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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.



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!



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.




"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.   



"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.    



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.



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



It takes a long time for a town to give up the ghost. Take Bannack, for example: established in 1862, Montana's first mining town had run out of gold by the 1880s, and yet the town clung on. Determined, hard-headed prospectors kept the town alive even after it became a state park in the 1950s. The last residents left Bannack in the 1970s.

Or look at Virginia City: Prospectors discovered the Alder Gulch gold field-one of the richest placer gold deposits in history-in 1863. By 1875 the town was little more than a shell. But, as the children's song says, the cat came back. Steam dredges gave the town some life from the 1890s to 1937. The town was virtually dead by the 1940s and '50s when the Bovey's started buying up property and importing ramshackle huts, then, with a flourish, the town reinvented itself as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.

Bannack lives through the floods of people that visit it each year. Virginia City lives because it replaced mining with a new economy and industry: tourism. A few towns lack much in the way of economy or industry, but still refuse to die: Marysville, Rimini, and Pony are all ghost towns with non-ghostly inhabitants. The few residents live comfortably amid a profusion of abandoned and historic buildings. Montana is chock full of ghost towns, some with modifiers-living ghost towns, working ghost towns, preserved ghost towns-and some that need no other description. A school house, grave yard and only a few dilapidated husks of homes mark the site of Farlin, a mining town that once prospered in the Pioneer Mountains. Only badgers and ground squirrels tunnel around the sprawling ruins of Comet, once the second largest mining operation in Montana. In Granite, on the crest of a hill so hard they couldn't dig holes to bury their dead, only the gaping maws of shallow foundations mark the place where three thousand people once worked, lived, played, and prayed.

The ghost towns of Montana are stark memorials to the state’s boom and bust cycles, but even the deadest of towns still bear the promise of those same booms and busts.  Abandoned once before, the town of Coolidge was erected in 1914 with the recovering silver prices.  As its counterparts, Coolidge slowly gave up its ghosts and sits today an unkempt and scattered collection of decaying structures waiting for a venturesome soul to happen upon its skeleton, bringing the town whirring back to life — for that is the nature of the Boom and Bust.  



***The summer months are always busy in Southwest Montana, don't miss these great events throughout August***

Virginia City Art Show - Virginia City, MT | August 7-9

20th Annual Madison Valley Arts Festival - Ennis, MT | August 8

4th Annual Lincolnstock - Lincoln, MT | August 8-9

Madison County Fair & Rodeo - Twin Bridges, MT | August 12-16

Tri County Fair - Deer Lodge, MT | August 12-16 An Ri

Rah Montana Irish Festival - Butte, MT | August 14-16

Bike Helena Shuttle Fest - Helena, MT | August 14-16

The Grand Victorian Ball of Peace 1865 - Virginia City, MT | August 15

Brewers Festival - Helena, MT | August 15

Powell County Demolition Derby - Deer Lodge, MT | August 16

Haying with Horses - Grant Kohrs Ranch | ends August 20

Symphony Under the Silver Screen - Butte, MT |August 20

Aber Day Reunion Concert - Philipsburg, MT |August 22

Jefferson County Fair and Rodeo - Boulder, MT | August 27-30

Bozeman Trail Commemorative Chuckwagon Cook-off - Virginia City, MT | August 28-30

Boulder Car Show - Boulder, MT | August 29

Tizer Gardens - Jefferson City, MT | August



There is certainly no better time to write this blog than now, sitting among my family and friends enjoying the glowing embers, the quiet evening, and the nearly cloudless night sky.  What makes the perfect campfire? someone asked.  As with any question a variety of opinions quickly cropped up, but I-being one of the most vocal in the group-think I have come up with the recipe for a perfect campfire.  A tall order to fill, my sister quickly pointed out, but I have heard little in terms of disagreement.

As with most camping trips, the day will start shortly after the sun rises, a multitude of possibilities for how to spend the coming hours lie before you.  Will you be hiking? Spending the day on the water? Enjoying a picnic? A scenic drive? A short trip into a neighboring town? Fishing? Reading a book that has been on your list for longer than you would care to admit? Or simply spending time with those around you? Any way you spin it, the perfect campfire starts with a day filled with relaxing activity that takes your mind off of the daily stressors you have put aside for the weekend.

The heat of the day is finally wearing off, maybe you are just about to make dinner or maybe you just finished a taste bud pleasing dish.  The bugs are settling in, and it is time to reclaim your once pleasant campsite.  As a child, I was taught that there are two easy options for setting up a fire, the "tent" and the "log cabin."  The names give away more than they should, one of these layouts is very sturdy but a little harder to get burning; and, the other, though not a clear winner on stability will go up in flames in half the time.    Once the logs are on fire, it is simply a matter of maintaining the flames-that is until you are ready to begin the cooking of one of the world's best desserts.

Next up is a variety of great conversations, games, memories, and of course the guitar is brought out for some of your favorite tunes.  Nothing serves as a better bonding agent than the singing of off-key songs, at least that is how it works in our family.  The best however, is yet to come.  S'mores! S'mores are a delectable, culturally significant, camping icon.  I would almost go as far to say that if you have not had a perfectly cooked s'more you have not lived, or at the very least, you have been missing out.  Your stomachs are now officially filled to maximum capacity, and the sun has finally set.  Many would argue that this collection offers the perfect combination and would qualify as a top notch campfire.  Unfortunately, you would be wrong to stop here.  

What would a campfire be without the telling of creatively devious tales that rest on the edge of plausibility, and leave you questioning your safety, sanity, and motives.  From creatures that go bump in the night and Halloween style monsters to talking snowmen and friendly forest animals, there is no limit to the portal you may step through.  I have found this to be increasingly true when you allow the youngsters of the group to take over the twisting plot.  Once everyone has had a chance to give their two cents, silence takes over.  Nothing left in the fire pit but embers, you realize that there is very little that could compete with this experience, the perfect campfire.  Quietly you glance from the embers to the starry sky above and appreciate all that nature has to offer.    
Southwest Montana has a wonderful selection of campgrounds to choose from, check out our campground finder to plan your perfect camping adventure today.

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