Touring The Byway
50 Miles | 4 Days / 3 Nights (Optional Days 5-7) | Gateway City: Butte, Montana
We recommend starting your journey in Butte, where you can enjoy learning about the heritage of the Old West in a delightful Montana mountain city. Take the Butte Trolley Tour for an overview of the city and then visit the Carle Gallery, filled with works that depict Butte, the Clark Chateau, built by the son of the Copper King, and the World Museum of Mining, with more than 50 structures from the Hell Roarin’ Gulch mining camp. Be sure to take the underground mine tour before checking into the Cooper King Mansion, which you should also be sure to tour. As you drive around Butte, from time to time you’ll catch a glimpse of Our Lady of the Rockies sitting atop the Continental Divide overlooking the city.
On Day Two, you’ll be heading to Dillon where you can explore the former ghost town at Bannack State Park with more than 60 structures from the 1800s, Clark’s Lookout State Park, and the Beaverhead County Museum, before staying at the Andrus Boutique Hotel. The next morning, leaving Dillon, it’s time to drive the Big Sheep Creek Backcountry Byway, the 55 mile gravel route through the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest.
View the Detailed Itinerary below to see the full route, which is complete with dining, shopping, and lodging recommendations!
The creation of Yellowstone National Park and protection of the astounding resources here was not without challenges. At first, the Park Act called for administration with no cost to the United States. Unfortunately, this did not protect the land and the wildlife from poaching, squatters, and more. When the second superintendent was appointed in 1877, he was able to begin constructing roads, appoint a “gamekeeper,” and campaign against hunters and vandals. When that still didn’t work, the U.S. Army arrived in 1886 to develop and enforce regulations, evict troublemakers, and patrol park lands. Finally, recognizing that America’s National Parks needed cohesive management, the National Park Service was established in 1916.
Fortunately for visitors since then, Yellowstone has remained a beautiful place with incredible wildlife and more thermal features than anywhere else in the world. It is best to allow at least a day to travel each of the two Park loop roads. If you enjoy stopping at Visitor Centers and the natural attractions, it may take at least two days to thoroughly explore each loop. Accommodations are located in six different locations, affording a lot of flexibility for overnight stays.
The now ghost town of Bannock was founded in 1862 when gold was discovered in Grasshopper Creek. It served as the first Territorial Capital of Montana beginning in 1864. From the late 1860’s to the 1930’s, Bannock’s population fluctuated with mining fortunes. In the 1950s, when the gold had dwindled and most folks had moved on, Montana declared Bannock a State Park. Today, it features over 60 original structures from the 1800s, including the hotel, governor’s mansion, Masonic Hall, and Methodist Church of the Territorial Capital.
The World Museum of Mining lets you experience a mining camp once known as Hell Roarin’ Gulch. Over 50 exhibit buildings, countless artifacts, and 66 exhibits in the mine yard reveal the story of the Gulch and the Orphan Girl Mine. As you tour underground, you can almost see the blackened faces and hear the exhausted sighs of the miners who toiled each day.
Leaving Monida, you’ll be on the 53-mile Centennial Valley Back Country Drive. Even though it’s a gravel road, it’s generally all-season. Once again, you’ll be in a vast, wide, empty place. A few homes in Lakeside support the Red Rock Wildlife Refuge. There are also active ranches and remnants of old dwellings. The valley, on the other hand, has two beautiful lakes connected by the Red Rock River. Lush grass suddenly comes up against steep mountains and marshy bogs along the edges of the lakes. At the end of the drive, you’ll be about 30 miles from West Yellowstone.
Be sure to take a tour of the Copper King Mansion, which reveals the history of the 34-room Romanesque Revival Victorian residence. After law school, William Clark grubstaked a gold mine in Colorado before heading to Bannock in southern Montana to stake a claim. He decided he was better at helping miners manage their claims than being a miner, and bought a team to haul supplies to mining camps, recorded claims for miners, and made loans, which generated an income of $17 million a month. In addition to serving as a US Senator, Clark owned newspapers, mines, sugar plantations, and oil wells, as well as the Clark Wire Company in New Jersey, and the Henry Bonnard Bronze Company in New York. He even financed the railroad through Montana and established a ranch in Nevada to help miners and railroad workers recover in the dry desert climate. To better negotiate when collecting European art, he learned French and German. A wing was added to the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, DC to house his collection.