Bitterroot Valley, Montana and Northwest Passage


One of the challenges of a cross-country road trip is getting used to being in a different place every day. We were also splitting time between our camper and hotels which makes it twice as hard to get a rhythm. That’s when the little stuff really matters. Like a pleasant front desk person at the hotel or delicious breakfast. The TownHouse Inn in Hamilton, Montana had all these things. But the Bitterroot Valley had some other surprises as well.

Located in the Southwestern part of Montana, you might have never heard of the Bitterroot. The setting of the book “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean, the valley is rich in outdoor scenery and activities and Missoula is only a short trip up the road. The largest city in the Bitterroot Valley, Hamilton, was founded by copper magnate Marcus Daly in 1890. This period of wealth has left the town with a backbone of arts and culture combined with Montana spirit and small town friendliness and values.

Where to Stay

Find family-friendly accommodations in Bitterroot, Montana from traditional hotels to private vacation rentals through Stay22.com:

Daly Mansion
There are many period mansions from this time all over the US, and Montana has some much more well-known mansion tours, but the Daly Mansion is special. It’s accessible. Both from the standpoint of the family that once lived in the mansion to the community that now loves and cares for this house and grounds. Marcus and Margaret Daly, and their family, once lived in the mansion and it’s clear that they actually did live in the house.

Daly Mansion

The mansion tour allows a closer inspection of the house and has more of a personal feel than most other home tours of the type. And, a unique relationship with the state has charged the community with the care and upkeep of their mansion. The gardening club cares for the grounds while the quilting club creates art in the form of quilts for some of the beds. People who knew and visited the mansion have contributed stories and information, and a period of vacancy left the curators an untouched canvas to work with in their restoration. The mansion is family friendly and even guests who don’t take the tour are welcome to enjoy the grounds or have a picnic on the front lawn. Definitely worth a pit stop.

Sleeping Child Farms
An 8.9 acre sustainable eco-farm, Sleeping Child Farms also offers a farm stand, small B&B and farm-to-table restaurant. 10 miles out of town, the farm is a pleasant drive and the setting is comfortable and friendly with a dose of fine cuisine. Many of the ingredients for the restaurant are grown on the farm, with plans to expand those offerings. Also available are tours and special events. Very family friendly, kids will enjoy both the food and the farm. Excellent for a pit stop to burn off extra energy or spend a couple of hours learning about the farm and sustainability.

Northwest Passage Scenic Byway

Reluctantly, we left the friendly folks in Hamilton and hit the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway. This was another trip that none of us had taken prior to this trip, and we were looking forward to the exploration. Research driving the Lolo Motorway instead of Highway 12. It’s a primitive road built in the 1930’s and is the trail used by the Nez Perce and other native Americans. It’s also the trail used by the Corps of Discovery.  This drive is great for older kids and active families who want to take a themed trip. Maybe plan a scavenger hunt along the way and really get out and explore. Permits may be required, so do your planning in advance, but it would definitely intrigue many older kids who are looking for a bit more independence or some in-depth educational connection on a trip.

South of the Lolo Motorway is Highway 12, and its close proximity to the river lends a special scenery to the trip. Plan to stop for a picnic or camp along the way and experience the undeveloped and relatively untouched forest and river. Stop at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center. Families will appreciate the 24-hour restrooms and the Junior Explorer patches. Something about a ranger talk and a prize at the end makes learning so much more fun! You can also inquire about permits, get maps, etc. Also take a quick stop at the Lochsa Historic Ranger Station. Built in the 1920’s, it’s easy to gain appreciation for the back country rangers of that era.

Hells Gate State Park

The ominous name doesn’t describe the wonderful campground and park on the Snake River, just outside the city of Lewiston. Camp sites are shaded by mature trees and sit river’s edge, the perfect blend of campground and proximity to town for long weekends or maximum river time. Be sure to visit the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center, kids will enjoy the hands-on activities and the stream and sculptures are impressive. The Nez Perce Historic Park is less than an hour away if you have time for more history. The low elevation (lowest in the entire state) mean the weather is warm and temperate, so the big attraction are the jet boat excursions that leave from the park’s docks to Hells Canyon (the deepest river gorge in North America). The river is the best way to access the canyon from here, and outfitters offer everything from float trips to overnight or dinner trips.

Be sure to take some time to explore Lewiston, especially if you’re lucky enough to visit during one of their festivals. We also found some wineries and breweries that we want to return to explore in more depth. One of the highlights of the trip was the waffles at Waffles N’ More, an unassuming diner with a busy breakfast crowd. We have never eaten anything like them, kind of a malted angel food cake. Delicious!