opera House Theatre and Mining Museum will have to remain on the “To See” list for another visit. We have miles of the scenic loop to cover.
We head up Hwy 1 to Georgetown Lake. We can see the runs of Discovery Basin Ski Area in the distance. Not being skiers, we continue on to the lake.
We are surprised to find the lake still frozen over. Churchman had talked about ice fishing the lake, but we hadn’t thought about the effects of this elevation in early May. The lake is the most productive fishing lake in the state. Rainbow trout and kokanee salmon are the targeted species.
Back on Hwy 1 we head for Anaconda. The first thing you notice approaching Anaconda is the giant smokestack on the hill, built in 1918-19. It is the tallest in the world at 582.56 feet. It is 30 feet higher than the Washington Monument. It remains a historical landmark from the copper refining process,. The copper mine and smelter was known as the “Richest Hill on Earth” until the smelter closed in 1980.
Black sand tailings from the smelter are prominent in the area and are used in the bunkers of the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course a few miles to the north.
Our stay for the night is Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. Fairmont is located between Anaconda and the southern junction of Hwy 1/I-90. It is billed as “Funtastic,” offering “the best of Montana all in one place.” Name an activity a family would desire, it’s there, from golf to badminton. One of the main attractions is four naturally-heated mineral pools. You can choose to soak in one of the pools under the Big Sky’s stars.
We are disappointed not to have been able to take advantage of all the Pintler Loop has to offer. We knew this would have to serve as a scouting trip. We look forward to returning to scenic Highway One.
G.I. Wilson is an award-winning outdoors writer. He is also a Keizer resident.