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!
Looking to dig into Montana’s history? Visit the Montana Historical Society (Montana’s Museum) and explore the Capitol building while in Helena. For a tour of town, take the open-air Last Chance Tour Train. Before leaving town, enjoy the walking mall in Last Chance Gulch, where the discovery of gold gave Helena it’s start.
Begin the driving portion of your tour on Highway 12 headed 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 the MacDonald Pass Recreation Area. 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. 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.
The Montana Historical Society predates the state by over 20 years. The territorial legislature created the Society in February of 1865, less than a year after Montana was established as a territory. This ambitious move resulted in the second oldest such society west of the Mississippi. The exhibits trace the area’s history back 12,000 years.
Wide open spaces, the hard working cowboy, his spirited cow pony, and vast herds of cattle are among the strongest symbols of the American West. Once the headquarters of a 10 million-acre cattle empire, Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site preserves these symbols and commemorates the role of cattlemen in American history.
Leave Deer Lodge driving 10 miles east on I-90 toward Anaconda. A detour to Lost Creek State Park will reward you with a short wheel-chair accessible hike and a fantastic view of a waterfall.
When you come back to Highway 273 from Lost Creek, turn right and drive about 5 miles southwest on Highway 1 to Anaconda. The town is known for a landmark called ‘The Stack,&rsdquo; the only remnant of the smelter founded in the 1800s to process ore from the copper mines in Butte. A self-guided walking tour of Anaconda is the best way to see town.
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. 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.
The Old Montana Prison Complex houses five unique museums: The Old Montana Prison, Powell County Museum, Frontier Montana Museum, Yesterday’s Playthings, and the Montana Auto Museum. The museum offers both guided and self-guided tours through the facility. The complex boasts a significant collection, allowing everyone to find something of interest.
Big Hole National Battlefield commemorates the battle that took place on August 9, 1877 between the US and the Nez Perce. As the smoke settled, 90 Nez Perce lives had been taken along with 31 soldiers and volunteers. This site honors all who were present on that day.
Lost Creek State Park rests just outside of Anaconda, providing a unique oasis and perfect place to get out and stretch your legs. The park features a waterfall, grey limestone cliffs and pink granite formations rising 1,200 feet above the canyon’s floor, watchable wildlife, walking paths, and camping opportunities.
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.
Natural Hot Springs are a Montana visitor (and local) favorite, there are six in Southwest Montana! On this route, you’ll find both Jackson and Elkhorn Hot Springs. Both have developed pools and offer lodging on site. Think of these as your basecamp for adventure, or the perfect stop for a quick and relaxing soak.
Bannack was the first territorial capital of Montana. The gold rush brought thousands to settle along Grasshopper Creek, and quickly the area became a central hub in the Montana territory. Today, the town stands as a ghost town, abandoned in ruin and decay, yet the structures hold countless stories and make the perfect base for exploration.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition made their way through Montana in 1805. Moving up the Missouri River they encountered amazing natural wonders, endured grueling hardships, were met and aided by many Native American tribes and crossed the Rocky Mountains a number of sites on the Lewis & Clark Trail can be found in the Dillon area.
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.
Dillon’s Patagonia outlet is well known throughout Montana as the only Patagonia store in the state. Their biggest sales happen annually on Memorial Day and Labor Day. In addition to the gear available for purchase, the outlet can do most worn wear repairs on the premise, making it the go to Patagonia destination in the area.
Micro-breweries are having a significant impact on the culture of Montana. Their popularity has led to 11 breweries opening in Southwest Montana alone. Ruby Valley Brewery pays tribute to the history of the area through the name of its brews. Stop in to Sheridan’s brewery, and Remain Untamed.
Virginia City offers one of the most fascinating stories of any town in Southwest Montana. At one time the most important city in the Territory and little more than a ghost town at another, today Virginia City provides one of the most well preserved and approachable glimpses into Montana's gold rush days.
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. Then, passing through La Hood, catch I-90 at the Cardwell intersection and continue your loop tour by heading west to Whitehall.
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.
Get a breathtaking panoramic perspective of the Pintler Wilderness while soaring along 9,300 feet of the longest zipline in Montana at Montana Zipline Adventures. Located along the Pintler Scenic Highway outside of Anaconda, this exhilarating adventure with seven ziplines will have your adrenaline going as you take in the majestic views.
Headframes litter the landscape of Butte. The “Orphan Girl” headframe is located in the World Museum of Mining and provides an opportunity to visitors to further explore the mining history of the area – underground. Join us for a tour of the mine, and explore the 66 exhibits found in the museum.
The Mother Lode Theatre is The Butte Center for the Performing Arts. The Theatre is home to the long running Mother Lode Series and a venue for the Butte Symphony and Butte Community Concert Series in addition to many other events throughout the year. Learn more about the schedule of events!
From Butte, take I-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.
The historic Milwaukee Railroad serves as the park’s backbone with 25 miles of trails meandering through the area. This park is perfect for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, nordic skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking! With an 18-hole disc golf course and picnic areas, Thompson Park makes for the perfect day under the big sky.
Backcountry roads settle you into a 19th century mining landscape before you reach historic Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall nestled within the town of Elkhorn. These picturesque structures from the early-day silver-mining town are preserved as outstanding examples of frontier architecture.
Tizer Gardens, outside of Jefferson City, is an official test and display garden for the Denver Botanic Garden. The six acre garden features native Montanan plants as well as thousands of species from across the globe. With trails, quirky sculptures, and a garden center, Tizer is ideal for picnics and wanders.