Southeast Montana: Cowboys and Culture
A Nevada City "Native." Photo by Darrell Scattergood.
A Nevada City "Native." Photo by Darrell Scattergood.
Catching a ride in Virginia City. Photo by Darrell Scattergood.
A good looking pair in Virginia City. Photo by Darrell Scattergood.
Ladies of Virginia City. Photo by Darrell Scattergood.
For a city-slicker family’s vacation, southeast Montana is perfect. It has all the history, culture and fun of a large metropolitan area without the overpowering architecture or overly chaotic pace. Sure, some kids might think that traveling out west sounds more like a history lesson than an exciting getaway, but parents shouldn’t be deterred. Once the gang discovers there is more to the state than the stuff they saw in The Horse Whisperer—and that most of those aspects are actually fun—the whole family will be in for a fun and educational holiday, with the educational part cloaked under coolness.
Lay of the Land
The state’s tourism is generally divided into four quarters–northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest—with the southwest arguably the most family-friendly. A southwest Montana itinerary can depart from Missoula, and, approximately 200 miles southeast, conclude in Bozeman; both cities boast full-service airports with multiple car rental counters. The bulk of the must-see family attractions are in Phillipsburg, Butte, Virginia City and Nevada City, but there are plenty of historic and fun opportunities along the way. Ideally, a three-night itinerary allows a family to enjoy what this part of Montana has to offer.
The layout of the road system proves to be one of southeast Montana’s most family-friendly aspects. Many of the best family attractions are concentrated in or around Route 90, a scenic highway that’s easily navigable.
Approximately 80 minutes south of Missoula is the rugged town of Phillipsburg. Sapphire mining is one of the most popular attractions for visitors, offering the singular experience of digging and sifting through gravel in search of gems. Sapphires were first mined in the Rock Creek deposit about 1892; since then, mining is available year-round at several vendors.
The Broadway Hotel is a cozy overnight stop for families and groups. Let the kids choose from the many theme suites, which include one with a safari motif and another with Britannia decor. In addition to a huge guest lounge and coffee bar, families can relax with a television/DVD, high-speed internet, or visit the library to enjoy games or a quiet read. A large continental breakfast is included.
Head a little less than two hours to the south to Butte, and spend a day and night there if you have time. The fastest and most colorful way for families with children to learn about this multicultural mining city is a trolley tour. The tours begin and end at the Butte Chamber of Commerce. In about two hours, your kids can see where the characters, famous folk, miners and scoundrels lived and worked. Sightseeing tour includes a variety of sites including the National Landmark Historic District, the Charles W. Clark Chateau, Victorian neighborhoods, the Dumas Brothel Museum and old Chinatown. The tour stops at a historic mine.
A tour of the Copper King Mansion is a treat for older children and teenagers, who can see for themselves what mining in Butte, also known as The Richest Hill on Earth, could build. Built for William A. Clark, one of the principal developers of copper mining in Butte, this Mansion is listed on the National Historic Register and was Montana’s first state historic place. Tours of the Mansion are conducted by a staff of trained, conversant tour guides. For history buffs truly interested in living like a Copper King, the Mansion is available as a Bed and Breakfast.
For dinner, some families with children try the one remaining Chinese noodle parlor in town. Operated by the same family since 1916, the Pekin Noodle Parlor is a time capsule from the days when its neighborhood was a lively Chinatown. The historical setting is more of an attraction than the food, but Pekin does an adequate job with Chinese standards and also serves a few American entrées.
Nevada City and Virginia City
Located 82 miles southeast of Butte, the twin towns of Nevada City and Virginia City are the gunslingers and gold diggers of Montana family travel. Nevada City has more than 100 other historic buildings saved from locations all over Montana, while Virginia City is a living town of 150 year-round residents who host the 1860s gold-mining town. Visitors can ride the stagecoach, attend a live kid-friendly theater show and enjoy an old-fashioned bakery and candy shop.
Nevada City provides a great backdrop for Living History weekends available through the summer months, in which visitors can enjoy gritty and accurate historical reenactments. Originally part of the Territory of Idaho, Nevada City had no courts or statutes, and the Vigilantes ruled the roost. They would hang 24 men in their first month!
A few of Nevada City’s buildings are original, some have been relocated from other towns, and some are recent constructions. Within the grounds, Nevada City Music Hall has a collection of historic music machines, gaviolis and player pianos–the largest music machine collection in the world open to the public. Many of these machines are operational, while others are being refurbished.
Located just outside the saloon gates, Star Bakery offers some delicious family grub; the deep-fried dill pickles are a must. The restaurant first opened in 1863 serving miners fresh bread and libations. Next door, Nevada City Hotel and Cabins features rustic, roomy cabins that can accommodate families of five or more.
Head West, Young’ins
For a relatively low-key destination, Montana rates high on aesthetics. Towering buildings don’t dominate the sky, and green is the common color in the glacier-fed rivers, grassy squares and cedar trees reaching into the heavens. All bring a welcome sense of nature to an urban-beaten family—hence Montana’s nickname, Big Sky Country. Your lil’ cowpokes are sure to agree.
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