- Approximate Mileage: 415
- Approximate Drive Time: 10 hours
The Grand Loop Tour of Southwest Montana takes you through most of the region's highway-accessible sites. It covers just over 400 miles, a minimum 10 hour drive straight through. Plan on much more time for sightseeing, eating and recreation along the way!
Helena to Deer Lodge
To get an overall sense of Montana's begin-nings and growth, visit the Montana Historical Society Museum and view the Capitol's murals and statues while in Helena. For a quicker tour, take the open-air Tour Train. Enjoy the pedestrian mall in Last Chance Gulch, where the discovery of gold in a streambed made Helena a permanent town.
Begin the driving portion of your tour on Highway 12 and go west to MacDonald Pass (6,320 feet). Stop at the overlook for a spectacular view. As you crest the pass, watch for a campground and another over-look. Continue along the Little Blackfoot River through the towns of Elliston, Avon and Garrison.
At Garrison, get on I-90 and go 10 miles east to Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge. This is the National Park Service's only working cattle ranch interpretive site. Stretch your legs with a tour of the ranch house, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop and wagon collection. Visit downtown Deer Lodge for a tour of the Old Montana Prison, the Montana Auto Museum, the Powell County Museum, Yesterday's Playthings and other unique collections.
Deer Lodge to Wisdom
Leave Deer Lodge by driving 10 miles east on I-90 to exit 197, then go west on Highway 273 until you see a sign for Lost Creek State Park. This park is a limestone canyon with picnicking and camping sites. A short hike to the top of the waterfall rewards you with a fantastic view.
When you come back to Highway 273, turn right and drive about 5 miles southwest on Highway 1 to Anaconda. The town is known for a landmark called "The Stack," the only remnant of the smelter founded in the 1800s to process ore from the copper mines in Butte. Take the walking tour of the town and see the Washoe Theater for art deco gilding at its finest.
Just east of Anaconda on Highway 1, turn south onto 274. This stretch takes you through the Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area where you might see moose, elk or sandhill cranes. When 274 ends, turn right and follow Highway 43 south along the Big Hole River to Wisdom. In Wisdom, picnic at the city park and look for the Western Art Gallery. Ten miles west of Wisdom, the Big Hole National Battlefield commemorates the 1877 battle between five bands of Nez Perce and Col. John Gibbon's troops.
Wisdom to Dillon
Head south from Wisdom on Highway 278 through the "Valley of 10,000 Haystacks," where you'll find the small community of Jackson 19 miles down the road. For some relaxation, try out the Jackson Hot Springs Lodge. Up the road, look for signs pointing the way to the ghost town of Bannack. Many of the original buildings remain in what has become a state park.
Once you've toured Bannack, return to 278 and drive east to Dillon. There are many things to see and do here, so start your exploration with a trip to the excellent Visitor's Center. For a backcountry side trip off 278, go north from Polaris 40 miles to Wise River on the Pioneer Mountain National Scenic Byway. This beautiful and remote byway through the Pioneer Mountains offers many campgrounds and hiking trails, the ghost town of Coolidge and a favorite rockhound locale, Crystal Park.
Download: Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Pioneer Mountains National Scenic Byway Brochure
Dillon to Virginia City
When you leave Dillon, drive northeast on Highway 41 along the Beaverhead River to Twin Bridges. Here the Ruby, Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers meet to form the Jefferson. Visit the Twin Bridges Historical Museum as well as several art galleries and shops in town. Then head southeast on Highway 287 along the Ruby River to Sheridan, a route favored by gold rush era highwaymen. Sheridan's storefronts mark it as a trade center for those wild days.
Robber's Roost, just down the road, is the spot where notorious thieves plotted their next heist. You'll drive through the town of Laurin, where the church is made of local stone. At Alder, those mounds of gravel just west of town are left over from gold dredging. You might want to take a 7 mile detour to the Ruby Reservoir or Ruby River for a little water sports or rock hounding. As you continue along 287, you'll pass through Alder Gulch and Nevada City. More than 100 buildings stand in Nevada City; most were brought here to preserve them. Your next destination is Virginia City, which became Montana's second capital after a rich placer gold strike in 1863. Take some time to look around.
Virginia City to Butte
As you drive to the top of the 6,000 ft. pass between Virginia City and Ennis, take in the beautiful views of the Madison Valley. You'll be headed towards one of the world's most famous fly-fishing streams and one of the most productive ranching valleys to be found.
Highway 287 north from Ennis follows the Madison River to McAllister, where there is access to Ennis Lake. At the junction of Highway 287 and Highway 2, turn left to visit the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park. Take the short hike on a paved trail to see the spectacular formations inside the caves by guided tour. Then, passing through La Hood, catch I-90 at the Cardwell intersection and continue your loop tour by heading west to Whitehall. Here you can tour a modern gold mine and fish the Jefferson and Boulder Rivers.
Next on your trip is the town of Butte. Take Highway 2 and its route over Harding Way to enjoy mountain scenery at a slower pace. The mining heritage in Butte is everywhere. Take in the World Museum of Mining, the Mineral Museum and the Berkeley Pit. Stop and eat at one of Butte's eateries before moving on.
Butte to Helena
From Butte, take Interstate 15 north through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. If a side trip is on your mind, visit Sheepshead Mountain Recreation Area by taking exit 138 and enjoy a 7-station sensory trail. Handicapped accessible and fun for the whole family.
As you continue toward Basin, watch for mining tunnels high on the canyon walls. Some of the old mines in Basin and Boulder now operate as radon health mines reputed to have healing properties. In Boulder, the stone courthouse is notable. Off Highway 69, 7 miles south of Boulder, you'll enjoy a visit to Elkhorn State Park. Miners of the gold rush era made their homes here and it still has some great photo opportunities. A visitor's center is open seasonally.
Now you're near the end of your loop tour. Jefferson City, Clancy and Montana City along I-15 are the last small towns to welcome you before you are back in Helena.