Choose your weekend and begin exploring the diverse landscapes of Central Montana. This weekend suggestion will have you visiting a state park, doing your choice of activities – from hiking, fishing, floating, seeking out a waterfall, adding to your bird life-list and soaking in hot springs. Let’s start!
We’ll begin by leaving Great Falls and driving east on a highway of many numbers – US Hwys 87 and 89 and MT Hwys 3 & 200 all form one highway in this stretch of asphalt.
Travel about 25 miles east and then take a right turn (south) on US Hwy 89 at the junction/rest stop named Armington Junction. This is the beginning of the 71 mile Kings Hill Scenic Byway.
The terrain at Armington Junction is fairly flat (elevation is 3,600 feet) but you’ll see rolling hills and mountains in the distance – the Highwood Mountains and Little Belt Mountains are both visible.
Belt Creek is on the east side of the highway here but it will cross over to the other side as you travel south. Climbing up Riceville Hill you’ll see the turn for Sluice Boxes State Park. Belt Creek comes down through the limestone canyons in this former mining area. You can wade fish (last time we were there a beautiful rainbow trout took the fly) and you can float, but the canyon walls make it best for experienced floaters. Most visitors hike here. There’s a trail that is a bit brushy at first but it opens up. You also need to cross Belt Creek and then you can get back on the trail. Make your plans and fish, float or hike (or enjoy the bird watching).
When you get back on the highway stop at the Sluice Boxes Overlook and get the bird’s eye view of where you just were. It’s a photo op waiting to happen!
Of all the mining towns that once dotted this area, Monarch and Neihart are the only ones that remain. Monarch is first when heading south and you’ll find lodging, food and a bar there. An old rail depot is being restored and you can see a rail car on tracks and switching signals installed. In 1902 the Great Northern Railway line started carrying passengers from Great Falls to Neihart and back. Just think, a scenic rail trip crossing old trestles through a limestone canyon, deep canyon views and towering mountain scenery. That would have been fun.
The former Hughesville Mine is east of Monarch and you can turn on the Hughesville Road as you enter Monarch. The forest service road is well maintained, has lots of camping and history. The mine itself is on private property but you still see remnants of it close to the road.
Neihart has lodging, dining, a bar and the Neihart Inconvenience Store. That’s quite a unique name – you have to admire mountain humor! Bob’s Bar and Restaurant are family friendly and they also have about a dozen motel rooms. There is historic signage around town so drive around and learn some history.
Memorial Falls is the next stop and you’ll see a large brown forest service sign on the east (left) side of the highway. Leave your vehicle in the parking area and start on the trail. This is a short hike, easy for kids and adults. The distance is about a half mile each way and you are on a well traveled trail. Bring your camera and take advantage of the photo op.
Kings Hill Pass (7,393′ elevation) comes next and it is the highest mountain pass in Montana that is maintained all year long. Campgrounds are on both sides of the highway and there is also the Porphyry Peak Lookout Tower near Showdown Ski Area. Porphyry Peak has an elevation of 8,192′ so views are beyond impressive. There aren’t summer activities at the ski area but you can hike the ski runs and nearby trails.
It’s downhill from here – literally! In thirty miles you will be on an open plain after cresting the pass and you’ll come to the junction of US Hwy 89 and 12. A right turn will take you three miles in to White Sulphur Springs. And yes, there are hot springs here!
There are about a thousand people living in White Sulphur Springs, a variety of restaurants, hotels, bars, stores and a local brewery named 2 Basset (we love dogs). It’s a walkable town and an artsy town. When I took grandkids they loved the whimsically decorated fire hydrants.
The Castle Museum, an imposing building right in town, is easy to spot and is a great primer for area history. It was built in 1892 for $36,000 by successful area businessman Byron Roger Sherman.
There is also an Art and Culture Trail that travels throughout Meagher County and over 70 unique barn quilt
squares decorate everything from buildings to barns and fence lines. Driving the scenic trail will take a couple of hours and you’ll visit the communities of White Sulphur Springs, Ringling and Martinsdale, plus view five mountain ranges. In addition to barn quilt signs there are historic and literary sites noted on the printable map.
After a day of outdoor activities let’s soak those well-used muscles in the sulphur hot springs. The Spa Hot Springs Motel surrounds the hot springs and if you are a guest there you can soak in the three pools for free. If you stay elsewhere and want to soak, you pay a minimal fee at the lobby registration desk. Pools do have a sulphur odor although after soaking it becomes almost therapeutic. The mineral pools have no chemicals and are drained and refilled every night, 365 days a year.
The White Sulphur Springs forest service office is located in town and staff are a great source for area hiking and camping information.
As the weekend comes to a close, think back on what you’ll do when you return to the area – will it be a “re-do” of activities you did on your first weekend jaunt or will you experience what you weren’t able to squeeze in the first time?
Both are great choices!