Our family recently returned from an amazing trip to the area of southwest Montana, and I can’t wait to share all about it. This post is going to kick off my coverage by allowing you to see how our family spent our one week trip, with details and links for each of our amazing activities.
Our trip was a partnership with Southwest Montana Tourism, and I was provided compensation. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own based on our experience.
Southwest Montana is located on a major route between two major National Parks, Glacier and Yellowstone, so it’s an ideal stop for any family looking for an adventure in that area of the states. In regards to traveling to southwest Montana, Helena Regional Airport is where we flew in and out of, and is a small regional airport with only two gates. We had no problems with arranging car rental, and their TSA screening is probably the most thorough I’ve ever experienced!
Saturday (afternoon arrival)
Flew into Helena
Checked into Hampton Inn Helena
This hotel was a fairly standard hotel. Upon check in I realized we were booked in a single bed with pull out and asked if there was any possible chance for a change. The front desk clerk seemed a little rude and short and said they were fully booked. We also were not offered a Hilton Gold member greeting, nor the complimentary snacks that we later found were for gold and platinum members. The breakfast however was very well done, and we greatly enjoyed the lobby, dining area, and 24 hr coffee/tea service. Clean and nicely presented.
Last Chance Wagon Ride Dinner
I am planning to write a whole post on this experience as it seems to be the quintessential cowboy’esque experience, and was the perfect way to kick off our vacation. We were transported via horse drawn wagons to a prime rib dinner and concluded the meal listening guitar songs under the stars.
>> Read more about our time at the Last Chance Ranch Wagon Ride Dinner <<
We had an amazing experience during our stay in Helena with hiking to the summit of Mount Helena in the Mount Helena City Park. The park is one of the largest city parks in the country, and the hike, which did require effort, was a great way for the family to get outdoors and get a workout. Check out these tips for hiking with kids.
The payoff for our work was amazing, the summit had a breathtaking, far-reaching view over Helena and the surrounding hills and mountains. I definitely recommend it! We hiked the 1906 Trail up to the summit, then tackled the steep Power Line Trail for our way back down. Near the bottom we even took a minute to go grab a geocache!
We had a late lunch at Overland Express, which had some fun, western theming. I would say the food is basic, and the prices are perhaps a bit high.
Travel to Ennis – El Western Cabins – Horseback Riding
Two activities that we wished we could have done in Helena before hitting the road for our next stop were:
Exploration Works – a kid’s science & exploration museum, which was closed on Sunday and we thought they were closed on Monday as well due to a website misprint.
Gates of the Mountains boat tour on the Missouri (tours offered at 10 a.m. and 12, 2 and 4 p.m.) – We had planned to do this on Sunday, but after our hike we all felt that a good meal and rest was best. On Monday we had a drive ahead of us before our horseback riding, so didn’t feel the timeframe would allow us to take the tour.
We headed out of Helena to drive to Ennis, MT along Highway 287, a beautiful and scenic route. Along the way, we stopped at Wheat Montana for lunch. This was one of those gems of discovery that you don’t plan for, we just saw the signs along the way and decided it sounded like a good stop for lunch. We later realized we have their flour sitting in our baking cabinet at home in Seattle. Definitely glad we stopped!
Once we drove into Ennis we checked into our lodging, the El Western Cabins. This property has emaculately maintained grounds and we smiled big as we pulled into their lot to check in. We were assigned to one of their two bedroom mountain side cabins, and loved our cozy little home for our stay. Our cabin had 2 double beds in each room, a single bath, a family room, and full kitchen. It truly was a home, and would be a great spot for families looking for ample space to spread out while the tour the surrounding area.
After dropping off our luggage, we headed out to meet Jeff from Wolfpack Outfitters for our private horse riding excursion, one of the most memorable experiences of our southwest Montana vacation. Once we connected with Jeff in the outskirts of Ennis he led us to a parking lot near the Axolotl Lakes area where we were soon matched up with our horses for the ride.
We headed out through the wild country of Montana, at least it seemed pretty wild for us city folk, and our horses led us up paths and down hills as we were surrounded by the unbelievably gorgeous Montana mountainside. This is in my opinion a must do for families, and I highly recommend the private rides offered by Wolfpack Outfitters.
Ennis – Zipline Adventure Day
A gem in Ennis is the Pic-a-Nic Basket, a small eatery perfect for breakfast and lunch. We stopped in for our morning espresso drinks and ordered our lunches for the day, which they pack picnic style, perfect for taking along for afternoon adventures.
Our plans were to take a river float trip with Madison River Tubing, but due to some communication errors with their new computer system our reservation was messed up and our float trip didn’t happen. Once we connected, the guide mentioned that the river was still very cold, and might be too cold for our youngest, so we made other plans. The great staff with the Southwest Montana Tourism board had asked about the water temps when booking our family and were told there were no concerns. So, it seems to just be a matter of opinion, but something to keep in mind if you want to do a float trip.
It required quite a bit of back and forth driving but we finally made it to our ziplining adventure with Yellowstone Zipline along the Gallatin River. Our party consisted of 10 riders, and while we all had a blast flying through the trees and over the river, there was a lot of waiting time. Honestly, I wouldn’t book another zipline tour unless there were 5+ ziplines, and the groups were no more than 6-8 people. That being said, I’m glad we did it, and the area was beautiful, flying over the Gallatin River, where a scene from A River Runs Through It was filmed, was exciting!
We had plans to stop into Willie’s Distillery, a family-friendly distillery as most are in Montana, but unfortunately they just had closed by the time we made it back into Ennis.
Virginia City / Nevada City – Nevada City Hotel
Another amazing day of family memories were made on Wednesday. We headed out from Ennis on another beautiful Montana drive down to Virginia City. We checked into our hotel room at the Nevada City Hotel and were amazed that we’d be staying in a real life wild west hotel room. Our room suite actually had a chain across it as a museum featured room, so we thought it was a pretty neat experience. It is good to note that it is a basic level accommodation, so don’t expect high end luxury. However, we enjoyed our stay and felt very comfortable in our room. I kept expecting to see Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman appear at any moment along the street.
I highly recommend the Stay and Play package that lets a family enjoy staying in one of these classic hotels, as well as including all the activities the family might want to enjoy during the trip, panning for gold, riding a train, and entry into the Nevada City Museum. Strolling along a town that has been left behind from 1863 let’s you walk along many historic buildings and view one of the largest Americana artifact sites in the United States.
If you don’t have a nut allergy, plan to stop into the Bale of Hay Saloon, which is the oldest bar in Montana! Unfortunately for us we had to skip it. Another must stop is the Virginia City Creamery, the perfect spot to grab a homemade sweet treat along your stroll.
Lewis & Clark Caverns – Butte – Copper King Mansion
Our family took to the road again, heading north up towards Whitehall to the Lewis & Clark Caverns. We had visited the caverns once before about 6 years ago, so it was fun to head there again. They’ve even done some great improvements since our last visit, including a brand new visitors center. The cavern tours operate during the summer months, but they do offer candlelight tours in December, which sound fascinating.
Once you arrive at the top of the road for the caverns, you need to check in and purchase tickets for one of the tours. The tour starts with a good hike up to the cavern entrance, then once in the caverns you’re led from room to room, learning about all the amazing geological structures that are formed in the caverns. We even spotted bats! At one point on the walk you reach a 1 mile marker, which signifies that you’re 1 mile ABOVE sea level, while still being about 300 feet BELOW ground.
It’s amazing how large some of the caverns are, and also hearing about how they first were discovered and explored. Both of my girls had fun when there were tight squeezes we had to navigate through, once we even had to slide down a ramp. Be sure to pack a sweatshirt, since it’s a pretty constant temp of 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit down in the caverns, which can be a shock when you enter the caverns on a hot day.
After our amazing geological tour at Lewis & Clark Caverns, we drove to Butte for our overnight stay at the Copper King Mansion. After checking in we took part in one of the tours of the mansion and learned about the extensive history of the home, which was built by the famous William Andrews Clark, a major name in Montana politics and business ventures.
We stayed in the spacious family suite, which had two queen beds and a connected bathroom. The room is part of the tour, so if staying overnight it’s best to plan on not having your room available until after the final tour (4 pm), and realize your room will be opened for tours again in the morning. They said that guests staying more than one night typically stow their luggage in the closets during tour hours. As it is a B&B, breakfast was included and the food and atmosphere were delightful. Delicious french toast and fresh fruit, eaten in an opulent dining room full of china displays, quite the way to start your day.
Butte has an extensive mining history, visible even as you drive, so if you have additional time in Butte consider visiting the World Museum of Mining or Mineral Museum. Another activity we wished was had time for was the Trolley Tour of Uptown Butte, which seemed like a fun way to learn about the history of the city. We did have time for a little geocache, which led us to a pretty little garden and one of the signature “headframes” of Butte which are remnants of the city’s copper mining history.
Philipsburg – Fairmont Hot Springs
Left Butte and drove to Philipsburg via Montana Hwy 1, the Pintler Scenic Highway. Philipsburg, Montana is another cute main street USA style town that invites you to stroll along and explore.
Our first stop took us to The Sweet Palace, one of the largest candy shops in the states, which was filled with homemade treats like taffy and fudge, as well as some of your favorite sweet treats. We were greeted by the nicest man who talked to us about where we were from and offered us a free sample of taffy, then we headed along the walls to put together our own goodie bags of candy. Once we were ready to check out we were also offered samples of their homemade fudge.
One of our other favorite finds in Philipsburg was the Philipsburg Brewing Company. We ordered one of their specialty beers from tap, I tried their Razzu!, which was delish, and the girls both had bottles of root beer. We settled in a sipped and smiled while people watching as folks strolled along the street. It’s great that Montana breweries and distilleries are family friendly, since parents can enjoy some grown up travel experiences alongside their kids in a safe and fun way.
We left Philipsburg and drove to just past Anaconda for our stay at the Fairmont Hot Springs, which is a hotel that features hot spring pools.
Gem Mountain – Lost Creek State Park
Our last full day in southwest Montana was another special day for the memory books. It started off with a drive to the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine just outside Philipsburg for a sapphire mining excursion. We bought our bucket of dirt and had fun learning how to sift and search for sapphires.
After our mining time, with a few raw sapphires in our pocket we headed to the Lost Creek State Park near Anaconda for a chance to peek at a gorgeous waterfall. I had read that there was a short walk to the falls, so when we entered the campground area we noticed a parking spot for a trail and assumed that was where we wanted to be. We grabbed our water bottles and took off. At the trailhead we read that it was a mile hike, which was longer that what I expected from my readings of a short walk, but hey, off we went.
Once we were almost at the top we ran into some hikers and mentioned to them if we were near the waterfall, we could hear the water and saw a stream as we walked, and they informed us that the waterfall was a bit further along the road, not along this trail. Oh well, we had come that far, so we finished out the 1 mile hike and found a picturesque bridge crossing a creek where we rested for a bit and tested the cold, clear water. Then back down we went, to hopefully eventually find this illusive waterfall.
Once back at our car we drove just a bit further along the campground and came to a large pullout where we parked and followed a 30 foot paved path to look out over this beautiful waterfall. But the hike that came before was great, and it’s fun to have that experience and story to now share. Not everything goes as planned during family trips, but it’s those unplanned moments that can bring joy and even your next Christmas card photo… :)
After our busy day we were ready to eat and headed to the Anaconda Classic Cafe, a restaurant that has great car theming including the appearance of being in a garage and having two VW beetles made into table booths. After filling our bellies we headed over to the local Dairy Queen for some dessert, which featured walk up window ordering only, a fun experience for the girls.
We finished out our day with another dip in the hot springs pool at the Fairmont.
Our family vacation to southwest Montana was one to remember, and one I’d highly recommend. While we stayed busy with activities each day, we also were able to have a laid back approach to the trip and relax and reconnect as a family. The short road trip drives around the region were beautiful and relaxing, and the activities were well varied and interested for all of us. This area of Southwest Montana is also a great stop if you’re planning to travel to Glacier or Yellowstone National Park.
Please feel free to comment and ask any questions you might have, and if you’d like to plan your own Southwest Montana vacation, be sure to visit their tourism website, and follow them on facebook and instagram to find out more information and get inspired for your own adventure!
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