Oct 23

Road to the Buffalo: Blackfoot River

by Kim Briggeman

The bend in a mountain road, the other side of the river … some things beg to be explored.

It’s ironic that the dust-choked road up the Blackfoot River above Johnsrud Park used to be that “other side of the river.” For centuries, native trails, wagon roads, bootleg tracks and railroad beds followed the north bank.

Now it’s off limits to motorized traffic, which makes it the side of solitude for bicyclists and foot traffic – even in those lazy, hazy and, particularly, crazy days of midsummer when all of Missoula and our Carolina cousins get tubular down there on the river.

Johnsrud Park Road crosses the river seven miles away from Highway 200 at Whitaker Bridge. Two parking areas on the north side of the bridge provide access to what the Bureau of Land Management has dubbed the Road to the Buffalo Trail.

BLM took over management of a 10-mile stretch of the Blackfoot corridor from Plum Creek Timber Co. in the late 1990s. The land includes a part of the Milwaukee Railroad’s old Big Blackfoot Railway grade that was abandoned in the 1970s. It runs alongside the river and provides an easy, diverse and sensory-awakening path.

From Whitaker Bridge, you can turn left and take off on foot or bike for 5 1/2 flat miles down the river before you reach what used to be the trestle across Gold Creek. Or you can turn upriver for three miles to Belmont Creek, where the next trestle was.

A network of hikeable, bikeable gated logging roads reaches far back into the mountains. Not-so-old timers remember driving these roads into Placid Lake and the Flathead Indian Reservation before the gates were locked.

Solitude doesn’t mean pristine. Remnants of the valley’s logging, mining and railroad past are everywhere. But as you make your way up or down the river you’ll encounter unexpected stands of old-growth ponderosa and surprising meadows that unfold around you.

“Road to the Buffalo” was the name local Indians gave to the route that stretched up the Blackfoot and over the Continental Divide to the eastern plains.

Capt. Meriwether Lewis and nine soldiers followed this trail on their return trip of discovery in 1806, with Lewis’ Newfoundland, Seaman, wagging his tail behind. A century and change later, the Big Blackfoot Railroad came steaming up and down the canyon, hauling lumber to the Anaconda Co. mill in Bonner and eliminating the need for treacherous log drives on the river.


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