Explore Montana ghost towns dating back to the gold rush: Butte, Bannack, Nevada City and Virginia City.
Wander through authentic 1800s ghost towns on this rambling four-day route over mountains, across the Continental Divide, and along blue-ribbon trout streams. Butte (population 33,854) is the “big city” on the drive. Legend has it some of the smaller towns harbor gold-rush-era ghosts.
The Route: Butte > MT-41 > MT-287 through Virginia City to Ennis > U.S. 287 > MT-2 through Cardwell to Butte Shortcut: Take I-90 from Cardwell to Butte for a faster drive.
Total Distance: approximately 300 miles
Gateway Airport: Bert Mooney Airport, Butte
Begin in Butte, once known as the “richest hill on Earth” thanks to a multibillion-dollar mining industry. Take an underground tour at the World Museum of Mining, located on the former site of the Orphan Girl silver and zinc mine. Continue this theme at Headframe Spirits, makers of Orphan Girl Bourbon Cream Liqueur. In the distillery’s tasting room, try an Orphan Girl Chocolate Drift (mixed with vodka and chocolate syrup). Be sure to grab a pasty at Joe’s Pasty Shop before turning in for the night.
Consider detouring at Wise River (west on MT-43 past Wisdom) to Big Hole National Battlefield. This sacred site of the Nez Perce people is part of the multistate Nez Perce National Historical Park. At Wise River, slow down and enjoy the scenery along the 49-mile-long Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. In summer, visit the ghost town of Coolidge. In the winter, hit the slopes at Maverick Mountain.
Stop in the route’s three best-preserved ghost towns: Bannack State Park, Nevada City, and Virginia City (which remains a living town with about 190 fulltime residents). The latter two towns house a collection of 19th-century buildings and Americana, including more than a hundred arcade and music machines. If visiting in summer, reserve tickets for Virginia City’s bawdy Brewery Follies or family-friendly Virginia City Players shows. Spend the night at a real ghost town in Nevada City.
Spend the day fishing (or learning to fly-fish) in the tiny town of Ennis with such fly-fishing outfitters as the Tackle Shop, Madison River Fishing Company, and Trout Stalkers. Buy or rent outdoor gear, book a guided fly-fishing trip (April to November 1), or get angling tips. Continue on to Norris Hot Springs (open year round), known locally as “water of the gods.” While soaking, watch for deer and antelope. Spend the night in Ennis.
This route was published in National Geographic Traveler magazine. To see more about this route—including interactive maps and additional photos—visit nationalgeographic.com/montana/roadtrips.