DETOUR: ONE FOR THE ROAD The Kings Hill Scenic Byway White Sulphur Springs to Belt ESTIMATED LENGTH: 71 miles Highlights: Spa Hot Springs Motel, Showdown Ski Area, Neihart, Monarch, Sluice Boxes State Park.
Getting there: Exit I-90 just east of Livingston at US 89 and drive north through Clyde Park, Wilsall, and Ringling of Ringling Brothers Circus fame until you reach White Sulphur Springs.
Sometimes scenic byway isn’t always about the scenery. Case in point: the Kings Hill Scenic
Byway. Oh, there is plenty of classic Montana landscape to see. The distant Crazy, Bridger, and Absaroka mountain ranges ring the skyline, looking like so many sets of bad teeth.
Nevertheless, when the U.S. Forest Service which owns a fair chunk of the real estate on this route deemed the 71 miles between White Sulphur Springs and Belt one of its scenic byways, there was an ulterior motive. The Forest Service motto is Land of Many Uses, and few drives in Montana display the state’s three-pronged utilitarian history more than this one. The majority of the drive is through the modest Little Belt Mountains, an isolated 1,800-square-mile range that rises to more than 9,000 feet and is the first stretch of Rocky Mountains visitors see coming from the east on US 12. Surrounding the Little Belts are ranchlands with Angus cattle as far as the eye can see. Scattered throughout the pine- and fir-covered range is extensive evidence of the land’s grazing, logging, and mining history. It is, in many senses, a snapshot of Montana.
The Forest Service wants you to understand and, hopefully, appreciate an extractive legacy that is waning in favor of recreational and aesthetic values on public lands. Kiosks at both ends of the route describe the hum of industry that once echoed across the hillsides. Distant checkerboard hilltops with young stands of lodgepole pine surrounded by mature trees reveal a timber industry gone silent. Rusted and splintered remnants of mining operations are visible from the road at once-booming Neihart. Cattle and periodic gas wells show that the utilitarian age isn’t completely over. Even the recreation here tends toward the motorized: snowmobiles in the winter, all-terrain vehicles in the summer.
That said, don’t be dissuaded by the lack of jaw-dropping vistas. There is plenty of charm here. In addition, if you’re national park-hopping between Yellowstone and Glacier, this is both the most direct and most intriguing route. It offers the healing waters of the Spa Hot Springs Motel at White Sulphur Springs, where you can soak away the aches of a hard day and then literally enjoy pizza and a movie at the same time at Stageline Pizza. At Kings Hill Pass, it also features Showdown, the oldest continually operating ski area in Montana. Heading down the north side, Neihart and Monarch are the living remnants of the area’s mining days. As you emerge from the mountains, Sluice Boxes State Park offers a peek into mining history and, when the water levels are right, a thrilling whitewater ride reminiscent of the log flumes at amusement parks.
At the end of the route is the little community of Belt, which has recovered from the demise of the coal mining industry and a devastating train derailment in 1976 to become a charming evening getaway for residents of Great Falls. The Harvest Moon Brewing Company in Belt is admired regionally for the microbrews (most notably the Beltian White) offered in its tasting room and elsewhere. For dinner, try the Black Creek Brew Pub.