On my last visit to Meagher County I starting counting the reasons why people came to vacation in the area. I saw hikers, hunters, campers, retired couples out for a getaway, and people who came to soak in the thermal springs. All in all, that covered quite a variety of people.
Here’s a bit of history of the area. The largest town in the county is really a small quaint town of about 1,000 people. Located on a scenic 2-lane highway surrounded by several mountain ranges – it’s called White Sulphur Springs, named for the thermal water that bubbles up in the town. White Sulphur Springs is the county seat of Meagher Country (pronounce that MAR county). Cattle ranches seem to be the area’s anchor business but tourism and a proposed mine also drive the economy. This area was once a mecca for mining and you’ll find old mining remnants and a nearby ghost town in the surrounding mountain ranges.
I started a list of things to do that matched the folks I saw around town and following is what I came up with.
Five mountain ranges surround the county – the Little Belts, Big Belts, Castles, Crazies and Bridger range. Outdoor recreation includes hiking, camping, river floating, birdwatching, fishing and hunting. The Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest and Custer-Gallatin National Forest have ample campgrounds and there is a forest service office right in White Sulphur Springs with maps and information.
For fishermen, take your pick from a variety of water including rivers, lakes and reservoirs. And, the reservoirs in the area are superb for ice fishing. Winter recreation includes downhill skiing, cross country skiing, fat tire biking, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. Over 200 miles of marked snowmobile trails criss-cross the Little Belt Mountains with an excellent variety of terrain.
The Meagher County Art & Culture Trail
It started with the typical barn quilt signs that began to pop up at local businesses and has become a county-wide trail including art, music and literature. The Meagher County Chamber website has a map of the trail and sign locations, including history of some of the quilt patterns, information about known authors and musicians. The trail’s paved route covers about 85 miles and you’ll visit the towns of Checkerboard, Martinsdale, Lennep, Ringling and White Sulphur Springs. It’s a beautiful scenic drive, made even better with discovering the history of everything on this trail.
This is an auto tour trail and you can view it all from your vehicle. During the pandemic we are currently in, that’s a huge plus, and a good way to get out and experience this beautiful area safely.
Kings Hill Scenic Byway
The southern end of the Kings Hill Scenic Byway begins 3 miles from White Sulphur Springs at the junction of US Hwy 89 and 12 and travels north for 71 miles. You’ll find lots of places to stop along the way, campgrounds, gravel roads, hiking trails and varied scenery. The Belt Creek Ranger Station is located between the mountain towns of Neihart and Monarch and they have a great variety of information about the area. A favorite stop along the Byway is at Memorial Falls 1 ½ miles south of Neihart. This short half-mile hike leads back to a waterfall and is easy for all ages. Sluice Boxes State Park, named after a style of mining, is north of Monarch and also well worth a stop. If you have a bird life list, you’ll find a great combination of birds at Sluice boxes, and as you climb in elevation to Kings Hill Pass (7,393 feet) differences in habitats attract other varieties. You’ll find locally owned lodging and dining in both Neihart and Monarch.
The Castle Museum is located on a hill in a residential area in White Sulphur Springs overlooking the town. And yes, it looks like a castle! Built in 1892 by Byron Sherman, the landmark was constructed with hand cut granite blocks hauled from the Castle Mountains. Period décor and artifacts are housed in the museum and an additional building has a display of carriages. The museum is open mid-May to mid-September.
Bair Family Museum is an unexpected treasure located on the Bair ranch a mile from Martinsdale. The 7,000 square foot sprawling structure was the home of Charlie Bair and his daughters Alberta and Marguerite. The daughters would spend several months in Europe vacationing and shopping and after their return would build on to the house so they could display what they bought. Antique furniture, prized collectable tableware, Native American artifacts and vintage clothing are just a few of the displays you’ll learn about as your docent takes you through this treasure. A state-of-the-art gallery was built in 2011 with five climate-controlled rooms housing the family’s art collection. The Bair Barn near the gallery houses historic photos, ranching memorabilia and a gift shop. Guided tours of the Bair Family Mansion are available Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Three mineral hot spring pools are located in the Spa Hot Springs Motel complex in White Sulphur Springs. If you are a guest, there is no additional fee to use the pools. Although, you don’t need to be a guest to soak, just pay a small fee at the motel and enjoy the therapeutic hot water. I find it absolutely amazing that each pool is drained, cleaned and refilled every night and no chemicals are used.
While soaking, enjoy the dramatic large murals overlooking two of the outdoor pools with scenes featuring the area’s history. This area was known as the Valley of Peace by Native American tribes. Even if they were traditionally warring tribes, when they came to this area, it was a valley of peace for all. Favorite time to soak – during a crisp winter evening with steam rising up from the water! And, it’s family friendly.
You’ll find only local stores in White Sulphur Springs. Check out Twin Sisters, a collection of almost everything you’ll ever need, Billis Fine Art featuring sculptures, and Red Ants Pants, known for making workwear for women and also for the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival – a 3-day party in a nearby pasture with nationally known musicians.
Plan on several days if you are going to enjoy them all! In Martinsdale, the Crazy Mountain Inn has upstairs lodging and main floor dining. Make sure you are hungry because you’ll get home cooked meals and some of the best homemade pie you’ll ever eat. Favorite – sour cream lemon – but a taste test has been done on almost all of their pies and they are all delicious! More yummy homemade pie can be found at the Branding Iron Café in White Sulphur Springs. Both are on Central Montana’s Pie a la Road pie trail.
Other dining in White Sulphur Springs includes the Stockman’s (their beef comes from a ranch just six miles away – definitely local and yummy), Bar 47 (burgers, nachos, tacos) and The Jawbone, a small speakeasy style restaurant with an eclectic menu. The Ringling Bar in the southern end of Meagher County is known for their prime rib and steaks.
When you look at a town of about 1,000, you may not think of a lot of drinking options but the list is varied in White Sulphur Springs. 2Basset Brewery, located on Main Street in a former auto arts store, offers an extensive beer list including ales, witbier, Hefeweizens, stout, IPAs porters and more. The Jawbone features many Montana-made spirits and some unique (and pretty) cocktails.
I want to refer to the communities in Meagher County as quaint and friendly because that’s what I feel whenever I visit, but those words just don’t seem to convey their genuine small-town charm.
You’ll have to experience this area yourself, and you’ll want to plan several visits throughout changing seasons to do it all!
Check Central Montana’s current Covid-19 information before you go and travel responsibly.