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Road trip: Big Sheep Creek Byway

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Photos and story by Will Casella Contributor


The town of Dillon sits at the crossroads of state Highway 41 and Interstate
15, on the banks of the Beaverhead River, in Beaverhead County.
Named after the unique rock formation on the Jefferson River that the
Shoshone described as being shaped as a beaver’s head, Beaverhead County
is the largest in Montana. Roughly the size of Connecticut, with a population
just shy of 10,000, this area is resplendent with vistas truly encompassing
the term Big Sky. Massive tracts of public land make it an adventurer’s
paradise—especially for those seeking to forgo congestion and traffic lights.
Only a stone’s throw from the infamous Big Hole River, Dillon is a trout
angler’s dream. Year-round, the Big Hole and the Beaverhead rivers yield
some of the largest trout landed in Montana. (Rumor has it, the Beaverhead
is top of the list for number of trout over five pounds.) Stop by a local
fly shop for current information.
La Fiesta Mexicana is Dillon’s most unique dining experience. Locals love
the taco bus, and the place often has a line out the door at lunch, so don’t
arrive right at noon. Owner Alejandro Pelayo’s brothers have similar establishments
in West Yellowstone, Island Park and Ashton, Idaho.
Forgot your rain jacket? Stop into the Patagonia outlet on Idaho Street.
Thirsty? The Moose Bar at 6 North Montana Street is the place to meet
with folks from all walks of life.


From Dillon, head south on I-15
about 40 miles, toward the town of
Dell. This will take you along the
Beaverhead River (there are plenty of
fishing access sites if you’re hankering
to catch a lunker), through the
stunning Clark Canyon, and by the
oddly desolate Clark Canyon Reservoir,
which is a duck hunter’s delight.
Dell is a friendly little town with
a service station and a classic old
general store. Also on Main Street is a
small sportsman’s lodge, the Stockyard
Inn, and Yesterday’s Café, a great
little spot where you need a cowboy
hat and boots to fit in. If you forgot to
fill up on gas in Dillon, fill up here.
From Dell, head southwest on the
Big Sheep Creek National Backcountry
Byway, a two-lane gravel
road that winds through some of the
most dramatic and stunning country
in Montana. Thousand-foot scree
slopes and rocky crags tumble to the
creek basin, revealing a more beautiful
scene with each turn in the road.
You may pass an occasional rancher’s
pickup heading to Dillon to get
supplies, but more likely you’ll see
bighorn sheep, deer and elk.
Although the area is just over 6,000
feet, it sees relatively little precipitation
in the valleys, keeping most
roads open year round. Winter wildlife
viewing can be fantastic, as the
animals come out of the mountains
seeking food and a more hospitable
The topography changes continuously,
as canyons open into broad
meadows, and bottlenecks become
even narrower canyons. If you’re
equipped with four-wheel drive and
feeling adventurous, there are many
high mountain lakes and trails to
explore. But be extremely careful
and conservative in wet conditions,
because the roads here have high clay
content, so any moisture makes it seem
as if you’re driving on ice.
There is some private land along the
river and a few large ranches, however
this area is mostly Bureau of Land
Management land surrounded by
the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National
Forest. Countless opportunities for
hiking, hunting, horseback riding
and fishing exist here. Those along for
the scenery through the car window
won’t be disappointed either.
About eight miles from the interstate
is a campground with outdoor facilities
called Deadwood. There are also
many other spots to pitch camp on
public land.
The roads seem to go on forever. You
could spend a day exploring the main
roads, or weeks getting into the backcountry—
just make sure to bring your
DeLorme Gazetteer, topo maps and
your adventurous spirit.

Will Casella’s company, the Bozeman-based Phasmid Rentals, provides outfitted rental
vehicles and itinerary planning for travelers seeking off the beaten path adventures.

This story was first published in the winter 2011/12 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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