You can drive it in a day or discover it in a lifetime. Scenic areas along Highway 287 just eight miles north of West Yellowstone, Montana, are some of the most overlooked adventures in the Yellowstone area. National Park visits for the most part are rushed affairs with little time left over to savor highlights of the surrounding country, steeped in history, natural beauty, and real Montana hospitality.
There are some things easily missed in West Yellowstone. The call of the wild, heard at dawn, echoes across town from the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. Some guests at the Holiday Inn on Yellowstone Avenue leave their windows open to hear the early morning wolf howls, a lazy way to enjoy the adventure without rolling out of bed.
West Yellowstone is discovery. Modern hotels and lodges with hot tubs and swimming pools like the Holiday Inn and Travelodge are comfortable, clean, and inviting with all the amenities. The town has good restaurants and reasonable prices making it a convenient base for day trips out along the Madison River as well as for excursions into Yellowstone National Park.
Beyond Yellowstone National Park
Heading west along Highway 287, the 54-mile perimeter of Hebgen Lake sprawls out, vast and blue. Motorboats are allowed on the lake and history can be found along its shores. A massive 7.5-Richter scale earthquake hit the area in Aug. 1959, creating devastation and shifting 80 million tons of mountain into the canyon. Rock slides pushed cabins and homes into the lake, blocked the Madison River, and destroyed roads.
Geologists recorded a drop of the Earth’s crust some 19 feet in a matter of 45 seconds. The Hebgen Dam held but cabins were shaken off their foundations into the water. Signs mark a site where visitors can walk down a sloping path to the water’s edge. Cabins remain on the lake still partially submerged. A woman and her dog who managed to jump to safety, their house thrown violently into the lake, were lucky survivors of the disaster.
A little further along Highway 287 is Hebgen Dam. Though damaged, the dam survived the quake. A refuge point nearby is memorialized where smoke jumpers parachuted in to rescue survivors who gathered at a high spot after the quake blocked roads into the area.
The force of the quake is evident at Quake Lake, a 6-mile-long, 190-foot-deep body of water formed when rocks blocked the Madison River creating a back-up of water. Dead trees and a panorama of the bare slide area offer dramatic proof of the quake’s force.
A Forest Service visitor center is located 27 miles from West Yellowstone on Highway 287. The visitor center offers a video presentation of earthquake events. A giant boulder thrown up by the force of the quake is located on a rise west of the visitor center. A memorial plaque is fastened to the boulder dedicated to the 28 people who lost their lives in the earthquake.
If you like to kayak, hook up with Pete Owens at the Kirkwood Resort and Marina. Pete operates a small kayaking business out of the marina and knows the lakes so well he can guide you right under an eagle’s nest or to a spot on Hebgen Lake where ospreys dive to catch fish then eat them in the trees. “People can put the kayak right under a tree and observe the eagles in their nests. The lake gives you a sense of freedom,” Pete said.
The Madison River remains one of the best trout fishing areas in Montana.
A little further along 287 is the town of Ennis. There’s plenty to see and do in town and, for those who like to shop, there are many quaint stores. Not far away is the Parade Rest Guest Ranch. Clyde and Linda Seely have created a home-style family ranch experience. Visitors can go out on a trail ride to a western barbecue or take a hay wagon to get there. Ribs and chicken, corn on the cob, huge baked potatoes, and watermelon will sate any hearty appetite. A western sing-along is featured after dinner, then a short ride back to the ranch.
Just over the hill from Ennis, gold was discovered in a gulch just south of Virginia City in late May 1863. At that time, gold was valued at about $20 per ounce and conservative quotes, sent to the Lincoln White House in 1864, were reported to be $600,000 per week ($33 million in today’s market). The Gulch is still rich…in history, that is. Alder Gulch runs along a 14-mile stretch from Virginia City to just north of Laurin.
That summer saw thousands of miners, from all areas of the United States and internationally, flock to the area to file claims. This stretch of gold-rich land was once home to the largest population between Minneapolis and San Francisco and is considered one of the richest placer gold recoveries in U.S. history. Named the second territorial capital in 1864, Virginia City remains the Madison County seat and a vibrant community.
Today, the Montana Heritage Commission owns over 100 buildings in each town. Many buildings were bought by the Bovey family early on and brought into Nevada City. Virginia City, however, is a National Historic District, which describes a place where time seems to have stood still and stores still offer the charm of days on the frontier when Montana was wild and woolly. Boot Hill overlooks Virginia City and is a good spot for photography, especially at sunset. It also offers a birds-eye view of nearby Nevada City.
During the gold rush era, Nevada City had no courts or statutes, miners organized mining districts, passed their own laws, and elected officials. Everything from mining titles to murder trials fell within the jurisdiction of the miners’s courts. Nevada City’s main street was the setting for the miners’s court trial of George Ives for the alleged murder of Nicholas Thibalt. Wilbur Fisk Sanders carved an indelible place in Montana history for his role as Ives’ prosecutor, while local doctor, Don Byam, sat as judge and the jury made a half-circle around a big, log fire.
One eyewitness estimated that nearly 2,000 people from all over the region choked the thoroughfare that day. Ives was convicted and hanged. This momentous event, which concluded on Dec. 21, 1863, was the catalyst for the forming of the Vigilance Committee, or Vigilantes, on Dec. 23. The Vigilantes were key players in the turbulent times ahead. They would hang 24 men in the space of scarcely a month. Though the true story may never be known, many historians believe that the Vigilante movement in Gulch is directly related to the Civil War and that Montana gold helped win the war for the North.
At its peak, Nevada City boasted dozens of stores and cabins that extended back about six blocks and included a miners store, a brewery, a blacksmith, a butcher, a livery stable, and the Masonic hall. By 1876, Nevada City was nearly a ghost town. In 1959, state senator Charles Bovey purchased the remaining 12 original buildings and the surrounding acres and began to add his own collection of pioneer structures and artifacts. Today, Nevada City offers a walk through history, with exciting Living History weekends and experiences in everyday pioneer life.
These historic 1860s gold mining towns tell the remarkable stories of growth in this part of the Rocky Mountains, from an ordinary unpopulated mountain pass, to booming territorial capital. Though the boom of the late 1800s was short-lived, Alder Gulch remains active today with 150 year-round residents who vow to keep this place authentic but alive. Concentrated preservation efforts are underway, and many events take place each season to tell the great stories of discovery, good and evil, and the building of society.
Visitors still enjoy experiencing the past here with living history weekends, stagecoach rides, a refurbished 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive, two live theaters, ghost walk tours, tours on a 1941 fire engine, unique shops, fine restaurants, and old-time saloons.
More of West Yellowstone
West Yellowstone itself was opened by the railroad. A magnificent example of a Pullman business car is preserved with its rich woods, original carpet, and appointments in a specially designed building at the Holiday Inn Conference Hotel on Yellowstone Avenue. Across the street is the old Union Pacific dining hall and depot now turned into the Yellowstone Historic Center. An IMAX theatre in town, near the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, projects films about Yellowstone on an eight-story-high screen.
Savor the history, adventure, natural beauty, wild animals, and majestic trout streams and rivers. Take time to enjoy good food and relax in a swirling spa. Enjoy the discovery of Montana hospitality in a natural environment that fits its description. This is Big Sky Country.
Travelodge, 1-877-GEYSERS or www.the.travelodge.com/westyellowstone14520
Parade Rest Ranch 1-800-753-5934 www.paraderestranch.com
Restaurants: Coachman Restaurant; Bullwinkle’s Saloon; Timberline Cafe; Wild West Pizzeria; Trapper's Restaurant
Yellowstone Historic Center, 406-646-7461
IMAX Theatre, 406-646-4100
Oregon Short Line Pullman car (free exhibit located at the Holiday Inn), 1-800-646-7365
Kayaking with Pete Owens, 406-209-7452, www.paddleonadventures.com
Dr. John Christopher Fine is the author of 24 books on a variety of subjects. His articles and and photography appear in major magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and Europe.