On a warm spring afternoon in 1863, a group of six trail-weary prospectors set up camp next to a tiny creek in the Northern Rockies. Hoping to find a little gold to buy tobacco, they dipped their pans in the stream — and instead pulled up the first, luminous flakes of what would become one of the richest gold strikes in American history.
Determined to keep their find a secret, the men headed back to town for provisions. But their grins gave them away. Other prospectors followed them back to Alder Gulch, and within three months the bustling town of Virginia City had sprung up on the banks of the creek. It has been 150 years since that fateful day. The gold rush came and went long ago. But Southwest Montana remains the land of worst-kept secrets.
Fishermen know this region as home to legendary rivers, pristine spring-fed creeks and crystalline lakes. The Madison, Ruby, Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers demand a place on any trout fisherman’s bucket list. Walleye fishermen come from far and wide to ply the waters of Canyon Ferry Lake, while kokanee salmon fishermen flock to Georgetown Lake. No matter where you are in Southwest Montana, you’re within casting distance of epic fishing.
You’re also within walking distance of breathtaking vistas. This is, after all, the region of Montana sandwiched between the snow-crowned peaks of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the north, and the geological marvels of Yellowstone National Park to the southeast. Backcountry hikers can find themselves alone with their thoughts for days in the breathtaking Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness or the towering Tobacco Root Mountains. Road-trippers won’t be disappointed by a visit to spots like Crystal Park, a high-mountain meadow with stunning views of the Pioneer Mountains.
Here you will feel worlds away from the bustle of urban life. Spend a little time in one of Southwest Montana’s colorful, welcoming small towns and you might never want to return to the noise and fast pace of the city.
Located in the heart of the Madison Valley, framed by the towering Madison Range to the east and Gravelly Range to the west, lies the quaint community of Ennis. Well-known as a vortex of fly-fishing activity, Ennis is also a mecca for artists residing in Southwest Montana. Wildlife and landscape painters, sculptors and photographers showcase their work at the Depot Gallery and the Hole In The Wall Gallery — where prices are just a fraction of what you’d find at galleries in Jackson Hole, Aspen or Park City. A giant iron sculpture of a fisherman greets you upon arrival into the tiny mountain town, and the shop windows are lined with high-quality Western art of every variety.
A little farther north you’ll find Montana’s capital city of Helena. This politically charged burg rivals any other Montana city in scenic surroundings, a vibrant downtown, breathtaking architecture and historic charm. Helena’s arts and culture scene is especially lively in the summer months. The Helena Symphony offers a summer concert, “Under the Stars,” on the Carroll College campus, attracting a music-loving crowd from across the region. A tour of Reeder’s Alley and Last Chance Gulch provide a window into the tough lives of old-time gold miners and their families. For a more contemporary angle on area culture, the Holter Museum of Art showcases national and local artists, and the Archie Bray Foundation attracts ceramic artists from around the world to practice their craft in the foundation’s old brick factory.
After you’ve had a chance to poke around the mansions of Helena and the art scene in Ennis, soak up some Wild West history in the historic old mining town of Butte. This former hub of the mineral boom is bursting with history. Butte’s wild days can be relived through an Old Butte tour of an underground speakeasy and hidden subterrean barbershop (complete with secret rooms for consuming alcohol during Prohibition). Tours of uptown Butte architecture open a window to the boom times of Butte, when grand hotels, massive banks and Victorian mansions lined the hilly streets. But the home of the Copper Kings remains also a hub of living culture, as evidenced every summer when the Montana Folk Festival (July) takes over downtown streets for a dazzling weekend of music, art and food.
As to old Virginia City, it now stands as one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the Northern Rockies. More than 100 historic false-front shops and rough-hewn cabins echo the boom-town sizzle of Montana’s first major settlement. Every summer, visitors flock to the town to experience reenactments, demonstrations of pioneer skills, nightly cabaret at the Gilbert Brewery and authentic 19th century melodrama performances by the Virginia City Players at the old Opera House.
The secret is out: The Montana you have in mind is the one we have in store in Southwest Montana. Whether you seek heart-pounding adventure or enveloping quietude, authentic old-West history or 21st century cowboy culture, you will find it in this swath of mountains, valleys, forests and towns that we humbly claim holds the best of what Montana is about.