Southwest Montana’s Vigilante Trail

MONTANA TRAVEL ITINERARIES & DAY TRIPS: THE VIGILANTE TRAIL

Mileage: approximately 166 miles

This itinerary will lead you from Butte, the Richest Hill on Earth, to Yellowstone, America’s First National Park.

From Butte, follow I-90 east to Whitehall, taking exit 249 (26 miles). Once in Whitehall, follow Montana Highway 55 for 12 miles, continuing onto Montana Highway 41 (14 miles). From Twin Bridges follow MT-287 to Virginia City (28 miles) and on to Ennis along 287 over the Virginia City Hill (14 miles). From Ennis, continue on MT-287 to the MT-191 junction (63 miles), proceed south – turning right – to West Yellowstone (9 miles).

Southwest Montana was established on the boom and bust. It is along the Vigilante Trail visitors should travel if they “want to visit these places of interest and [desire] to learn first-handed the details of these early days and see the places where the Vigilance Committee did their work of bringing order out of chaos.” In other words, this is the perfect itinerary for anyone interested in the rich mining history of Montana, the ghosts of the area, or if you are traveling through the region on your way to Yellowstone. The Vigilante Trail was created in the 1920s to encourage family vacationing and exploration by way of automobile to Yellowstone National Park.

As one of the largest and most prominent towns in Southwest Montana, Butte will be our starting point. While in Butte, see the World Mining Museum, take a historic trolley ride, grab a drink at one of the breweries or Headframe Spirits, visit the infamous Dumas Brothel, learn about the Chinese in the American West at the Mai Wah Museum, spend a night with American royalty at the Copper King Mansion, and try one of Butte’s signature dishes: pasties – introduced by Cornish miners.

As you cross over Homestake Pass on your way to Whitehall, consider spending some time in the great outdoors. The Pipestone ATV Area provides visitors with opportunity to explore the mountains of Montana, and there are several rental options near Butte. There are also several campgrounds and lakes (namely Delmoe Lake) to explore in the area, perfect for an overnight trip or quick picnic.

Whitehall is a charming small town with several restaurants. As you wander through town, take a look at the murals that cover the buildings! A quick jaunt off the planned excursion (about 16 miles) you will find the Lewis & Clark Caverns, one of Montana’s State Parks.

As you travel down MT Highway 41, you will find yourself in the beautiful town of Twin Bridges, nestled at the convergence of the Ruby, Beaverhead and Big Hole valleys. This area is a fisherman’s paradise, and visitors will find a variety of tackle and equipment shops as well as guided trips. Twin Bridges was once home to the state’s orphanage, a model facility/campus that now stands abandoned.

It is from here that the mining history of the area becomes increasingly prevalent. You will travel through a series of small towns, once booming and now nearly forgotten. Sheridan, followed by Alder Gulch - one of the great gold producers of all time. The site of the largest placer gold strike in world history. It produced $10,000,000.00 during the first year.

Continuing to Nevada and Virginia Cities, ghost towns that come alive between Memorial and Labor Days with living history. This is the highlight of the Vigilante Trail, drawing visitors from across the world to participate in the rich history of the Wild West.

Ennis offers the genuine Montana hospitality that visitors are looking for. Coming into town from Virginia City, visitors will be met with signs for the National Fish Hatchery, which is definitely worth exploration. Again, fly fishing is a major draw to the area with guided tours and tackle shops littering the streets. As you stroll along main street you will find an outdoor art walk, restaurants, antique shops and more.

Traveling down MT-287, take an opportunity to breathe in the beautiful scenery of the area. Think of this section of the Vigilante Trail as an access point to Montana’s great outdoors. Winding along the Madison River, there are countless opportunities to make a quick trip out to the water. If you are looking for a place to rest for the night, Cliff and Wade Lakes are Southwest Montana favorites. Following MT-287, you will find Earthquake Lake and a newly renovated visitor center.

Just before Hebgen Lake, you can stop for a hearty breakfast any time of day at the Campfire Lodge Restaurant and Cabins and dine by the rushing Madison River. With the trail coming to an end, you will drive along the crystal-blue water of Hebgen Lake with its picture-perfect mountain backdrop. There are recreation options here for boaters and fishermen.

From here, turn south on MT-191 to West Yellowstone, to begin your exploration of America’s First National Park.

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