Planning Your Time
For those interested in the history of the Old West, southwestern Montana is an incredibly rich destination; if you’re interested in the history of the gold rush, Native America, or frontier ranch life, you could easily spend a week here. That the region is also rich in hot springs, mountain recreation, and fishing just makes the living a bit easier.
Helena is a gracious small city backed up into a narrow Rocky Mountain valley. As the state capital, it deserves a couple of days’ visit just to check out the Montana State Capitol, the excellent Montana Historical Society Museum, and the amazing frontier architecture.
The massive Queen Anne mansions that line the graceful old streets are evidence of the city’s original wealth.
A second day in the Helena area should be spent exploring the environs, either gold mine ghost towns or the boat tours through Gates of the Mountains, where the first part of the Missouri River carves a canyon through sheer uplifts of limestone.
Butte, as you will discover, is another story. This scruffy, entirely fascinating mining center was once one of the West’s largest cities from 1880 to 1930; then the mines closed, leaving this once-thriving city more an open-air museum than an actual urban center. However, there’s history galore—and just wandering the streets, having drinks in venerable bars, and a long contemplation on just what an extraction economy really amounts to makes this one of Montana’s most unique destinations.
Stop by the World Museum of Mining to marvel at the riches of silver and copper produced by “the richest hill on earth,” and visit Chinese opium dens and brothels—now museums—to get a sense of what the Western frontier was really like. Two days in Butte will just begin to scratch the surface if you’re a fan of Western history.
Downstream from Butte is Deer Lodge, where two completely incongruent sites are well worth a stop. The Old Montana Prison Complex is an eerily beautiful structure that served as the state penitentiary from the 1890s to 1979. Tours are fascinating, and if you like the feeling of being “in the pen,” stay for a theater production on the outdoor stage. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site tells a different tale of Western history—that of an early cattle ranch founded in the 1860s.
West of Deer Lodge and the Clark Fork Valley, in the western foothills of the Flint Creek Mountains, is Philipsburg, a beautifully preserved mining town that’s little changed since the 1890s. With a newly reopened summer theater—Montana’s oldest, built in 1891—good restaurants, and the excellent, newly remodeled Broadway Hotel from 1890, Philipsburg is a lovely spot to spend the night. And if by now you’ve got the mining bug, you can drive west of town to try your luck at mining for jewels at the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine.
South of Philipsburg is the Big Hole Valley, a scenic high valley devoted to ranching, fishing, and recreation. A highlight is the Big Hole National Battlefield where the Nez Percé under Chief Joseph defeated the U.S. Army in 1877.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition