Montana Road Trip: Small Towns and Ghost Towns

Dig into Montana’s rich mining heritage, soak in hot springs, and wander through authentic 1800s ghost towns on an approximately 300-mile loop through the state’s southwestern corner. This rambling route leads over mountains, across the Continental Divide, through forests, and along blue-ribbon trout streams, including the world-renowned Madison River. Once known as the “richest hill on Earth” thanks to a multibillion-dollar mining industry, Butte (population 33,854) is the “big city” on the drive. Most of the towns you’ll visit are much smaller. Some have a hundred residents or less, and according to local legend, a few just might be home to some gold rush–era ghosts.

Butte > I-15 to exit 102 > MT-43 to Wise River > Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway (fully open May 16 to November 30) > MT-278 to Jackson > backtrack on MT-278 to Dillon > MT-41 > MT-287 through Virginia City to Ennis > U.S. 287 > MT-2 through Cardwell to Butte.

Shortcut: Take I-90 rather than MT-2 from Cardwell to Butte for a faster drive.

Note: Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is closed from December 1 to May 15 between the Pettingill campground parking lot to the north (ten miles south of MT-43) and Elkhorn Hot Springs to the south (13 miles north of MT-278). If you're traveling at that time of year, either head west on MT-43 to MT-278 and Jackson, or stay east and continue on I-15 to Dillon.

Bert Mooney Airport, Butte

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Whitehall offers guided tours of one of the most impressive caves in the United States (May 1 to September 30). Buy tickets when you arrive (no advance sales available), and be prepared to hike about two miles. Best Bet: Cave tour traffic is lightest in September. If you're planning a December visit to the park, purchase tickets in advance for a Holiday Candlelight Tour of the caverns.

In Butte, take an underground tour at the World Museum of Mining, located at the former site of the Orphan Girl silver and zinc mine. Continue the Orphan Girl theme at Headframe Spirits, makers of Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur. In the distillery’s tasting room, try one of the Orphan Girl specialty cocktails: Dirty Girl (mixed with root beer), Chocolate Drift (mixed with vodka and chocolate syrup), or Copper City Bulldog (mixed with all of the above plus half and half).

Go rockhounding at Crystal Park, located on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, about 60 miles southwest of Butte. For a five-dollar (per car) day-use fee you can dig for quartz crystals in the sandy, decomposed granite soil and keep any treasures you find. Bring gloves, a gardening shovel, and a screen (for sifting). Open from May 15 to October 15, weather permitting. Inside Tip: Sift through the sand slowly and carefully to avoid damaging the crystals.

Explore the route’s multiple ghost towns—Quartz Hill, Glendale, Coolidge, Rochester, Farlin, Pony, Bannack State Park, Nevada City, and Virginia City, which remains a living town with about 190 full-time residents. The last three are the best preserved and regularly host tours and other events. Virginia City and Nevada City alone house an extraordinary collection of 19th-century buildings and Americana, including more than a hundred arcade and music machines such as coin pianos, orchestrions, and band organs. Inside Tip: Download the Southwest Montana Ghost Towns map.

In summer, plan ahead and make reservations to take part in two Virginia City traditions. The first is Brewery Follies (May to September), a bawdy, often wacky, and definitely adults-only comedy revue. The second is an hour-long Ghost Walk (summer, by appointment) through the town’s darkened streets and alleys. Ghost sightings have been reported (particularly at Hang Man’s Building, named for five men hanged there in 1864). The walking tours originate at Bale of Hay Saloon, and participants regularly carry adult beverages. Inside Tip: If you're traveling with kids, opt for the family-friendly shows performed by the Virginia City Players (May 22 to September 20).

The tiny town of Ennis is living proof that big things come in small packages. Main Street includes the old-school Madison Theatre, showing first-run movies Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. There also are multiple fly-fishing outfitters, including the Tackle Shop, Madison River Fishing Company, and Trout Stalkers. Visit a few to buy or rent outdoor gear, book a guided fly-fishing trip (April to November 1), or get friendly, expert angling advice on anything from casting and flies to where the rainbows are biting.

From Ennis, make a quick detour south on MT-249 to the Ennis National Fish Hatchery (Open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.). This is the country's largest federal rainbow trout broodstock hatchery, meaning fish are grown here specifically to harvest the eggs. Walk inside the hatchery building and around the display pond, where the resident rainbow, blue, and albino trout can tip the scales at up to 15 pounds. Best Bet: Walk down the creek to see the large wild trout living in Blaine Springs and, sometimes, foraging osprey and bald eagles.

Soak in a hot spring–fed pool at Norris Hot Springs in Norris. The bubbling spring, known locally as “water of the gods,” flows into a wooden pool that’s emptied nightly. Enhancing the water’s natural restorative effects are the unobstructed views: miles of green hills and wetlands. Frequent wildlife sightings include sandhill cranes, deer, and antelope. Inside Tip: Visit in summer, when there are fewer people in the pool and when there's more shade around it (for napping or reading).

Hodgens Ryan Mansion in Butte is a homey, historic inn with a rich mining history. Built at the end of the 19th century, the mansion was once home to industrial tycoon John D. Ryan of Anaconda Copper and Montana Power Co. Ask for a room with a private bath. Use the house kitchen to make meals, or walk to Uptown microbreweries and distilleries. Inside Tip: If the Hodgens Ryan is booked solid, try the equally historic Copper King Mansion or Toad Hall Manor.

Finlen Hotel and Motor Inn is conveniently located near locally owned restaurants and shops in Butte’s historic district. The property has two separate buildings: a 24-room hotel built in 1923 and a 32-room motor inn. Book a corner suite in the hotel for the best views and most space. Fun Fact: Before they were U.S. presidents, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy stayed here.

Cabin rates at the comfortably rustic Jackson Hot Springs Lodge include free use of the thermal spring–fed pool. The scalding hot (about 155°F) waters are naturally cooled to a safe and comfortable 94 to 103°F. Book a two-bedroom cabin outfitted with Montana-made log beds. Note: The pool is closed for cleaning on Wednesdays.

Check off two Montana must-dos in one stop by staying in the ghost town tepee at Bannack State Park. Chief Snag, named for the Lemhi Shoshoni chief who was killed here, is a teepee located in the Vigilante campground and sleeps eight. Book the site several months in advance, and bring camping gear. Note: Tepee rental at Bannack State Park is available May-October.

Alder Gulch Accommodations handles the ghost town lodging in Nevada City and Virginia City. The no-frills guest rooms are in 1860s buildings primarily, and intentionally, frozen in time to maintain the gold mining–era vibe. Options include the 14-room Fairweather Inn in Virginia City (ask for a private bath), and the Nevada City Hotel and Cabins. Best Bet: Stay in one of the two Victorian Suites in the Nevada City Hotel and Cabins (there are also ten hotel rooms) or in one of the two sod-roofed pioneer cabins.

Butte’s signature comfort fare is the “pasty” (PASS-tee), a piping-hot pastry turnover stuffed with meat, potatoes, and onions. The traditional miner’s meal can be eaten dry, but go for the gravy on top. Best Bets: Joe’s Pasty Shop, Nancy’s Pasty Shop and Catering, and Gamer’s Cafe.

Bale of Hay Saloon is a restored 1863 watering hole and Old West–themed tourist favorite in Virginia City. Owners and twin sisters Kay and Gay Rossow serve up local specialties (including meat pasties and microbrews) and host monthly hijinks such as bed races and beer fests. Open May to September.

Virginia City Creamery makes ice cream the old-fashioned way: slowly, with salt, ice, milk, and sugar, and using antique equipment from the early 1900s. Eat a scoop of one of the 20 daily flavors (look for huckleberry and double chocolate orange) while you watch the machines run. Inside Tip: Ask Creamery owner Mark Weber for his old-fashioned ice cream recipe and for the expert scoop on making your own at home. Eat local at Norris Hot Springs' 50-Mile Grill, where the menu items (including beef, bison, lamb, and trout) are raised or produced within a 50-mile radius of the restaurant. Most vegetables served are actually grown on-site in the organic Garden of the Gods. Inside Tip: After dinner any Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night, listen to acoustic performances by local and touring musicians.

Arguably Madison County’s most creative Tex-Mex dishes are served at Banditos at the Gravel Bar in Ennis. Entrees include salmon wrapped in corn husk, Swiss chard enchiladas, and carne asada made with grilled Montana Wagyu flank steak. Open for breakfast and dinner, May 28 to mid-September. Closed Mondays.

For fine dining (such as beef tenderloin medallions with blueberry red wine compote), make reservations at the Old Hotel in Twin Bridges. Open from May to September for dinner Tuesday to Saturday and for Saturday and Sunday brunch. Open from October to April for dinner Thursday to Sunday and for Sunday brunch.

Buy a custom-fitted cowboy hat at Buffalo Gal Hat Company and Gallery in Jackson or at Montana Mad Hatter in Twin Bridges.

Check out the latest Montana-made boron, bamboo, and graphite fly rods at the legendary R.L. Winston Rod Company in Twin Bridges. Best Bet: If you’re shopping for a rod, try it out on the casting lawn outside the store.

Hook and Horn wears a number of hats in Wisdom, a tiny ranching community that’s home to about a hundred people. The store stocks hunting, fishing, camping, and horseback-riding gear, plus veterinarian supplies, regional artwork and gifts, clothing, fresh bakery items, locally roasted coffee, and more. Inside Tip: On Sunday evenings, owners Jane and Ken Wigen clear space in the store for a potluck dinner open to all.

Watch live music performances on multiple stages at the outdoor Montana Folk Festival, held each July in Butte. The free celebration of Montana heritage and culture includes folklife demonstrations, regional foods, and a First Peoples’ Market selling authentic Native American arts and crafts, such as hide paintings, star quilts, and antler carvings.

Dip a candle, pan for gold, and watch the Old West “shootouts” in front of Skinner’s Saloon at Bannack Days. Held the third weekend in July at Bannack State Park, the festival commemorates Bannack’s pioneer and gold mining past.

The Friday and Saturday before Halloween, grab a flashlight and take a spooky Bannack Ghost Walks to “meet” some of the ghost town’s roguish former residents. Reservations required.

Throughout the summer, Nevada City hosts Living History weekends. Interact with the period reenactors to learn what life was like here in the 1860s.

Virginia City’s Grand Victorian Balls recall the more genteel side of the mining town’s history. Rent a costume and join the dance in June or August.

Evel Knievel Days is a weekend-long adrenaline rush named for Butte’s bad boy native son and world famous motorcycle daredevil. Held in Uptown Butte in late July, the free event features extreme motocross sports, a demolition derby, live music, and more.

No hunting is required to feast your way around downtown Ennis at the Ennis Hunters Feed, held each October on the Friday before the first day of rifle hunting season.

If you’ve ever wanted to try fly-fishing, a spot along this road trip is the place. This driving route passes a number of premier blue-ribbon trout streams, including the Madison, Jefferson, Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers. Plan ahead to book a daylong or multiday fly-fishing tour with an experienced local guide service such as Stonefly Inn and Outfitters in Twin Bridges or Madison River Fishing Company in Ennis.

The 49-mile-long Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway cuts north-to-south through the heart of Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest between Wise River and Polaris. The mainly two-lane paved road is named for the spectacular Pioneer Mountain Range views. In summer, stop to camp overnight, go trout fishing or hiking, or visit the ghost town of Coolidge.

At Wise River, continue west on MT-43 past Wisdom to Big Hole National Battlefield, a sacred site to the Nez Perce people and part of the multistate Nez Perce National Historical Park. Walk the ground consecrated by the Nez Perce warriors, U.S. soldiers, and Bitterroot civilian volunteers who fought and died here in 1877. Free and open year-round except for major holidays.

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From Virginia City, take a side trip south on MT-287 to discover two “hidden” lakes: Cliff and Wade. Both bodies of water are home to abundant wildlife, including bald eagles, ospreys, beavers, river otters, elk, and moose. Forest Road 8381 leads to both lakes. Look for the turnoff just before the MT-287/87 junction.

Arrive with a fishing license so you’re ready to drop your hook in a stream or lake along this road trip. Apply for and buy a license online, or pick one up at a local sporting goods store. You'll need a Conservation License, along with designated fishing increments of two days, ten days, or a season. Inside Tip: Print a few copies: one to keep in your wallet and one to hand to any guides.

In winter, go downhill skiing or snowboarding with the locals at two old-school ski areas: Maverick Mountain near Polaris (about 30 miles northeast of Jackson via the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway) and Lost Trail (26 miles west of Wisdom on MT-43 near Sula). Check website for ski conditions and opening/closing dates.

The Helsinki Bar on Butte’s East Side is the last remnant of the city’s predominantly Finnish “Finntown” neighborhood. Built by Finnish immigrants in the late 1800s, the building used to include a traditional Finnish sauna. The sauna is long gone, but the bar harkens back to the days of the once thriving Finntown and offers frosty bottles of beer.

Day 1: Butte

Day 2: Butte to Jackson Hot Springs

Day 3: Jackson Hot Springs to Nevada City-Virginia City

Day 4: Virginia City to Butte

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