This is the heart of the Garnet, er, Ruby Valley, with Sheridan (pop. 659) as its peaceful hub on the Ruby River. From Sheridan, the valley broadens to accommodate the convergence of the Ruby, Beaverhead, and Big Hole rivers at Twin Bridges (pop. 381), where Lewis and Clark camped two centuries ago. Bicycle-friendly Twin Bridges, which bills itself as “The Town That Cares,” has a lot going on for a community with one blinking-light intersection. This is the home of the world-famous R.L. Winston Rod Co. (406-684-5674), which has produced coveted bamboo and graphite fly rods since the company moved here from San Francisco in the mid-1970s; tours are offered at 11 am weekdays and there’s a casting lawn for testing their rods. On the western edge of town is a curiosity: a group of weathered brick buildings that looks like an abandoned small college campus. It was once the state orphanage, and is begging for someone like Oregon’s McMenamin Brothers to come along and create a destination resort.
MT 287 ends in Twin Bridges. Go straight through the intersection on MT 41, which follows the Jefferson River north between the Tobacco Roots on the east and Highland Mountains on the west. Ten miles up the road is little Silver Star (pop. 98), marked by a highway sign and a fenced collection of privately owned railroad cabooses and retired mining equipment including five giant wheel-shaped pieces hauled out of a defunct mine at Butte. Across the highway is Granny’s Country Store (406-287-3605), which has the usual sundries complemented by an extraordinary collection of mostly regional books. Four miles north of Silver Star, veer right onto MT 55 toward Whitehall (pop. 1,077), whose primary industry is evident in the gaping mountainside gash straight ahead the Golden Sunlight gold mine. Although our route takes you around Whitehall, one reason to pass through is to see 10 brightly colored Lewis & Clark Murals generally near the intersection of First Avenue and Division Street. Local artist Kit Mather has put journal entries from the expedition into a detailed picture format. On the south side of town is the free Jefferson Valley Museum (406-2877813, summers), located in a bright red barn and featuring exhibits honoring the former NBC newsman Chet Huntley, who was born in nearby Cardwell and lived as a child in Whitehall.
Heading through Whitehall, just before reaching I-90, turn east on MT 2/69 toward Cardwell (pop. 40). About halfway between the towns, turn on Mayflower Road. Cross the Jefferson River and backtrack to the west on Parrot Gulch Road. After several miles, a mysterious round brick structure rises to the west of the gravel road. A few feet beyond, the remains of Parrot Castle, once part of an old mining community and now a river access point, open up at your feet. A few hundred yards up the road, the Tobacco Roots foothills meet the river at Point of Rocks. In a side channel of the river is a geothermal hot spot known as Renova Hot Springs. It’s about 10 feet below the road and one of the few undeveloped thermal areas in Montana suitable for soaking. There are two pools identified by the sulfur odor and rock rings built by soakers. The best times to take in nature’s hot tub are summer and fall, when river levels are down and water temperatures are ideal. From the springs, reverse course, recross the Mayflower Bridge, and turn west on MT 2 toward Cardwell. At the T junction one mile south of Cardwell, stop at Clays in Calico (406-287-3498), which calls itself the oldest pottery house in the state and crafts all of its vessels from Montana clay.
Before reaching the interstate in Cardwell, turn east on MT 2. The highway follows a railroad past a wide spot in the road called La Hood and into a short serpentine canyon carved by the Jefferson. Once out of the canyon, you’ll arrive at the entrance for Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park (406287-3541/406-287-3032), a must on any itinerary unless claustrophobia is an issue. Montana’s first state park offers camping, picnicking, and hiking year-round. But the primary attraction the largest collection of limestone caves in the Northwest is only available by guided tour May 1 through September 30. Park at the visitor center and hike the 3 miles from the dusty sage into the pines to the gift shop and information center, or drive to the top parking lot where there is also a small snack and souvenir stand. The tours take two hours and are a window into a fantastic world of stalagmites, stalactites, bats, and other underground curiosities. There are some tight quarters, including the Beaver Slide, where you must either waddle, limbo, or slide on your derriere through a narrow gap, but the experience is too good to pass up. The park also offers Friday night campfire programs and naturalist talks during summers.
After leaving the caverns on MT 2, you’ll pass a large area on the left that looks like an F Troop stockade with an old railroad bridge out front. This is the site of the Rockin’ the Rivers Festival, a wildly popular outdoor concert held every August that has featured the likes of Alice Cooper, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, and Steppenwolf, among other famed rock bands. You’ll shortly rejoin US 287 about 10 miles southwest of Three Forks, where you can close the day where it began at the Sacajawea Hotel.
Best Places to Bunk three forks: To begin the Vigilante Trail fully refreshed, spend at least one night in The Sacajawea Hotel ($$/$$$, 406-285-6515). The Folkvord family, with a respectful eye to the explorers, homesteaders, and ranchers before them, fronted a multimillion-dollar facelift to the historic inn that now provides first-class sleeping comfort. The decor, attentive service, and special touches (a glass of bubbly at check-in) will intrigue and entice. The Lewis & Clark Motel of Three Forks ($$, 406-285-3474), owned by the same folks who renovated and rejuvenated the iconic Lewis & Clark in downtown Bozeman, is every bit the “charming little inn” it likes to call itself. ennis: Many Yellowstone National Park visitors who want to avoid the hustle and bustle of West Yellowstone like to stay at the legendary and immaculately landscaped El Western Motel ($$, 406682-4217) south of Ennis on the east bank of the Madison River. The El Western is a family favorite, with its setting and collection of cabins and lodges befitting a picture postcard from the 1950s. Fishermen like to park their Orvis rods and Simms waders at The Rainbow Valley Lodge ($$ 406682-4264), another attractive motor court that harkens to an earlier era. The Fan Mountain Inn ($, 406-682-7835) in town is a traditional-looking motel that has prideful owners who provide clean rooms at reasonable rates.
Virginia city: To feel the true grit of the old West, book a room at the creaky Fairweather Inn ($$, 800-829-2969, May-Sept.). The amenities in its fifeen rooms only slightly surpass those of a prosperous yesteryear, but you’ll have close access to the plank-board sidewalks that lead everywhere in town. A little fancier is The Gingerbread House B&B and Cabins ($$$, 208-7277101, May-Sept.). With the cabins, a continental breakfast is included; at the B&B, it’s a delicious sit-down meal. “Rest, Relax, and Enjoy” is the theme at the Elling House Inn ($$, 406-843-5454). Toni James owns Henry & Mary Elling’s 4,000-square-foot stone mansion on the corner of Idaho & Fairweather. Henry, a banker and dry-goods merchant, needed a big home for his wife and their nine children. Henry wasn’t much for socializing but his wife was, so afer he died Mary added a ballroom, library, and a few more bedrooms for guests of all social standings. Mary loved to entertain and began doing so in 1876 a practice that continues today at the house, which doubles as a nonprofit arts and humanities center. Check for rental availability afer October through May it takes some effort to heat that large home.
Nevada city: The Nevada City Hotel ($$, 800-829-2969, May-Sept.) is owned by John and Linda Hamilton, who are also the proprietors of the Fairweather Inn. Parts of the hotel were carted over from Twin Bridges and other parts were reclaimed from an old employee dorm in Yellowstone National Park. Its uneven floors and creaky doors provide an element of authenticity. Behind the hotel are seventeen actual pioneer cabins numbered 1 to 18, superstitiously skipping number 13 gathered from around Montana, including two from the original Nevada City. If you stay here, you’ll have close encounters with the living historians who patrol the cluster of buildings that make up the living-history museum Just before you reach Nevada City is Just An Experience B&B ($$, 406843-5402), which offers lodge rooms with private or shared bath, two private cabins, and even a mining museum to boot. It’s also one of few choices open during the winter.
Alder: Chick’s Motel & RV Park ($, 406-842-5366) is one of those all-in-one places with a bar, a bed, and a bite to eat. A clean, drive-to-your-door room at an economy rate might hit the spot after a bite to eat and bit of time in the bar.
Laurin: Vigilante and road agent history notwithstanding, you’ll feel perfectly safe and comfortable a t Elijah’s Rest ($$, 406-842-7295). Tom and Sheri Luksha have three externally similar but internally unique log cabins from which to choose your place of rest. Included in the deal is a full breakfast highlighted by Elijah’s biscuits & gravy. Lunches are available for a nominal fee. The addition of a commercial kitchen means you can rent the cabins and the Mantle (gathering room) for your event.
Sheridan: Two miles southeast of Sheridan is where you’ll step back into the 1880s at the Victorian Ruby Valley Inn B&B ($$, 406-842-7111). This charmer on 10 acres with mountain views is comprised of four suites geared to ladies and gentrified anglers wanting to cast a day or two away in one of the nearby streams.