Southwest Montana’s Vigilante Trail
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 simply traveling through the region on your way to Yellowstone.
The Vigilante Trail was established in the 1920s to encourage family travel to Yellowstone. The grandeur of the mountains and lifestyle of the “wild west” beckoned exploration. This historic corridor and lifestyle continue to beckon travelers and Montana’s wild beauty does not disappoint.
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.
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.
This adorable Bed & Breakfast located in the heart of Butte, was originally the home of Copper Baron W. A. Clark. Construction began on this 34-room Victorian mansion in 1884 and was completed in 1888. Visitors can stay in the mansion or swing by for a guided tour throughout the summer.
From Butte you will head toward Whitehall over Homestake Pass, 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. If you aren’t looking to camp, consider spending the evening in the charming small town of Whitehall. 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.
Whitehall is a quintessential Montana small town, with unparalleled access to outdoor recreation, local diners, adorable shops, and of course just a touch of art to brighten the streets. As you wander through town can you spot all 10 of the murals depicting the Lewis and Clark expedition?
The Lewis & Clark Caverns offer tours from May 1 through September 30. The tours take visitors on about a 2-mile hike up to and through the caverns in the cool comfort of the naturally air-conditioned space. These Ranger led tours provide visitors with the history and geological significance of limestone.
As you travel down MT Highway 41, you will find yourself in the beautiful town of Twin Bridges. This area is a fisherman’s paradise, and visitors will find a variety of tackle and equipment shops as well as guided trips. 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.
While you are in the area, take the time to get to know the community of Twin Bridges. Stop by the Madison County Fairgrounds and explore the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Park, dive into the history of the state orphanage, and grab a bite to eat at a local hot spot. Twin Bridges is known as a bike friendly community, offering countless ways to explore the area!
Gold was first discovered at Alder Gulch in 1863 by Bill Fairweather and his crew. The gulch was named after the incredible alder trees that lined the banks of the river. This was the site of the largest placer gold strike in world history, producing $10,000,000 in its first year of operation. This strike brought hundreds to the area.
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.
Coming into Ennis from Virginia City, visitors will be met with signs for the National Fish Hatchery. As you stroll along main street you will find an outdoor art walk, restaurants, tackle shops and more. Continue along the Vigilante Trail, 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. Shortly thereafter, you’ll find Earthquake Lake. Just before Hebgen Lake, you can stop for a hearty breakfast any time of day at the Campfire Lodge Restaurant and Cabins. With the trail coming to an end, you will drive along Hebgen Lake. From here, you are just outside of Yellowstone.
On August 17, 1959, an earthquake (magnitude of 7.3) devastated the Madison River Canyon area, causing a massive landslide which dammed the river and created Quake Lake. The visitor center is open Memorial Day through mid-September and provides a detailed account of the aftermath of the quake.
Taking time to dig deeper in Southwest Montana on your way to Yellowstone may just lead to unexpected memories. Yellowstone, known for its incredible geologic and thermal features became the first National Park on March 1, 1872 thus preserving beautiful public land.