State Highway 38 (Skalkaho Highway) follows the route of an old Indian trail beginning in Montana's Bitterroot Valley. The highway winds through the Sapphire Mountains and finally over Skalkaho Pass at an elevation of 7200 feet. Open during the summer months, Highway 38 is a seasonal shortcut from Hamilton, Montana to Philipsburg, Montana.
This drive into the Sapphire Mountains takes you on some of Montana's least traveled mountain roads. The road was once a heavily used trail for Indians. A road was built over the route in 1924 to link the mining areas in the mountains with the agricultural communities of the Bitterroot Valley. This is a narrow winding drive that offers some excellent views and takes you past Skalkaho Falls. Trailers are not recommended as there are narrow curves with limited pull-outs.
There are two campgrounds along Highway 38, Black Bear Campground with 6 camping sites in the Darby Ranger District of the Bitterroot National Forest and Crystal Creek Campground with 3 camping sites in the Pintlar Ranger District of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Skalkaho Pass sits at 7,260 feet above sea level. This isolated, mountainous 23,000-acre wildlife area is forested with dense spruce and subalpine fir, amid beautiful lush meadows. The area is closed to hunting. In the spring and summer, look for Gray and Steller jays, dark-eyed juncos, Brewer's sparrows, olive-sided Flycatchers, and Hairy woodpeckers.
Visitors in the fall may see large concentrations of elk and hear bull elk bugle from the high basins in early morning or late evening, especially east of Fool Hen and Kneaves Lakes. Hikers can see mountain goats around Dome Shaped Mountain, near the junction of trails 313 and 86, which follow the ridge around Skalkaho Basin. Watch for moose along trail 321 in the Burnt Fork drainage. Mule deer, badgers, coyotes, and black bears are common throughout the area. Mountain biking is a good way to see wildlife, especially during the fall road closure period, October 15 through December 1. Trail 313 offers prime opportunities for overnight cross-country ski trips.
Since only the first 10 miles of Montana Highway 38 are plowed and this area becomes a popular snowmobile destination during the winter months. Skalkaho Pass Area offers 26 miles of groomed trails.
The Skalkaho Highway, also known simply as Skalkaho Pass Road, is a forty-five mile drive that runs between the Bitterroot Valley and the Philipsburg Valley. This paved and gravel route climbs through the Sapphire Mountains, a remote and seldom visited part of Montana. The drive follows Montana Highway 38 for its entire length.
Highlights of the drive include the Sapphire Mountains, Skalkaho Pass, great views of the Philipsburg Valley, excellent camping along the West Fork Rock Creek and Skalkaho Falls.
Despite the State of Montana’s best efforts to promote this drive as a “must-do” activity for visitors, the views from this drive, while nice, aren’t superb by any means. There are far nicer, and remote, drives in Montana. That said, this drive is still enjoyable and makes for a nice, scenic shortcut between Hamilton and Philipsburg. In short, this drive isn’t worth going out of your way for, but if you happen to be in the area, it should indeed be a “must-do” activity.
The western portion of this drive begins three miles south of Hamilton, on US Highway 93. Since this drive has no services along it, Hamilton is the logical place to top off the tank and grab any supplied needed. As the route heads east, the drive slowly but steadily gains elevation as it passes through open agricultural lands.
After about 10 miles, the road reaches the base of the Sapphire Mountains and the border of the Bitterroot National Forest. From here, the road begins and long, curvy climb toward Skalkaho Pass, which has an elevation of 7,250 feet. As the route passes through heavily forested terrain, the views are initially limited. However, once the drive reaches Skalkaho Falls (about two miles below Skalkaho Pass), the views do open in spots that allow for some decent views of the surrounding countryside, although a large fire scar is quite visible to the south of the route.
From the top of Skalkaho Pass, which offers no views as the pass is flat and heavily wooded, the byway starts losing elevation and soon starts following the West Fork Rock Creek. Those looking for excellent primitive camping spots need look no further, as numerous spots exist right along the river.
Once the Skalkaho Pass Scenic Byway leaves the National Forest, the road soon becomes paved and the views open up. This is my own personal favorite part of the drive. From the eastern section of the Byway, fields of hay and lush grass fill the Philipsburg Valley while tall, snow-capped peaks surround the valley itself.
The route ends in the Philipsburg Valley, at the junction with Rock Creek Road, which is part of the scenic Philipsburg Valley Loop. However, technically speaking, the Skalkaho Road continues toward Philipsburg and Montana State Highway 1. The portion of the drive between the junction with Rock Creek Road and Highway 1 offers superb views, so if you happen to take the Skalkaho Pass Road, be sure to continue down to Highway 1. The views won’t disappoint.
Overall, the Skalkaho Highway is a scenic route through the Sapphire Mountains. The drive isn’t spectacular by any means, but it’s still worth doing. And the eastern part of the drive does, in many ways, define what Montana is all about – vast valleys surrounded by towering mountains.
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