My Itchy Travel Feet | The Baby Boomer's Guide To Travel

Searching for Paradise in Montana

2010/07/29by Donna Hull

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.

Have you visited the Stillwater River Valley on your travels? Post a comment to tell us about it. Alan and I will be returning for that hike to Sioux Charley Lake.

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

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A boomer travel and lifestyle authority who is exploring the world one activity at a time. Besides writing and publishing My Itchy Travel Feet, she also writes about boomer travel for My Well-Being Powered by Humana, Make It Missoula and is the author of New Mexico Backroads Weekend Adventure.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie - Wasabimon July 29, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Montana is my perfect ideal of paradise. I have family there and spent a lot of time the big sky state growing up, in Billings, Havre and Chinook. In fact, my family homesteading land there in the 1800s, and then they died, the gov’t turned it into the Nordholm Waterfowl Refuge (the family name, which has since been shortened to “Holm”). We took a trip out there one year and the old house still stands, complete with my great, great, great, great uncle’s coveralls still hanging from a nail and old newspapers and coffee cans still laying around the house.


marthaandme July 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I just love this post. Sometimes you have to just go where you're called and this is the perfect example of that. It looks incredibly beautiful and I also love how you went without heavy planning. I am a heavy trip planner (I swear if I didn't, my family would sit in the hotel room glued to the tv) and sometimes I just feel exhausted by having to plan every last little thing.


Jamie July 29, 2010 at 2:12 pm

I love the serendipity of travel. I love a long list of places I want to go, but I can be easily swayed by people, pictures, and stories too…


Sandy2118 July 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm

My husband often tells me that we live in paradise, here in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod.

I love that photo of the raging creek/river! We have visited Norway and loved the scenery. Montana does seem very similar … Will put it on our list. Thanks.


MyKidsEatSquid July 29, 2010 at 3:21 pm

I've always wanted to visit Montana and seeing your pictures and reading your post–makes me want to go even more. I've gone on several trips based on a snippet I've read or a picture. It's such a fun way to go off on an adventure.


holeinthedonut July 29, 2010 at 4:22 pm

What a great article. I've hiked to the top of mountains in NC only to find a view marred by high tension wires. Guess the electrical utility that owned the land and donated it for conservation didn't think their high metal towers were a blight on the view. I realize they have to be there, I just don't want to have them in my face at the end of a trek. Likewise with the mining operation – it has to be there. At least they did try to keep it neat looking. I hear such great things about the beauty of Montana that I must get there some day.


Roxanne Hawn July 29, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Looks terrific. I've only been to Montana once, but I loved it. Reminded me of the Colorado of my childhood.


Frugal Kiwi July 29, 2010 at 6:25 pm

I love the idea of visiting a beautiful place you saw in a CAR brochure. Delightful. I'm glad you made it.


Christine July 29, 2010 at 8:47 pm

I have always dreamed of going to Montana. Always. What beautiful photos! The story of why you visited this place is just great.


Jennifer Margulis July 29, 2010 at 9:15 pm

This sounds so lovely and wonderful. I've ALWAYS idealized Montana. It seems like such a great place to visit. Take me with you next time you see a photo you like!


KrisBordessa July 29, 2010 at 11:35 pm

That is just drop dead gorgeous! I love the idea of Montana (I've only visited once) but then I always remember about the winters….


Jesaka July 29, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Loved this post, it was fun to read. It's so great that you were inspired by a photo – how adventurous. Your photos here are inspiring me to visit Montana; I've only driven through it to get to other destinations.


Ruthpennebaker July 30, 2010 at 2:32 am

I really like this longer, more personal and chattier post, Donna. Great reading.


sheryl July 30, 2010 at 4:16 am

Montana has always been on my list. After reading this, it is inching toward the top. Your love of the place really comes through in this post.


July 30, 2010 at 7:56 am

Sounds like a lovely place.


Susan July 31, 2010 at 2:35 pm

With photos like that, I can't blame you for wanting to visit. It looks gorgeous!


Steph Auteri
July 31, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Fun! I love that you planned an entire trip based upon a gut reaction to a gorgeous photo. We should all be so impulsive (though I don't know that impulsive is the right word in this case…).


pen4hire August 2, 2010 at 3:13 pm

And your being persuaded by a photo is just a little something to keep in mind as you talk to PR people who are pitching their areas as tourism destinations. Maybe they would like to have pictures appear in a popular blog?


Anil August 8, 2010 at 8:43 am

Perfect for a road trip, looks so freeing :)


Lisa Bergren September 7, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Mmm, love the Seeley Swan Valley of MT too–amazing mountains on either side and incredible hiking.


Penelope July 12, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Amazing you found travel inspiration from a car brochure … I found some from a poster in the private room of the hostel where I was staying, and it led to the best snorkeling experience of my life!
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Adin Blankenship August 10, 2014 at 9:36 pm

We were there this afternoon and this place is beautiful. It is a popular spot and a lot of hikers where out today hiking and some families chillaxing by the Stillwater River. We had a great time and my kids got to play in the cold river. Love this place! This is not far from the cabin we are renting here in Nye, Montana and we didn’t even know about this place, but we found it by just driving around looking for a perfect spot to spend and afternoon picnic with the family.
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