Nestled up against the western edge of the Flint Mountain Range, Philipsburg sits in one of Montana’s out-of-the-way places. It was founded in the late 1860s, born of gold rushes and silver mines and named after the famous mining engineer, Phillip Deidesheimer. Like many towns of that time, it grew almost overnight in as men dug precious stones and metals from the earth.
Philipsburg’s yesteryear architecture retains its old-world look and charm, reflecting that slower time of horse drawn wagons and Model As. Although the town had been built to support and supply miners, Philipsburg’s shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and coffee shops now cater to visitors in old Montana style along with a sense of humor.
At over five thousand feet elevation, the year round temperatures are similar to those in West Yellowstone. Winters are long, and temperatures can drop to almost forty below. Summers are short, and daytime highs can occasionally reach the mid to high nineties, but for only a couple of weeks. Most summer days are mildly warm. The nights are cool to cold. Like all of Montana, the summer and fall are wonderful. Winter and spring are not so great. But when winter is over, later in the spring, the sky clears and reveals mountains capped in snow white and valleys lush with green grasses.
Note to Gulf Coast visitors: Bring warm clothes for nighttime activities. Air at low humidity does not hold heat. When the sun shines, it’s warm. When the sun goes away, the world cools down instantly and dramatically—even when the sun hides behind a cloud.
Early in its history Philipsburg reached a peak population of around 3000 residents. There are currently about nine hundred residents. Mountains surround this quiet little town like a bowl. The town is built along the base of the Flint Creek Mountain Range. The snowcapped Anaconda Range borders the south, and the Sapphire Range the west. Fingers of the Flint and Sapphire Ranges reach out to each other to the north.
But then again, it’s nice to have an accessible place of peace in this overcrowded world. I drove through Yellowstone recently in August. I thought I might stop and watch Old Faithful erupt. I took one look at the horde of vacationers crowding the parking lot, and I kept going. Philipsburg doesn’t have geysers or the status of a National Park. It is a simple real western town, surrounded by the beauty of scenic mountains and freshness of clear cold streams.
Unrest between settlers and native peoples was ongoing when they the miners first established Philipsburg. In 1878, one year after the Battle of the Little Big Horn, a number of Nez Perce warriors broke off from Chief Joseph’s band and moved through the area. This band found four miners panning for gold in Rock Creek and attacked, killing three of the miners immediately. Joseph H. “Nez Perce” Jones ran for his life in a hail of gunfire, one round striking his arm below the shoulder. He ran from tree to tree for cover, stopped occasionally to throw rocks at his attackers, and made his escape by climbing Mt. Emerine. He walked thirty-five miles to Philipsburg and raised the alarm. Thereafter, the townsfolk put together a force of men to repel the Indians.
Mr. Jones recovered and continued in time to pan for gold along Rock Creek, living another forty-eight years. There’s not much information on how much gold he discovered in his life, but gold has always seduced men to risk everything for its accumulation. In the tapestry of this national’s history, these incidents combine to create the mosaic of the west, the lust for gold, the yearning for freedom, and the inevitability of war.
Large cattle ranches straddle State Highway 38 in the valley, but as this gravel road enters the mountains, it is not suitable for long travel trailers. This road is rough enough to convince me to drive my Ram 4x4 pickup with a slide-in camper the long way around, even though Highway 38 is the shorter route. Logging trucks use this road, and they tend to roar around the switchbacks way too fast. It’s a bit terrifying at times.
In the Skalkaho Pass, the Skalkaho Falls courses down the mountain. As one approaches, these falls look as if they are coursing onto and over the road. However, they flow beneath. There are wide pullouts to stop and enjoy the spectacle.
Six miles east of the falls, on Forest Service Road 5071, which runs south along Sand Basin Creek, there are some beautiful unimproved camping spots, tents and campers. There are no services, so if you pack it in, pack it out. This area is 6400 feet above sea level. During the hottest summer months, the days are only mildly warm. The nights, however, are cool to cold. Do not forget insect repellent and mosquito proof tents.
I spent a couple of weeks camping along Sand Basin Creek, collecting images for my fire art nature series. One morning, just as day was breaking, gentle movement caught my eye, and I watched two young bucks carefully cross the stream just down from camp. Later a moose ran through an old burn, and a trout darted in its frenzied attempt to escape my shadow while I crossed over a small stream. There are no grizzlies in this country, but there are plenty of black bear. Wolves are supposed to be around, but I heard none and so no sign or track of them.
These mountains contain copious amounts of gold, silver, and sapphires. The mountain streams are full of iron pyrite, fool’s gold, and many greenhorns have hauling bags of the stuff down out of these mountains. A good way to insure finding something of value is to hunt sapphires at Gem Mountain, a publicly operated sapphire mine. The owner, Chris Coons, has recently begun concentrating the gem-bearing gravel, and visitors now find more stones than ever. People have discovered sizable uncut sapphires as well.
On the drive between Gem Mountain and Porter’s Corner, some of the hillsides show a distinctive ripple, like the surface of Lay’s Potato Chips. Long ago, the entire area was part of the Greater Glacier Lake, which left these distinctive horizontal lines on many hillsides all throughout the country. They are most distinctive on the hills surrounding Missoula. They look manmade, like stair-steps cut into the side of the hills. However, these were produced through that massive temporary lake’s natural processes, although no one knows exactly how the lake created these lines.
There is a wonderful convenient quiet campground at Deerlodge National Forest Campground – Flint Creek (unimproved— outdoor toilets available) ten miles south of Philipsburg. The campground runs along Flint Creek at the base of the mountain where Highway 1 begins its hard climb up the mountain to reach a narrow canyon pass above. Flint Creek’s water is cold and fast and shallow enough for wading. Lush underbrush lines the banks, and the fly-fishing is good. Where this stream crosses the campground road, it widens and grows very shallow, making a great place for a sit down splash.
At the top of Highway 1’s rise, where the canyon pass begins, Flint Creek springs out of the side of the mountain as if struck by the rod of Moses. I have not found information to verify the origin of this water-work, but it looks as if it might be nature, the stream having worked its way through a fisher in the rock long before the State of Montana built the highway. Even if it is manmade, it’s beautiful and fascinating. There’s a viewing area pullout, but be careful. Beyond the barrier of boulders, the ground falls off sharply to the stream descending sharply down the mountainside. High above, an old abandoned logging sluice clings to the side of the sheer side of the mountain. Loggers used to ride the logs in such sluices for fun. Anyone riding logs on this sluice, however, would have to be rather insane. One slip and it’s a long two or three-scream fall to the bottom.
A half-mile farther south at the next pullout, the logging sluice crosses a gap in the mountainside, resting on a linker log like bridge. Driving south, it is hard to see, so you’ve got to look for the pullout. This structure remains to remind the world of the arduous task logging once was. It’s surprising the intense effort those old loggers made to transport logs out of those forests. Today, eighteen-wheelers haul as many logs out of this forest in a day as the loggers of old could transport in a year.
The narrow canyon pass leads to Georgetown and a number of improved and unimproved campsites. There is snow skiing at Georgetown, and water sports galore on the lake. This lake’s shallow water provides an excellent habitat for rainbow trout, brook trout, and kokanee salmon and year-round fishing.
Time has left parts of Montana like Philipsburg relatively unchanged. You can’t see real Montana from the freeways. You’ve got to leave the fast lane and amble the back roads to find gems, snowcapped mountains, trout filled lakes, and clear cold mountain streams. Get out, walk the streets of Philipsburg, cast a hook into Georgetown Lake, or roast marshmallows around the campfire high in the Sapphire Mountains under a galaxy of stars.
Breathe the clean, pine scented air. Refresh your soul.