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Searching for Paradise in Montana

Updated: 07.01.2014

The Stillwater River near Nye, Montana.

The Stillwater River near Nye, Montana.

Have you searched for paradise on your boomer travels? Did you find it? Alan and I went looking for paradise a couple of weeks ago on a boomer trip to Montana, because of a photo in a new car brochure. That’s right, a photo.

It all started in 2005 with the purchase of a Jeep Rubicon. As Alan poured over the Jeep Wrangler brochure with photos of snazzy 4-wheel drive vehicles displayed in outdoor settings that would make any nature-lover drool, he turned to a two-page spread and said, “Wow.”

“What’s so great about a car brochure?” I asked.

White water roars down the Still Water River.

White water roars down the river.

Alan rushed to show me a moody scene of two Jeeps perched on a hillside surrounded by sloping green fields and mountains covered with mist. “I’ve got to go there,” he said. At the bottom of the page, tiny white writing described the scene—Stillwater River Valley, Montana.

For a time, we daydreamed about exploring that beautiful section of Montana, maybe even owning our own piece of paradise; but travel to exotic locations filled up the schedule instead. The fjords of Norway, South Africa’s wild animals and the jeep trails in Ouray, Colorado, are just some of the adventures that diverted our attention.

Stone formations guard the banks of Montana's Stillwater River.

Stone formations guard the banks of the Stillwater River.

Fast-forward five years. Earlier in the winter of 2010, at a travel planning conference around the kitchen table, Alan declared, “This is the year for Montana.” We were going to make it to the Stillwater River Valley in our lifetime, after all.

Mystic Rose Cabin, located in Fishtail, became adventure central for this portion of the Montana trip. Each day, we plotted a drive that took us down dirt roads beside fast-moving rivers to spectacular mountain scenery and invigorating hikes. A journey to Nye and the Stillwater River Valley was first on our boomer list.

Now, I’m a travel writer, which means that I should have researched the object of our travel affection. But sometimes, the pure adventure of arriving at a destination, discovering it in the here and now, trumps all the bookmarked web pages, underlined guidebooks and emails filled with traveling advice from those in the know. Totally clueless, except for the photo in a Jeep brochure, is how we chose to explore the Stillwater River Valley.

From Mystic Rose Cabin, we drove along Fiddler Creek Road, where the Beartooth Mountains tower over rolling green fields of alfalfa. By the time our Toyota Forerunner reached the intersection with County Road 419, Nye Road, the Montana landscape had won my heart.

Relaxing in the Stillwater River Valley.

Relaxing in the Stillwater River Valley.

If you ask me, although it was beautiful, the drive into the Stillwater River Valley didn’t compare to the one we had just experienced on Fiddler Creek Road. For one thing, the landscape to the north was more arid, high desert land populated with sagebrush. “I can see that in Arizona,” I said. It seems that the Jeep brochure spread had captured the verdant south side of the valley. Plus, I had already fallen in love with the view from Fiddler Creek Road.

Several more miles down County Road 419, the Forerunner rounded a curve and drove by two buildings that passed for the town of Nye. Then, mine tailings appeared, followed by an industrial-sized mining complex. Disappointment clouded my face. Although the facility was neatly maintained, it was still a mine in my paradise.

Later I researched The Stillwater Mining Company to learn that it is the only large-scale producer of platinum and palladium in the Western Hemisphere. The elements are important to the manufacture of catalytic converters.

County Road 419 continued between the mine and the swift-moving Stillwater River. Once the plant was behind us, the beauty of Custer National Forest, wedged into a narrowing valley, obliterated any thoughts of mine tailings, conveyor belts or tractor-trailer trucks hauling mine products.

Photographing the Stillwater River is a fun Montana adventure.

Alan photographs the Stillwater River gorge.

The road ended in a parking lot, the trailhead for hikers, horse enthusiasts, fly fishermen and deer—lots of deer. The Stillwater River roared close by the parking area. Alan and I grabbed our cameras and headed for the riverbank to capture the blue-green water decorated with white caps. Nearby, a man sat in a camp chair eating lunch.

While Alan continued photographing the river, I explored the beginnings of Stillwater Trail No. 24: 3 miles to Sioux Charley Lake, 16 miles to Horsehoe Trail and a whopping 26 miles to Lake Abundance Road.

Starting up the trail, I reached a gorge where rushing water played over rocks creating waterfalls and riffles as it flowed downhill toward the valley. I briefly considered talking Alan into the 6-mile roundtrip to Sioux Charley Lake. But, without bear spray or a picnic lunch, the idea seemed impractical on this visit.

When Alan caught up with me, he said, “You know that man we saw sitting by the river eating his lunch? He’s a salesman who calls on the mine. For 25 years he’s been coming up here on Wednesdays to eat his lunch by the Stillwater River. Every Wednesday for 25 years and he’s still not tired of the view.”

Before leaving the trailhead, we sat by the river marveling at the beauty around us. A photo in a new car brochure brought us to the Stillwater River Valley. Even when paradise isn’t perfect, it’s still worth the search.

Planning a trip to Montana? Don’t leave home without reading our Active Travel in Montana articles. You’ll find plenty of ideas!

Have you visited the Stillwater River Valley on your travels? Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email to ask a question or share your experience.

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