Western Adventures: Madison Valley, MT

June 8th, 2022:

Driving through the wandering expanse of Montana’s Madison Valley is a road to paradise, where you expect to run into old west legends. While the population in the area boomed in the 1860s gold rush, today the true treasure of this modern Eden is the convergence of the amber golden wheat-fields and vast valley as the mighty Madison River weaves it’s rushing waters north towards the headwaters of The Missouri River.

This portion of 287 from exiting Quake Lake in Madison Canyon to the quaint mountain town of Ennis is a stark contrast to the thick forested canyons of the Gallatin and Madison.

This is high plains country, where the Rocky Mountain front pierces the skyline like a sawtooth dagger capped in snow. The Madison range cradles the highway.

If you are looking for pure American west – this is it! Working ranches line the roadsides with cattle herds and horses.

Approximately 71 miles north of West Yellowstone, 287 travelers will encounter the magic town of Ennis, Montana.

Ennis is the perfect combination of Old West meets upscale oasis. Ennis sits on the banks of the Madison River and is the undisputed fly-fishing capital of the world. A variety of lodging from rustic cabins to fishing lodges is available for travelers who want to rest a spell in this valley paradise.

Downtown Ennis offers hungry travelers a wide selection of good eats and snacks. I love the historic soda fountain where root beer is skill made fresh a la 1950s skill. The Gravelly Bar is a popular watering hole.

For a perfect steak and glass of wine – head to The Sportsman’s Lodge.

Ennis is not far from scenic Ennis Lake – the perfect summer getaway for water recreation.

From Ennis you meet the junction of several highways including MT-84 which takes you to the town of Norris MT. This drive eventually leads to Bozeman MT through the gorgeous Beartrap Canyon on The Madison (a popular area for tubing)

Today I decided to take a longer, but equally scenic route to explore the neighboring ghost towns of Virginia City and Nevada City.

The roughly thirteen miles between Ennis and Virginia City is one of the most beautiful and breathtaking views in Montana – and I don’t say that lightly.

The roads twists and turns with such intensity you find yourself changing gears and saying a prayer as you make your way up the mountain pass…a scenic turnout allows drivers to park and pause – taking in the extraordinary view.

In the distance a unique mountain feature known as ‘The Sphinx’ is viewable.

This is my favorite view in Montana – so vast and unbridled as the wind whips and whispers like a song. This is the view that stirs imaginations and dares humanity to dream.

Crossing over the pass I ended up in Virginia City. This restored living ‘ghost’ town – reflects what at one time was the Territorial Capital of Montana and home to a variety of outlaws, vigilantes, gold-diggers – and more importantly Americans from all walks of life looking to build a better life in the American West.

I could dedicate dozens of blog posts to the history of Virginia City and neighboring Nevada City alone, but time’s sake I recommend this link:

Official Visitor’s Website for Virginia City and Nevada City

After finding a parking space, I grabbed my purse and camera and explored the old city streets of this living ghost town.

I’ve visited Virginia/Nevada Cities many times and always come back. The living history always has another layer to reveal and I love the authentic old time mercantile shops mixed with fun Montana souvenir shops. If you have a sweet tooth, Cousins Candy Shop is your destination for any kind of candy you can imagine.

Virginia City has several restaurants and lodging options. If you are in the area for the day I recommend touring the museum and also taking in the Virginia City Players vaudeville show.

Feeling a bit fatigued, I was delighted to find the modern convenience of a latte at popular lunch spot – The Virginia City Cafe. The amaretto latte hit the spot.

Virginia City is a living ghost town with ‘spirited’ shops and history museums, but just a mile down the road you can encounter the ghosts of a nearly forgotten town, Nevada City.

Both grew fast in the 1860s after gold was discovered at The Alder Gulch.

You can take a restored train ride from VC to NC to learn more about how they prospected for gold.

I recommend a full day in the area if this is a first time visit – you’ll really enjoy the history, hospitality and whispers in the wind from a time gone by.

Nevada City, MT

After an hour enjoying the ‘ghosts’ of Virginia and Nevada Cities I took the extra-long way back to I-90 and Bozeman by heading north to Whitehall.

I decided to go the extra miles, because truthfully I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to Montana. Once I reached Bozeman that meant I’d be flying out tomorrow and my heart needed just a little more wide open space to breathe into.

This scenic route traverses the bones of several additional ghost towns as well as the small yet thriving communities of Twin Bridges and Sheridan MT.

When my mom help me move to Montana for my first year of college at MSU we got stranded in Sheridan because the locals explained the elk rut was in full craze and many accidents were occurring on the road back to Bozeman. They helped us find a room so we wouldn’t have to endanger ourselves – now that was mountain hospitality (circa 2002).

Twin Bridges located where the Beaverhead, Big Hole, Ruby and Jefferson Rivers meet – creating a mecca for recreation. In fact world famous R.L. Winston Rod Company is headquartered here.

The area also played host to Lewis and Clark in 1805.

As I made my way up to Whitehall and I-90, I headed east for the last hour of driving towards Bozeman.

This area of road is a mix of buttes, high amber plains and distance mountains. The golden hues of wheat and forgotten barns create a tapestry of nature and history.

Roughly thirty minutes west of Bozeman you will encounter the town of Three Forks, which is settled on the Three Forks of the Missouri River. This is where one of the world’s longest river’s is born.

I recommend stopping at the Headwaters State Park. Learn where Lewis, Clark, York and Sacajawa stood.

The three forks: Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson – where named after

Albert Gallatin

James Madison (later President Madison)

President Thomas Jefferson – who funded the expedition after the Louisiana Purchase.

I’ll dedicate a special blog to the park soon.

While I didn’t have time this trip, not far from Three Forks you can go underground to explore Lewis and Clark Caverns. While Lewis and Clark didn’t actually visit the caverns this unique cave is worth a detour (just be prepared to hike a bit)

In my final entry from this trip we’ll head into my former home of Bozeman MT and stay at the quirky but cool Lewis and Clark Motel.

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