A Day on the Stillwater River

By, Melynda Harrison, Traveling Mel

Don’t let the name fool you, the Stillwater River is anything but still. It bounces, burbles, cascades, and flows from the high mountains in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness for 70 miles, joining the Yellowstone River near Columbus.

While the Stillwater River is a blue ribbon fishery filled with rainbow, brown, Yellowstone cutthroat, and brook trout, there is a lot to do along the river beyond fishing.

My family has been up the river many times to camp at Woodbine Campground or Cliff Swallow Fishing Access Site, hike to Woodbine Falls, ramble to Sioux Charley Lake, and drink milkshakes in Absarokee.

Our favorite one-day itinerary along the Stillwater River starts in Columbus.

As with much of the surrounding area, Columbus is the ancestral homeland of the Apsaalooké (Crow) people.

The current town of Columbus began as a stagecoach station along the Yellowstone River about two miles from where it now stands. Columbus has been called Stillwater, Sheep Dip, and Eagle’s Nest before settling on the name “Columbus.”

One of the town’s claim to fame, and a big money maker at the time, is that the Montana State Capitol in Helena was built from sandstone mined in Columbus. The old quarry is visible from I-90 and can be seen to the northeast of the Columbus interchange.

The first stop on our mini-roadtrip was a visit to the Museum of the Beartooths, where we learned about the original inhabitants of what is now Stillwater County, the Montana Sandstone Company, and a lot more.

Museum of the Beartooths, Columbus

The Museum of the Beartooths tells the story of Stillwater County’s history. Here you get to see what life was like in rural Montana in days past. From indigenous people to miners to rodeo stars to WWII heroes and everything in between, this well done museum shows Stillwater County with pride.

An old schoolhouse, tack shop, blacksmith shop, and farming equipment are on the museum grounds.

Call ahead to make sure they are open or schedule a private tour.

Wild Flower Kitchen, Absarokee/Fishtail

The Wild Flower Kitchen sits between Absarokee and Fishtail and serves organic, local, and homemade comfort food. Get sandwiches and cookies to go for a picnic on the upcoming hike. I recommend the fig and brie sandwich.

In addition to grilled sandwiches, soups, pastries, and cookies, they have a variety of ready made meals that you can pop in your oven for dinner.

Here we diverge from the Stillwater River for a little while in order to make a driving loop. The Nye Road through Fishtail and Nye keeps getting more scenic the closer you get to the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains.

Stillwater Trail, Nye

After about 30 minutes from the Wild Flower Kitchen on Nye Road/County Road 419, we arrived at the Sioux Charley Lake Trailhead.

We’ve traipsed this trail in both summer and winter and both seasons are spectacular. The trail starts out in a rocky canyon where the Stillwater River leaps over huge boulders. The trail is mostly flat, with a couple small hills, for about 3.25 miles (one-way) to Sioux Charley Lake.

The lake is really a widening and flattening of the river. In winter it freezes and we like to slide around in our boots marveling at how clear the ice is and how deep the lake is. In summer, it’s refreshing to wade into the water or cast for trout.

From Sioux Charley Lake, the trail continues 26 miles to Lake Abundance. Along the way, it passes other lakes, meadows, mountains, and connecting trails.

For a shorter hike, pull into the Woodbine Campground and walk 1.5 miles round trip to Woodbine Falls.

Once back in the car, take the Stillwater River Road back to Absarokee. It’s a longer drive (50 minutes), but makes an interesting loop. We occasionally stop at the Cliff Swallow Fishing Access Site to stretch our legs and wade in the river.

Dew Drop Drive Inn, Absarokee

Absarokee is a charming small town that serves as the gateway to fishing, hiking, camping, and adventuring in the Absarokas and Beartooths. And a spot for meals, drinks, and ice cream.

The name of the town (and the mountain range) was derived from Apsáalookěi, which is what the Hidatsa people called the Crow tribe. It translates to “children of the large-beaked bird.”

The Dew Drop has been around since the 1960s, serving up hamburgers, French fries, and other drive-in food. Milkshakes are a must for my family. There are too many flavors to choose from, but that means everyone gets just what they want.

The Dew Drop Drive Inn also has ten RV sites.

Montana Silversmiths Factory Outlet, Columbus

Wrap up your day with a little local shopping at the Montana Silversmiths Factory Outlet (double check that you are at the outlet, not the factory). Open since 1973, they make Western silver jewelry and belt buckles in Columbus.

While much of their highly decorated and engraved works are sold around the world, you can see displays and purchase jewelry in the outlet shop.

Grab your favorite adventure buddy, plan for a full day, follow the Stillwater River and see where it leads.