Granite County, southeast of Missoula, is best known as ghost town country. Within 30 miles of the county seat of Philipsburg there are nearly 20 abandoned mining camps, including Garnet, one of the state’s best preserved ghost towns.
While visiting one or more ghost towns is a Granite County must-do (begin your tour at the Granite County Museum & Cultural Center’s Ghost Town Hall of Fame), the area also offers fishing and bird-watching in spring; snowmobiling and skiing in winter; boating, wind surfing, and jet skiing in summer; and hiking, hunting, and horseback riding in fall. The centerpiece is Georgetown Lake, a 3,000-acre mountain lake bordered by the Flint Creek Range to the north and the Anaconda-Pintler Range to the south.
For local resident Ed Silverstein, the decision to move to Granite County from California was made while trout fishing with his wife at the lake. “A noise caught our attention, and we saw three moose grazing knee-deep in the shallows less than 50 feet away,” says Silverstein, creator of the Georgetown Lake Like a Local online guide. “It was one of those magic moments that took our breath away, and it made us want to stay.”
Biking the River’s Edge Trail, Great Falls
It took the Lewis and Clark Expedition nearly a month to portage around the five “great falls” they encountered on the upper Missouri River in June 1805. Namesake of both the city and the surrounding Cascade County, the perpendicular waterfalls are part of a ten-mile stretch where the Missouri drops a total of 612 feet. Bike a section of the 40-plus-mile River’s Edge Trail to see the waterfalls and hydroelectric dams, as well as wildlife, urban parks, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and Giant Springs State Park.
“There’s no better way to explore wild areas that are unchanged from the time Lewis and Clark ‘proceeded on’ through the heart of Big Sky Country,” says John Juras, vice president of the Great Falls Bicycle Club, which hosts Wednesday night mountain biking rides on the trail. Over 20 miles of the route is paved, and biking options include easy and challenging loops, and out-and-back rides. For hard-core mountain bikers, nothing beats “Mayhem”: the jumble of unpaved, expert trails located east of the Rainbow Falls Lewis and Clark Overlook.
Adventure Zip Line Tour, Big Sky Resort, Big Sky
Big Sky Resort’s newest attraction is for those with an adventurous spirit. (Kids must weigh at least 80 pounds.) “The Adventure Zipline Tour is fast and fun with a total of 5,000 feet of zipping,” says Sheila Chapman, a Big Sky department manager. “It’s unique because you gain access to the first zip line tower via chairlift and the guides are fabulous with their Montana hospitality.”
Small groups of strangers gather to zoom their way down along four zip line sections. The takeoff platforms are 20 feet above the ground, and, at its highest elevation, the zip line is 150 feet above the forest floor. The adventure begins with a quick harness safety check before you take the first step off the platform and soar.
“Some guests whoop. Some scream. Some laugh. And all have a smile from ear to ear,” says Chapman. “The ice is broken and the high fives start slapping as guests, once strangers, realize they are on this adventure with new friends.”
The ultimate experience for many visiting anglers is fly-fishing the Blackfoot—the setting for Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical A River Runs Through It—but that’s only one of the state’s many legendary fishing spots. And while fly-fishing gets all the buzz, there are dozens of other options, such as reeling in a colossal (up to ten pounds or more) rainbow trout from the lakes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation; floating the wild South Fork of the Flathead River for catch-and-release cutthroat; and drilling a hole and dropping a line on a frozen lake.
To figure out where and what to fish, consider booking at least one day with a local guide. “There’s plenty of public access to streams, but there is a learning curve,” says Eric Swedman, manager of Madison River Fishing Company in Ennis. “Take a guide trip early in your vacation, and you’ll learn so much about technique, where to look, patterns, and approaches. Plus, you’ll learn about the best spots to try when you’re on your own.”
Helena GeoTour, Helena
Lead your own tour of Helena by discovering as many of the 38 geocaches hidden in and around the city as you can. “The Helena GeoTour brings visitors to all the off-the-beaten-path places only locals know about,” says Patrick Doyle, community outreach director for the Helena Tourism Alliance. Caches are stashed throughout the area, including the cemetery in the Elkhorn Ghost Town.
If you’ve never geocached before, it’s a GPS scavenger hunt on foot. Use a phone with built-in GPS or rent a Garmin GPS unit at The Base Camp to track each cache’s location and find the password hidden inside. Record at least 25 passwords on a GeoTour Passport and earn a limited edition GeoCoin crafted by the local Clay Arts Guild.