Southwest Montana Travel Blog

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AUG

25

Road Trip BannackMontana’s historic landscape has been colored by a myriad of cultural influences.For instance, as the first settlers in the area, the Native American people have contributed immensely to Montana’s history and laid the foundation for today’s society. With the Homestead Act of 1862, Agriculture became the cornerstone of our conomy and remains the largest industry throughout the state. In 1872, Yellowstone was named the nation’s first National Park, and in 1910 Glacier followed. Both of these destinations have drawn individuals to the Big Sky State for years. Each of these factors have greatly shaped Montana into the coveted state it is today, but our history is nothing without the rich mining that gave individuals hope of “striking it rich” and achieving the American Dream. (BANNACK is pictured to the left.)

 

 

 

 

 

Copper, Silver and Gold have been found in Montana’s rich hills, many of which can be found within the Southwest Montana region. With each strike, a town would pop up, filled with miners and their loved ones. Many of these towns hosted a variety of schools, churches, homes and saloons for the locals. Each town that cropped up in the area boasts its own story, but possibly the most interesting tales come from those towns that died almost as quickly as they were established. Scattered across the Southwest Montana region, history can be pieced together as you travel from one ghost town to the next. (COOLIDGE is pictured to the right.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Road Trip VC

 The ghost towns in the area are rich with history, promising intrigue and adventure with every step. As you walk down what was once the main street of the town, imagine yourself living in a time when the town was thriving. Granite, Elkhorn and Bannack are all ghost towns in Southwest Montana that are recognized as State Parks, while Garnet is known as Montana’s best kept ghost town. Other towns, like Virginia City (Pictured to the left) and Nevada City thrive on tourism, offering tours, living history days, and countless opportunities to immerse yourself in the story of the town. Some of the towns may host more of the mining paraphernalia than town buildings, like Rimini or Charter Oak Mine and Mill. Still others, Pony and Marysville, remain inhabited to this day. No two towns are alike, and none of them offer the same stories. It is in these towns that we recognize that Montana was born on the boom and bust cycle.

 

 

 

 

A road trip that encompasses many of these historic sites is the perfect way to spend a summer weekend. Whether you just have a few days, or you are looking to truly dig deeper into the Montana landscape, the ghost towns in the area will not disappoint. A few weeks ago, a friend and I jumped in the car to trek across the region. We planned to spend time in the towns themselves, camping along the way, driving across scenic byways, and stopping for a delicious meal in some of the more populated towns. The map pictured below shows the route we took from Bozeman for the weekend.

Our first stop was in Ennis at the Ennis Cafe for a wonderful warmed cinnamon roll with honey butter. Then we took off for Virginia City. As we tramped through town, we took time to peer into each of the historic buildings. Our next stop was Alder Gulch at Robber’s Roost (pictured below), a historically significant link between Virginia City and Bannack, the two territorial capitals. We then drove out to Bannack State Park where we immersed ourselves in the lives of the Vigilantes, Henry Plummer, and ordinary town members. We then made our way up to Butte for the evening. The next day we got lost on our way to Granite Ghost Town, and stopped at the Philipsburg Brewery. Finally, we wound our way up to Montana’s Best Kept Ghost Town, Garnet for a final blast from the past.

 Road Trip Robbers' Roost

It was a crazy and perfect weekend spent in Montana, and the Ghost Towns never disappoint. I highly recommend taking the time to immerse yourself in the History of Montana. There is no better way to do that than through the Ghost Towns which serve as a concrete – though somewhat decrepit – reminder of the founding days of our beautiful state. 

AUG

9

One Last Summer Outing

With summer quickly drawing to a close, it is time to decide on that final excursion. The kids will be heading back to school in the next few weeks, and the weather – knowing Montana – is about to change drastically. Living in Montana, our summers are filled with camping, hiking, fishing, boating, and road-trips, all surrounded by family and friends. These moments, memories, and getaways are what make saying goodbye to the beautiful summer months so difficult. That being said, I have put together my five favorite weekend excursions in the area. Hopefully this will help you get the wheels turning, and allow you to create your own list of favorites.

 

 


 

1.       Lewis and Clark Caverns

This site is one of the 10 state parks located in Southwest Montana. Located along the Jefferson river, the park offers an oasis off MT Highway 2. When visiting the park, you first drive up to the campground. If you are interested in spending the night, you can reserve a spot here (http://stateparks.mt.gov/lewis-and-clark-caverns/). If you continue up the road, you will reach a visitors center from which the tours depart. Each tour lasts about 2 hours, and takes you deep inside the bowels of the mountain. Lined with stalagmites, stalactites, pools, and columns, the caverns offer some of the most amazing views, all of which are hidden from sight. This is the perfect summer outing for people of all ages! Even the kids enjoy themselves – as they take in the natural wonder.

 

 

2.       Camping at Cliff Lake

Tucked in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Cliff Lake is a beautiful oasis and perfect camping spot. Although there are only a few sites available, there are several other campgrounds in the area. I can think of no better place to be than on a paddle board in the middle of this beautiful lake. This is the perfect place to go camping, layout a picnic, or put the kayak in the water. This is a must on any Montana bucket list.

 

 

 

3.       Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site

When visitors think of Montana, many picture days spent on the farm. Grant-Kohrs Ranch will take you back to a simpler time marred by hard work. While visiting the Historic Site, you can take a tour of the main ranch house, watch as the employees continue to run the farm, or participate in a variety of ranger led activities. There are also seven miles of walking trails for visitors to dig deeper into the ranch and have the experience of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

4.       Fly fishing the Madison near Ennis, MT

Whether this is your first time out or you are a seasoned professional, the Madison River offers some of the best fishing in Montana. If you have your own equipment, there are countless fishing access points along highway 287 in any direction out of Ennis, MT. If you don’t have your own equipment, are new to the sport, or are looking for a guide, there are countless options for outfitters and guides in the area – take a look here. (http://www.southwestmt.com/listings/410.htm?c=thegreatoutdoors&t=fishingguide) There is something calming, something that heals as you cast your line into the calm water. Fishing the Madison is a day well spent in anyone’s book. 

 

5.       Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour

Named by Meriwether Lewis in 1805 on the historic Lewis & Clark Expedition, the Gates of the Mountains are located 17 miles north of Helena, MT, on I-15. The boat tour lasts about 2 hours and features a stop at the Meriwether campground, history of the area, a description of the Mann Gulch Fire, pictographs painted by Indians, and a variety of wildlife. This relaxing activity is the perfect way to spend a day in the sun with the whole family. Read more here (http://www.southwestmt.com/specialfeatures/lewisandclark/gatesofthemountains.htm).

Any way you spin it, take this opportunity to go on one more trip in the area before the summer comes to a close.

JUL

29

     Camas Field

      As far as plants go, camas is rather famous in Montana, despite the fact that it is not very widespread. http://fieldguide.mt.gov/RangeMaps/RecencyMap_PMLIL0E040_FS.jpg

     Bread made from camas root was essential in the diets of Western Montana’s Indian tribes, and saved the Lewis and Clark Expedition from starvation. Like the buffalo, the grizzly, or the bitterroot, the delicate blue flowers of the camas plant hold a certain mystique, evoking romantic ideals of the Rocky Mountain Northwest. Part of the beauty of the camas must be its scarcity. Maybe it used to be more common, but as the above link shows, there aren’t many places to find camas anymore. Part of the mystique comes from the short life of the camas flower. Generally any field of camas will only have a week or so of ideal viewing before the flowers start to die. Because of, not despite, its fragile nature, the camas flower evokes Montana pre-history like few other plants. 

Camas closeup

     Camas plants are “glabrous perennials from glabose bulbs” that prefer deep soil in low subalpine meadows. Each stalk grows a series of star-shaped flowers with pale blue petals and yellow anthers. In Southwest Montana, camas can be found in the mountains around Butte, Deer Lodge, and Philipsburg. The most famous place to find camas in Montana is Lolo pass, where it usually blooms in June.

 

 

 https://www.facebook.com/SouthwestMT/videos/1225357844142507/

 

 

 

JUL

21

Standing Herron

As Montana is home to some of the most famous mammals in North America, it can be easy to overlook the birds. But that would be a mistake, because Montana has safari-level birdwatching opportunities, and for some reason, the really amazing birds (eagles, vultures, swans, cranes, etc.) are way easier to find than the famous mammals.

Today I’m thinking in particular of the Great Blue Heron. The four-foot tall shimmering gray-blue bird is one of the most impressive sights Montana has to offer, and the river-bottoms and marsh-lands of Southwest Montana are the perfect places look for the bird.

Blue Herons live in Southwest Montana year-round, wading on the shores of rivers and lakes, hunting fish with their spear-sharp beaks and lightning reflexes. In general they hunt fish, frogs, and the occasional small rodent, and use their long legs to wade deeper into the water than other birds can. If you spot one hunting it will probably be alone, but they live in large colonies called heronries. Somewhat surprisingly for such a massive creature, they frequently nest high in trees, their

Heron in Water

 giant stick nests clinging precariously to the branches. Although various sorts of creatures will eat the eggs and fledglings, adult herons don’t have many natural predators, and can be vicious when provoked—they’ve been known to kill eagles with their beaks.    

From a distance, Blue Herons might be confused with Sandhill Cranes, especially in flight. However, while Sandhill Cranes fly with legs and necks fully extended, Blue Herons extend their legs and tuck their necks into an S curve. Blue Herons can also be mistaken for pterodactyls. An easy way to tell the two apart is that pterodactyls have been extinct for a hundred million years.

 https://www.facebook.com/SouthwestMT/videos/1148561908488768/

MAY

27

Spend five minutes in Montana (or even on this site) and you’ll figure out that rocks are crazy important. The rocks of Montana have shaped the last two centuries of the state’s history. The gold rushes in Bannack, Alder Gulch, and Helena were some of the most important episodes in Montana history. The copper mines of Butte were some of the most famous in the world. Oh, and Montana’s Yogo Sapphire is the only North American gem featured in Great Britain’s crown jewels. But the best part about Montana’s rocks? You can participate in the long history of Montana rockhounding. There are few better ways to interact with the history of Montana than to plan a rockhounding trip, and Southwest Montana has some of the best rockhounding sites in the state.

Most people would agree that some of the best rockhounding in the state can be found at Crystal Park. Located along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, Crystal Park is set aside specifically for rockhounding. The outstanding beauty of the Pioneer Mountains, combined with the thrill of digging up amethysts and crystals makes for a perfect day in Southwest Montana. Crystal Park is open during the summer, and there is a $5 fee per car, bring your own shovel and screen.

If you head up the beautiful Ruby Valley looking for rubies, you might be disappointed. That is because the shimmering blood-red stones in the gravel beaches of Ruby Reservoir are garnets, not rubies. But garnets there are, and plenty of them. Although most of the Ruby River is privately owned, the reservoir is relatively easy to access.

New to the whole rockhounding thing, don’t have the equipment, or just want a bit more structure? Philipsburg sapphires are famous around the world for their quality, and two businesses in Philipsburg cater to the aspiring rockhound. Montana Gems and the Sapphire Gallery will both supply you with everything you need (including the gravel!) to pan for Montana sapphires. You get to keep what you find and they’ll even turn your favorites into pieces of original jewelery. 

Of course those three locations are just stratching the surface of all of the great rockhounding opportunities in SWMT. So make sure to include rockhounding in your next vacation itinerary!

JAN

12

Christmas is over. New Years has passed. What do we have to look forward to? Why Butte’s Chinese New Year, of course! The shortest, loudest, coldest Chinese New Year Parade in America kicks is next month: February 13, 2016. The parade usually starts from the Butte-Silverbow Courthouse around 3:00 pm and ends at the Mai-Wah museum. 2016, the Year of the Monkey, will mark the 24th year of the parade, which started in 1993. It will also mark the 18th year that the dragon, a gift from the people of Taiwan, will be the centrepiece of the parade.

Butte’s Chinese heritage stretches back to the 1880s. Butte’s Chinatown was never very big—it only covered a few blocks on Mercury Street, centered around the Mai-Wah General Store—but at its height, Butte Chinatown had between one and two thousand residents. Forbidden from staking claims, and excluded from most of the mines, Butte’s Chinese mostly took on periphery jobs. They ran laundries, grocery stores, apothecaries, and restaurants.

By the mid-twentieth century, Butte’s Chinese population had mostly disappeared. To this day many of the buildings in old Chinatown are abandoned. However the Mai-Wah museum and society celebrate the city’s Chinese heritage. The museum offers tours and had fascinating displays of artifacts recovered from around Mercury Street. The museum also offers cultural events throughout the year, the most impressive of which is the New Year Parade, a not-to-be-missed spectacle, and hey, now you have plenty of time to plan your visit. Also, if you happen to be in Butte before January 23, the Carle Gallery is hosting a Mai-Way display, including posters from previous parades and the silk dragon. Be sure to stop by.

 

DEC

21

"Is that…is there…is there a giant lady on the top of that mountain?"

Yes, yes there is.

She always startles first-time visitors to Butte. You're letting your eyes wander along the stark Eastern Ridge, and then you notice that there is something strange about one of the peaks. You look closer and realize there is a statue up there. She is far away and high up, and surrounded by the highest peaks around, so at first you assume she must be quite small. But then you realize that she is far away, and high up, and surrounded by the highest peaks around, and if you can still see her-when you can't distinguish individual boulders, let alone trees on the peak-she must be giant. A giant concrete Lady, watching over Butte.

Our Lady of the Rockies is indeed a giant concrete Lady. At 90 feet tall, she is the third tallest statue in the U.S. Only the Statue of Liberty, and the Pegasus and Dragon (in Hallendale Beach, FL) are taller. In 1979, welder Bill O'Bill's (honestly, that's his name) wife was ill with cancer, and he made a vow to the Virgin Mary that he would build a five foot high statue of her in his yard. The vision spiraled out of hand quickly. What had been a small personal act of devotion turned into a massive enterprise that engulfed the city. It came at just the right moment too. Butte's mining industry had been foundering for some time, and by the time the Berkley Pit officially closed in 1982, the city was in a major recession. Building a massive concrete statue on of an absurdly inaccessible peak on top of the Continental Divide was just the sort of project that Butte needed. They built the statue in chucks in Butte. In September of 1985, they poured the foundation, and Montana's senators managed to wrangle the use of an Army National Guard CH-54 Tarhe helicopter to airlift the chunks into place. Her head was finally attached on December 17, 1985.

Our Lady of the Rockies is "entirely non-denominational" and "dedicated to women everywhere, and especially mothers," but I think that it is worth noting that Butte is famously Irish-Catholic. I can't quite imagine a town full of Scotch Presbyterians or German Lutherans building a similar monument…It is such a wonderfully Butte story, I can't imagine it happening anywhere else.   

NOV

6

"Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise."
~ Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

The opal pools and emerald riffles of the Blackfoot River have run through the collective imagination ever since Norman Maclean's 1976 novella A River Runs Through It.  The story elevated the Blackfoot from a simple trout stream to a literary masterpiece.  The river begins its journey near the Continental Divided, a few miles northeast of Lincoln. The upper half of the Blackfoot cuts across Southwest Montana from Lincoln to Ovando before running into the Clark Fork near Missoula.  From Lincoln to Ovando, the Blackfoot flows at a leisurely pace through scenic valleys and narrow, twisting canyons.  The distance from Missoula ensures that this stretch of river doesn't get overly heavy use.  Don't let the smaller crowds fool you, the river is superb.  The river swirls with holes and riffles full of very hungry twenty inch trout.  Fewer people also mean that an abundance of wildlife-elk, moose, bighorn, osprey, and eagles-populate the area. The state land on the banks gives ready access to camping along much of the river, and the calm, but often twisting, waterway caters perfectly to canoeists and kayakers.  No better occupation could be found than plying the banks of this classic blue ribbon trout stream, fly rod in one hand, Maclean's book in the other.    

OCT

7

While exploring Southwest Montana, why not take a step back and focus your energy on an emersion in nature? Birding may be an activity that you have never thought of trying, but why not? Maybe you don’t even know what ‘birding’ entails. Birding is an opportunity to step into the natural world and observe its inhabitants, obviously focusing on our feathered friends, in an honest, no commitment location. Birding is a rapidly growing hobby across the United States, and is an enjoyable activity for people of all ages. Birding is an educational experience, allowing participants to focus on each individual species, opening doors to learn about migration patterns, behavior, territories and preferences. One of the most attractive aspects of birding however, is its flexibility in definition. Birders tailor the hobby to their specific interests; some focus on the science behind the birds, while others use it as an opportunity to get outdoors (hiking, gardening, woodworking, etc), still others focus on an art aspect (photography, drawing, painting, etc.).

Southwest Montana is the perfect place to begin your involvement in the birding community. The varied landscape of Southwest Montana creates numerous habitats enriching your birding experience. Southwest Montana birding trails showcase one National Wildlife Refuge, two National Historic Sites, four Wildlife Management Areas, two State Parks, five campground / recreation areas, and numerous tracts of Bureau of Land Management and National Forest lands. A few of these areas are highlighted below, but be sure to explore all of the birding options in the area.

Located at the foot of the majestic Centennial Mountains, the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Lakeview, Montana is a beautiful preservation of the natural habitat. The Refuge encompasses a variety of habitats, including: lakes, marshes, wet meadows, willow riparian, grasslands, and forest habitats. This diversity provides homes to a variety of species, such as: Trumpeter Swan, Greater Sage-Grouse, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Black-crowned Night-Heron along with a large variety of other species.

The Beartooth Wildlife Management Area is owned by Fish Wildlife and Parks, and spans over 31,000 acres and can be accessed by foot, car, boat, on horseback, or mountain bike. Located between Augusta and Wolf Creek, the Beartooth WMA is home to Trumpeter Swan, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Lewis's Woodpecker, Common Loon, and so many more!

Nestled just outside of Deer Lodge is the Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area. This refuge is a complex of ponds created by ARCO in an attempt to restore and treat surface water that was affected by historic mining in the area. This area is therefore primarily wetlands, and showcases a variety of cattail, rush, sedge, water birch, alder, aspen, and willow. The birds that make their home in this area range from Snow Goose and Greater White-fronted Goose to Double Crested Cormorant and Western Flycatchers and a plethora of other species.

SEP

10

Summer may be wrapping up, but the activities in Southwest Montana are continuing. If you don't already have plans-or if you are searching for something to do throughout September, take a look at some of the events going on around our region!

Don't miss the variety of Farmer's and Community Markets that will be wrapping up their seasons in the coming weeks: Butte Farmers' Market, Sheridan Farmers' Market, Boulder Farmers' Market, Anaconda Community Market, and the Deer Lodge Community Garden Pick-Your-Own Market!

Other Activities throughout the Month:

Box and Cox - Virginia City, MT | August 25 - September 20

The Brewery Follies - Virginia City, MT | September 2 - 26

Music on Broadway - Helena, MT | September 2 - 24

Living History Weekends - Virginia City, MT | through September 27

Wild and Scenic Film Festival - Helena, MT | September 10

"All Hands on Deck! The Musical" - Butte, MT | September 10

Original Festival - Butte, MT | September 11 - 12

Boulder Music and Arts Festival - Boulder, MT | September 12 - 13

Absaroka Winds - Virginia City, MT | September 12

"Evening Over the Mountains" Dinner and Silent Auction Fundraiser - Virginia city, MT | September 12

Bop-A-Dips - Deer Lodge, MT | September 12

Big Sky Draft Horse Expo - Deer Lodge, MT | September 19 - 20

GobCon - Butte, MT | September 26

A Gathering of Men: Landscapes of Change, Wild Places and Inner Spaces - Wolf Creek, MT | September 30- October 4

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