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The Bitterroot Valley is located in southwestern Montana in the northwestern United States. It extends over 100 miles (160 km) from remote Horse Creek Pass north to a point near the city of Missoula. To the west is the Bitterroot Range and the large Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, and to the east is the smaller Sapphire Mountains and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area.
The southern end of the valley is split into the East and West Forks, and the northern end drains into the Clark Fork River. Connecting with the west side of the valley are numerous deeply carved granite canyons, including scenic Blodgett Canyon and the valley formed by Lolo Creek. Highway 93 runs through the center of the valley, exiting to the south over 7014 foot (2140 m) Lost Trail Pass.
Communities within the valley include Lolo (in Missoula County), Florence, Stevensville, Victor, Corvallis, Hamilton, Darby, Conner, and Sula, the latter being within present-day Ravalli County. Hamilton, the largest town and the county seat of Ravalli County, is located at 46°14.8'N and 114°09.6'W at an elevation of 3570 ft (1090 m).
Historically, the valley was the long-term home of the Salish tribe of the Flathead nation. In early September 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed Lost Trail Pass from present-day Idaho in order to connect with the overland route through the Rocky Mountains. Passing down Camp Creek and the East Fork, they followed the Bitterroot River northward to the point where it connects with the Nez Perce Trail and Lolo Creek. Before continuing their difficult journey to the west, they named their camp Traveler's Rest. Returning to this site in early July of the following year, they split their Corps of Discovery, furthering their explorations both to the northeast (Lewis) and to the south (Clark).
The first white settlement in the valley was the founding in 1841 of St. Mary's Mission, near present-day Stevensville, by Father DeSmet. Fort Owen was established nearby in 1850, and difficult relations occurred between the white settlers and the Salish until 1891, when the native tribes were relocated to the north. In 1877 Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce tribe passed south through the Bitterroot Valley, fleeing the U.S. Army. They exited the East Fork via Gibbons Pass, near where they fought at the Battle of the Big Hole.
Settlement has continued since that time. The population of Ravalli County in the 2000 census was 36,070. The major industries are ranching, agriculture, forestry, and tourism.
- A virtual aerial image, looking northwest across all of the Bitterroot Range and the Bitterroot Valley, can be viewed at this external link.
- Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce