Five Unique Southwestern Road Trips!
Summer is fast approaching and we all know what that means! It’s time to appreciate some of Montana’s breathtaking scenery! And what better way to do that than with a road trip with your closest friends? To kick off your summer with a blast, check out some of the most unique road trips you’ll find in southwestern Montana!.
Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura
Located a short 18 miles east of Butte and north of I-90 is a unique geological site! The Ringing Rocks Pluton! The Ringing Rocks Pluton is a deep-seated vent for a volcano that erupted over 76 million years ago and is most notable for its tor of ringing boulders! The exact reason the boulders ring at the Ringing Rocks Pluton is uncertain, but is suspected that it’s due to a unique combination of composition and erosion patterns in the rocks. What makes the Ringing Rocks Pluton so fun? Tapping the rocks with a hammer will result in a clear chime-like sound! Different pitches and timbres can be found throughout the thousands of rocks and the Ringing Rocks Pluton could theoretically form the basic ostinato for the “Music of the Spheres.” But if you’re thinking of taking one of these unique boulders with you, you better think again, the rocks lose their unique property when removed from the Ringing Rocks Pluton.
Need To Know: The road to the Ringing Rocks Pluton is located at the end of a steep dirt road. The conditions of the road change depending on the weather and the season, a low riding car is not recommended.
Directions: Starting in Bozeman, hop onto I-90 and head west towards Butte. After traveling roughly 64 miles, take exit 241. From there turn right and then right again to double back a short distance and follow that road all the way to the Ringing Rocks Pluton!
Missouri Headwaters State Park
Photo courtesy of Issa Rabideaux
The place were three becomes one, the Missouri Headwaters State Park is a road trip you won’t want to miss this summer! The Missouri Headwaters State Park is the 532 acre park were the Jefferson River, Gallatin River, and Madison River all meet and form into the 2,300 mile long Missouri River! The junction of these three rivers was an important geographical focal point for Native Americans as well as early traders and settlers. So much so that Meriweather Lewis wrote about on their journey! Today the Missouri Headwaters State Park is gorgeous park that anyone who loves abundant wildlife, lush vegetation, and scenic beauty will love!
Directions: Take the Three Forks Exit off of I-90 and head 3 miles north!
Photo courtesy of Visit Southwest Montana
Montana is a breathtaking state especially for road tripping! As one of the largest states by land area, Montana has endless stunning sights to see and explore. But it wasn’t always like that, before 1924 most of the “roads” were old wagon trails. The roads were bumpy at best and too steep for automobiles at best. But in 1924 the Vigilante Trail became the first scenic byway and it connected Glacier National Park in the north to Yellowstone National Park in the south! It was the original road trip! The Vigilante Trail had a gentle grade that made it easier for automobiles and had plenty of brightly painted signs that helped mark the path. Today the Vigilante Trail starts in Butte and takes you on a journey to West Yellowstone! Along the trail keep an eye out for markers that say 3-7-77, a supposed warning to any highwaymen and ruffians that those roads are protected.
Directions: From Bozeman hop onto I-90 and head west towards Butte. From there, head south on I-90 to Whitehall before taking Exit 249. From there follow MT-55 all the way to Twin Bridges, from there follow MT-287 south through Sheriden, Alder Gulch, Virginia City, and Ennis until it takes you to West Yellowstone!
Cliff and Wade Lakes
Photo courtesy of Nature Schooling
For a truly breathtaking scene, Cliff and Wade Lakes in Ennis Montana is the destination for you. Cliff and Wade Lakes were formed when chasms formed by geological faults filled with water. As the name suggests, the lakes are surrounded by cliffs, especially Cliff Lake. Both lakes are incredibly clear and beautiful, which is probably why you can find so many nesting raptors in the area! While visiting take the time to see if you can spot any prairies falcons, osprey, and bald eagles. Waterfowl and beavers are also common as well as some larger fauna such as deer, elk, and moose! In the winter time you have a chance to catch a glimpse of some river otters and maybe even some trumpeter swans! With beautiful water, hidden coves, and three campgrounds, Cliff and Wade Lakes are a must for any Montana summer road trip!
Directions: From Bozeman take Main Street/ Huffine Lane all the way to Four Corners. From there continue to head east on MT-84 all the way to Norris. From Noris turn left onto US-287 and follow it out past Ennis as it snakes alongside the Madison River. Turn right onto US Frst Service Road 8381and drive towards the homestead. You’ll pass by a few old buildings and then reach the top of the cliffs, looking down you’ll see Cliff Lake on your left and Wade Lake on your right!
Grand Tour Loop
Photo Courtesy of Visit Southwest Montana
If you want to have a really adventurous road trip this summer, the Grand Tour Loop of Southwestern Montana is just the thing for you! This road trip loop takes you over 400 miles and takes a minimum of ten hours to drive, not counting the time you’ll want to take to explore the beautiful and historic sites!
The Grand Tour Loop starts in Helena, because what better place to start than the capital of the Big Sky Country? Start by exploring this beautiful city! Visit the Montana Historical Society Museum and view the local murals, or take the open-air Tour Train and check out the Last Chance Gulch pedestrian mall. After exploring Helena head west on highway 12 towards MacDonald Passand stop to take a look at the breathtaking views. From there, head towards Garrison and get on I-90 east for a short 10 mile drive to Deer Lodge. Deer Lodge is another historic city so be sure to visit all the exciting sites such as the old Montana Prison, the Montana Auto Museum and the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site!
Leave Deer Lodge on I-90 and take exit 197, heading west on highway 273. While driving keep your eyes open for Lost Creek State Park and explore the beautiful little park that has a beautiful hike to the top of a waterfall. Back on 273 turn right and drive five miles southwest on highway 1 to Anaconda. Explore the historic city that was almost Montana’s capital before heading south to highway 274. Highway 274 will take you through the gorgeous Mount Haggin Wildlife Management Area. Once highway 274 ends, turn right onto highway 43, which follows the Big Hole River all the way to Wisdom. After exploring the cute little town head ten miles west and you’ll find the Big Hole National Battlefield Historic site, which is where five bands of Nez Perce faced Col. John Gibbon and his troops in 1877.
From Wisdom you’ll head south on highway 278 which will take you through the Valley of 10,000 Haystacks and is home to Jackson. Check out the Jackson Hot Springs Lodge for a soothing treat and follow the signs to the ghost town of Bannack, Montana’s first ever capital. Hop on highway 278 and continue east to Dillon which has plenty of interesting places to explore like the Pioneer Mountain National Scenic Byway, a mini-road trip that offers trails and camping in the beautiful Pioneer Mountains; Coolridge, a thrilling ghost town; and Crystal Park, a must see for any rock climbing enthusiasts.
After Dillon you’ll drive northeast on highway 41 along the Beaverhead River towards Twin Bridges. Here the Ruby River, Beaverhead River and Big Hole Rivers all join to form the Jefferson River. After you explore the historic Twin Bridges, head south along highway 287 to Sheridan. This is the same trail highwaymen took during the gold rush era and Robber’s Roost is notorious for being the place where thieves would plan their next heist. As you continue along highway 287 you’ll see many small towns and old towns including Nevada City, where over a hundred old buildings still stand after being relocated there for preservation. Soon you’ll find yourself in Virginia City, Montana’s liveliest ghost town by far!
After exploring the historic town it’s time to loop back up to Helena on the Grand Tour Loop! On your journey back towards Butte you’ll pass over a 6,000 ft pass with breathtaking views of the Madison Valley. Heading north along highway 297 follows the beautiful Madison River from Ennis all the way up to McAllister, a quaint town where Ennis Lake is located. At the junction of highway 287 and highway 2, turn left to beginning heading towards Montana’s first ever state park, the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park! After you explore the stunning caverns and grab a bite to eat at the cute deli continue heading towards La Hood before hoping back onto I-90 at the Cadwell intersection and head west towards Whitehall. Whitehall is currently home to a modern gold mine and fantastic fishing along the Jefferson and Boulder Rivers. After spending some time there hop onto Highway 2 toward Harding Way to experience some more beautiful Montana scenery and a casual pace. Once you get to Butte take some time to explore the Richest Hill on Earth and learn about the town’s rich mining history!
After exploring Butte it’s time to hop onto I-15 for the final stretch of the Grand Tour Loop. The beautiful Beaverhead-DeerLodge National Forest is located along I-15 and offers plenty of opportunity for adventure! After exploring the national forest I-15 continues on towards Boulder and Basin and winds through a wonderful canyon. If you keep your eyes on the canyon wall you can spot old mines and some of them even operate as radon health mines believed to have healing properties. As you wrap up your journey the small towns of Jefferson City, Clancy and Montana City will welcome you before you return to beautiful Helena, Montana!
Whether you’re planning on a simple day trip to the Ringing Rocks Pluton or are gearing up to spend a week exploring all of the historic and natural wonders of southwestern Montana by taking the Grand Tour Loop, southwestern Montana has a road trip for everyone! Before you go check out some of our other blogs for necessities for any outdoor adventure, better to be safe than sorry after all!
So pack up and get out the door! The mountains are calling!
By: Issa Rabideaux