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The Treasure State is the perfect nickname for Montana. With wide expanses of blue sky overhead, glorious mountain ranges stretching as far as the eye can see and some of the clearest water known to Man, Montana is unquestionably one of our unspoiled national treasures. It’s a known fact that some of the sapphires in the Royal Crown Jewels of England were mined from Montana soil. This state is also home to some of the few remaining grizzly bears, and provides fisherman with a prime fishing ground to catch plenty of tasty rainbow trout. Winters in Montana, while cold, blanket the area with pristine white snow that turns the landscape into a storybook-style wonderland, and make it a playground for the skier, snowboarder, or sledder.
Our origin point is Helena; “The City That Gold Built.” Founded during the 1864 Gold Rush, Helena quickly thrived and became home to more than 50 millionaires by 1888. Today, Helena stands as a proud symbol of the glory days of the Old West, and we can still visit several of the restored mansions built by several of those early millionaires.
For more information about the state’s development, the Montana Historical Society Museum is an excellent resource. Established in 1865, the Museum provides countless exhibits and a program geared towards the continued appreciation of her early settlers, and features a wealth of information about Lewis & Clark’s involvement with pre-state Montana.
Setting out on the road, we angle ourselves south on the I-15 and cruise for about 65 miles until we come to the city of Butte. Butte has always been one of the most productive mining towns in all of Montana, and as such, it’s also the home of the World Museum of Mining. Founded in 1963, the museum preserves Butte’s rich mining history, including the fact that the city is home of one of the most productive copper mines in history. The museum is built in an actual mining site – the Orphan Girl Mine - and includes more than fifty exhibit buildings, showcasing countless artifacts from the brisk mining operation, and there are nearly seventy primary exhibits in the mine yard alone. Another intriguing spot to visit while in Butte is the Copper King Mansion, the 34-room Victorian mansion that once served as the primary residence of William Andrews Clark, one of the so-called “Copper Kings” of Montana who helped establish the state’s territory during her early days. The mansion remains as close to its original condition as possible, and in addition to serving as a bed-and-breakfast inn, daily tours are available for those who want to step back in time and see things as they were in turn-of-the-19th century Montana.
Heading further on our road trip, we take the westbound I-90 for 13 miles until we merge with Highway 1, which we take another 8 miles into our next stop, the colorfully-named Anaconda. Thankfully, it’s not named because of a mass of giant reptiles who dwell there, but rather because of a massive copper mine named “The Anaconda”. In addition to featuring several historical sites of great interest, the city is also a fine place to get out and enjoy the outdoors. The nearby Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area features majestic 10,000 foot peaks, and Georgetown Lake makes an excellent place to go boating, fishing, or break out the Jet Ski for a quick run across the water. The Pintler Scenic Drive takes us over mountain passes and provides ample opportunity for some breathtaking photo opportunities. Mount Haggin is Montana’s largest wildlife area, covering more than 54,000 acres, and is the habitat of animals ranging from moose and elk, to cranes.
Leaving Anaconda by way of the westbound I-90 takes us 13 miles into our final stop of Deer Lodge, which has the notorious distinction of being the location of the Old Montana Prison. This territorial prison was built by inmate labor and was home to at least one member of Butch Cassidy’s motley band of thieves. The prison was emptied of prisoners in the 70s, and daily tours afford us the chance to see within these grim, forbidding walls. We can see what it was like to live as an inmate, within eyeshot of the “short-drop-and-sudden stop” of the gallows. The prison museum gives us the chance to experience the various tools and artifacts used in the administration of justice in the Old West; most folks can’t resist the chance to get a photo in the maximum security wing of the prison. Just don’t pull the doors completely shut!
A scenic 40-mile trip down the US-12 takes us back to Helena, and brings a close to our relaxing journey through the scenic wonders of the Treasure State – no doubt, we’ll put it on our list of favorites, once we’ve seen the natural wonders Montana has to show us.