PHILIPSBURG, A BRIGHTLY PAINTED OLD MINING TOWN, HAS GEM SHOPS, A FABULOUS CANDY STORE AND A BREWERY FROTHING WITH HISTORY
From Georgetown Lake’s outlet, MT 1 dives precipitously into a canyon carved by Flint Creek as it plunges toward the Philipsburg Valley. A worthwhile side trip after emerging from the canyon is a drive up MT 38 to the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine (406-859-6463/866-459-4367) about 12 miles west of the junction. For about $15 a bucket, you can wash gravel over a trough while looking for sapphires with a certainty you’ll find at least a dozen small gems and perhaps even land a whopper. The mine is usually open Memorial Day Weekend through September, weather permitting.
Back in the valley, the highlight of the Anaconda-Pintler journey unquestionably is the old sapphire, ruby, and corundum mining community of Philipsburg (pop. 850) or, once you’ve mingled with the 900-plus friendly locals for a few hours, simply “P-Burg.” The town was built on the side of a hill and enjoyed boom times in the late 1800s. Today, it has been colorfully restored. Scanning Broadway Avenue, you’ll quickly understand why Philipsburg has twice been a finalist for “Prettiest Painted Place in America.”
It’s easy to spend an entire day wandering the streets of P-Burg, given the plethora of shops related to the town’s history. The aforementioned Gem Mountain is one of three purveyors of uniquely clear and colorful sapphires, discovered in Rock Creek in 1892. Other places to shop for loose stones and/or finished jewelry: Mountain Gems of Philipsburg (406-560-7469) and The Sapphire Gallery (406-859-3236), which will evaluate other stones or gems you own. And for a genuine step back in time, the Granite Ghost Town State Park (406-542-5500, May-Sept.) 4 miles outside Philipsburg offers walking tours of what’s left, of a community built around the richest silver mine in the world.
After leaving Philipsburg, MT 1 heads north along Flint Creek into a broad valley of ranches and Angus cattle. The one-blip communities of Maxville and Hall have some history worth noting, but definitely save time for a visit to the Ohrmann Museum & Gallery (406-288-3319), which is less than 3 miles south of Drummond (pop. 329). The gallery and yard-art menagerie features the one-of-a-kind works of the late Bill Ohrmann, who painted almost up to the time of his death at age 95 in 2014. Ohrmann, a lifelong area rancher, pulled no punches with art depicting society’s social ills, especially as they related to our treatment of the environment and animals. One of his shows was aptly named “Something to Offend Everyone”. The route ends where Flint Creek meets the Clark Fork and MT 1 meets I-90. Drummond has a close-knit populace with the usual handful of taverns, gas stations, and cafes, but the main attraction takes place on Friday nights in the fall when the powerhouse 8-Man football team plays.
If your tour takes you back to Butte on I-90, stop at Deer Lodge to visit the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (406-846-2070), once the hub of a 1-million-acre cattle operation and now 1,600 acres of trails, artifacts, historic buildings, museum collections, and other interesting remnants from Montana’s open-range era. The self-sustaining ranch features all of its original livestock breeds and still uses old-time equipment. Operated by the National Park Service, the ranch is open daily except on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day, and is less than 2 miles from I-90 on the north end of Deer Lodge.
Best Places to Bunk
Butte: Toad Hall Manor ($$/$$$, 406-494-2625), a B&B in a five-story brick mansion, makes the world a better place with its tea and scones alone. Toad and Mole would have thought they’d died and gone to the high willows after a sleepover and breakfast at the Manor. And for less than a king’s ransom, you can sleep at the appropriately appointed Copper King Mansion ($$/$$$, 406-7827580). Run by the brother and sister team of John Thompson and Karen Sigl, the three-room Victorian built for US Senator William A. Clark was (and continues to be) a fixer-upper when their grandmother bought it in 1953. Even if you’re not staying, take a tour and find out the secrets of a copper czar who was once one of the most powerful men in the West.
Anaconda: The Hickory House Inn ($$, 406-563-5481) on East Park Avenue downtown is a five-bedroom B&B created from the former rectory of St. Paul’s Church. The bright and cheerful colors include the outdoor gardens and thematic rooms, and the gourmet breakfast is a cut above. philipsburg: The historic nine-room Broadway Hotel ($$/$$$, 406-859-8000) is P-Burg’s best-known lodging; a continental breakfast is included. The Kaiser House ($$, 406-859-2004) has been a favored gift shop for many years, and now has four rooms upstairs renovated for lodging. Each room is dedicated to pertinent town history, and the mural room painted by local artist Liz Silliman is a tribute to local characters and color. An added enticement is the basement wine cellar, where you can find an outstanding bottle selection for purchase. The Quigley Cottage B&B has four English country style guest rooms ($$, 406-859-3812); two are private with their own bath and the other two share a bathroom. Davee Letford begins every breakfast with Scottish oatmeal served with ice cream, followed by a full traditional meal. If you’re looking for out-of-the-norm, The Sanctuary, A Unique Inn ($$, 406-859-1003) is a shrine to Harleys and their two-wheeled brethren. Rooms and cabins (next door) are for two adults only.
Philipsburg: Off Broadway Avenue is the McDonald Opera House ($/$$, 406-859-0013) a 350-seat classic western stage with comedy and vaudeville performances June through Labor Day. During the theatre off-season, after Labor Day and before Memorial Day, you can bunk in one of two units a two-bedroom that sleeps four and a one-bedroom that sleeps two. There’s no additional charge for the occasional visit by a ghost who reputedly has been recorded saying “hello.” Stay off the beaten path at the Flint Creek Home ($$$, 406-539-5912), a three-bedroom, one-bath rental on the banks of Flint Creek and tucked away on 42 acres. Fish for trout, explore the remains of the neighboring 1907 hydroelectric powerhouse, and walk to a ridge that provides splendid views of the valley. camping: Lost Creek State Park (406-542-5500) is a frequently full spot with 25 primitive first-come, first-served sites and no fee. The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest has eight campgrounds along the Pintler Scenic Route. Coming from Anaconda, 14-site Spring Hill campground is on the right just past the junction of FS 170 and Warm Springs Creek, about 2 miles before Silver Lake. Georgetown Lake has three Forest Service campgrounds: Piney (47 sites), Lodgepole (thirty sites), and the popular Philipsburg Bay (67 sites). Piney and Philipsburg Bay have lakeside sites, while Lodgepole is across MT 1 from the lake. If you like ATVs and dirt bikes, the Cable campground above the lake on Forest Service Road 65 is for you; the 11 sites offer instant access to old logging and mining roads. For those who prefer to stretch out streamside, Flint Creek campground offers 16 spots at the bottom of the precipitous descent on MT 1, including two walk-in sites for tenters forest service cabins/lookouts: (Reservations: 877-444-6777 or www.recreation.gov.) The Butte and Pintler ranger districts offer many primitive cabins for nightly rental, including four close to the route: They are High Rye Cabin ($20/sleeps four), Douglas Creek Cabin ($20/sleeps six), Moose Lake Guard Station ($20/sleeps four), and Stony Cabin ($20/sleeps four). High Rye is in a retired mining area called German Gulch and popular with the motorized set. Douglas Creek, about 10 miles northwest of Philipsburg, is accessible by car for much of the year. Moose Lake Guard Station, about 25 miles southwest of P-Burg, also can be reached by car virtually year-round. Stony Cabin is favored by anglers pursuing trout in Rock Creek.
Butte: For quieter moments, sit down to a civilized, artful meal and well-chosen wine list at the Uptown Cafe ($$, 406-723-4735, L[weekdays]/D), where owners Barb Kornet and Guy Graham have cuisine that rivals big-city dining. Specials are just that: “special” (think duck, or ancho-rubbed pork tenderloin, or herb-crusted sole) and their sublime four-course dinners which include soup, salad, two baked clams and an entree run less than $25. Cheryl Madison’s Broadway Cafe ($, 406 723-8711, L/D Mon.-Sat.) is a mainstay for locals for several reasons: its comfortable bistro feel, warm colors and seating in the sunroom, her attention to fresh, healthy gourmet ingredients, daily lunch specials (handmade steak pasties), and a large menu. But what brings folks back is the perfect-crusted, more-than-pepperoni pizza pie. At lunch, a slice of pizza, leafy green salad and drink can be had for less than a 10-spot.
If you lean toward vegetarian fare and, say, aren’t afraid of tofu, try the Hummingbird Cafe ($$, 406-723-2044, B/L), which calls itself an “organic coffee house” but is so much more. Organic local veggies go into their breakfasts and heart-healthy soups and sandwiches so you can feel good about eating well while supporting local purveyors. Plans to open for dinner were in the works in 2015.
Grab some homemade goodness to go, or stay, from Jim and Marla’s Italian-style Marla Mia’s Front Street Market & Deli ($, 406-782-2614, L). The market is literally packed from floor to ceiling with specialty foods and has one of the largest and best selections of wines and craft beer in the state. Front Street’s busy crew makes their deli salads, sandwiches, and soups on site, and does catering off-site. They make a gorgonzola dip that’s positively addictive so recognizable in its cold case that it doesn’t need a label.
Anaconda: The Classic Cafe ($/$$, 406-563-5558, B [weekends]/L/D Tues. Sun.) has family fun painted all over its white-and-black checkered exterior and a kid-friendly menu of pizzas, salads, and wraps. Dinner highlights include hand-battered fresh halibut with chips, calzones, and pasta plates. But the best reason to stop in is to see the authentic Herbie the Love Bug (and his girlfriend, Millie) parked in the dining room and converted into table seating. Grownups will appreciate the huge selection of microbrews.
Philipsburg: The Silver Mill ($$/$$$, 406-859-7000 D, Wed. Sun.), formerly Antlers, is a cozy, family-friendly establishment specializing in excellent Italian, steaks and seafood. Local owners Tim & Claudette Tringle and Anne Filmore found the mother lode in chef Tony Crittela. Reservations are required for groups of five or more. Up ’N Smokin BBQ ($, 406-240-1616, L/D), a relative newcomer to town, is garnering raves for authentic, world-class smoked BBQ chicken, pork, and ribs. Long, wood-plank tables made for the joint by a local woodcrafter create atmosphere. It’s first-come, first served; no reservations or phone orders taken. Stepping into Doe Brothers Soda Fountain and Restaurant ($$, 406-859-6676, L, Wed.-Sun.) is like revisiting the 1920s. It’s a local lunch hangout popular for burgers, though their Jimmy chicken-salad sandwich with secret ingredients earns kudos as well. Tourists come for the soda fountain, where they dish up Montana-made Wilcoxson’s and Oregon’s Glacier Cascade ice cream treats. You can put on five pounds just browsing in The Sweet Palace (406-859-3353, Sun-Fri.), a sweet tooth magnet with a staggering assortment of fudge, saltwater taffy, truffles, and caramels, most made on-site. And, if you can’t find your favorite jellybean here, it simply doesn’t exist.
Drummond: The healthy variety of fresh choices at Parkers’ Restaurant ($/$$, 406-288-2333, B/L/D) is a welcome diversion from the litany of burger joints across Montana, but in the end you can’t really talk about Parkers’ without talking about . . . burgers. Gourmet chef Brent Parker and his wife, Jennifer, opened the restaurant in 2011 with 72 different styles of handmade burgers, and four years later they were up to 135 and counting. That means a lot of experimentation. Some examples: a burger with peanut butter and bacon (the Elvis), another with Mozzarella cheese sticks, pepperoni, and pizza sauce (the Ba-Da-Bing), and the seemingly football-size Monster-In-Law made with the works. Even with such creativity, it’s short-selling Parkers’ to stop at burgers. Locally grown produce, homemade chowders, 99-cent crunchy tacos with homemade salsa, and farm-to-table meats are just a few more reasons to finish your route with a meal here. The Coca-Cola memorabilia on the walls provides authentic diner flair, too.
Anaconda: For a snapshot of what club life was like in the 1930s, look no farther than Club Moderne (406-563-7593) on East Park Avenue. The club does more than wink at an era of suit coats, fedoras, pink ladies, and sidecars. One look at the neon exterior sign, curved corner building, and rounded door window help explain why it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Step into the long backroom to find red tuck-and-roll vinyl seats, speckled Formica-topped tables, and wood inlay all integral to the Moderne style. Skinny Francesco opened the club in 1937, and it was the swinging-est place for miles. Black-and-white photos on the walls will dial you back to a time of snappy Sinatra songs, highballs, polished shoes, and bouffant ’dos. Owned by John and Steph Hekkel since 1999, it’s now an any-age bar a place to relax, watch a game, throw some darts, or chat up the bartender.
Butte: It’s Butte, with a colorful Irish-Catholic mining history, so you just know there’s no shortage of lively places to imbibe at any given time. Among the growing number of distilleries in Montana, all with distinctive personality, one with a terrific vibe is Headframe Spirits (406-299-2886), which has great micro-distilled spirits and a cool logo that captures the city’s essence. Stop by the always-busy tasting room for a wide assortment of offerings, ranging from fruity Moscow mules to their award-winning Neversweat Whiskey. Headframe opened in 2010 in uptown Butte, and in 2013 owners John and Courtney McKee were deservedly honored as Montana Entrepreneurs of the Year. The name Headframe comes from the distinct old mining towers that rise above Butte, all brightly lit in red at night.