Touring The Byway
49 Miles | 3 Days / 2 Nights | Gateway City: Butte, Montana
We recommend starting your journey in Butte, traditionally the mining capital of Montana where over 200 mines riddled the ground beneath the city. You can learn about the city on the Butte Trolley Tour, visit the Carle Gallery, filled with works of art that depict Butte, the Clark Chateau, and the World Museum of Mining with 50 original structures from the mining camp, before a stay at the Copper King’s Mansion. As you drive around Butte, from time to time you’ll catch a glimpse of Our Lady of the Rockies, which sits atop the Continental Divide overlooking the city.
On Day Two, you’ll travel over Homestake Pass, six miles south-southeast of Butte in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, to the beginning of the Byway on Montana State Highway 43 in the town of Wise River. When you reach Crystal Park you can search for quartz crystals and from there, explore the now abandoned Elkhorn Mine and Coolidge Ghost Town, have lunch and/ or a soak at the Elkhorn Hot Springs, and explore Bannock State Park, considered the best preserved Ghost Town in Montana.
View the Detailed Itinerary below to see the full route, which is complete with dining, shopping, and lodging recommendations!
The now ghost town of Bannack 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, Bannack’s population fluctuated with mining fortunes. In the 1950s, when the gold had dwindled and most folks had moved on, Montana declared Bannack 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.
Prospectors flooded into the area when silver was discovered near a pair of elk horns in the Pioneer Mountains in 1872. Unlike other Montana mining towns that went bust, mining continued in the Elkhorn area until 1965. The Coolidge mining camp was formed in 1914 and supported the miners until 1950. Ultimately, the total production from the entire district rendered 1,184 ounces of gold, 208,593 ounces of silver, 383,580 pounds of copper, 857,679 pounds of lead, and 4,800 pounds of zinc. Before full operations were established, ore was hauled to Utah and sent to San Francisco for processing. After narrow gauge railroad tracks were laid, began moving in and by 1922 the town had telephone service, electricity and a post office. Most of the 350 residents had moved on by the time a dam failure wiped out most of the infrastructure 10 years later.
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
As the story goes, in 1863, six prospectors camped along a small stream seeking to prospect in a place with rimrock. One dug the dirt and filled a pan while the other washed the pan in hopes of getting enough gold to buy tobacco. When the first pan turned up with $2.40 of gold (nearly $50 in today’s dollars), they knew the gulch had great potential. When word spread of the discovery, miners covered the hillsides with tents, brush shelters and crude log cabins. The Varina Town Company platted Virginia City and supporters of the Confederacy intended to name the new town after Jefferson Davis’ wife. However, the newly elected miners’ court judge was an equally stubborn Unionist and when the time came to file the official documents, he submitted the name Virginia instead. The town was designated the new territorial capital in 1865, at a time when Alder Gulch held most of Montana’s population. At its peak, 10,000 people flooded the area named “Fourteen-mile City” for the numerous settlements that lined the gulch.
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.