After four months of settling back into routines, we finally got out of town again. Destination… Butte, Montana — “The Richest Hill on Earth.” While this small town of 35,000 might not be on everyone’s list of vacation destinations, we come back here nearly every year to visit family. This year, I wanted to spend some extra time exploring and visiting places that I hadn’t seen in a really long time. We ended up finding some new places as well that are worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Butte. We also ended up buying a car… more on that later.
Our first hike was to Red Mountain, about one hour outside of town. Red Mountain is part of the Highlands, the tallest mountains that you can see to the south from Butte. Once on top of Red Mountain, you can continue to the lookout on Monument Peak, situated at 10,136 feet, or continue to the flat plateau of Table Mountain at 10,223 feet, which is also the highest point in Silver Bow County.
We started our journey on a day that was partially cloudy and quite warm. By the time we arrived at the top of the mountain and hiked above the tree line, however, we could see storms gathering to both the north and east of us… and then the lightning started. Being that we were the tallest things on the mountain, we decided it was wise to head back down. Although we didn’t quite make it to the top, the views over the city and of the Pintlar and Bitterroot mountain ranges were incredible even in cloudy conditions. On a clear day the view would be spectacular.
Our second hike was at the top of the Continental Divide at Homestake Pass. The trail is part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT), which runs for 3,100 miles between Mexico and Canada. While we only made it 2.5 miles down the trail and back again, the trail wound through forest that had seen some beetle damage resulting in patches of fallen trees. Outcrops of boulders were scattered along the trail as well. About a mile into the walk, we scampered on top of one such boulder to find peek-a-boo views of Butte in the distance.
The Mineral Museum at Montana Tech is a regular stop for us in Butte. RJ is fascinated with elements and minerals and loves to explore the hundreds of specimens on display. For anyone interested in Montana’s geology, earthquake activity, or local mining history, this free museum is a must! If you’d rather go dig up some treasures of your own, you can always venture out to the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine and sort through gravel to find sapphires. At $22 per bucket of gravel, this is not the cheapest activity to engage in, but we did end up with almost 50 carats of sapphires and a couple hours of entertainment.
The Butte City Underground Tour was an entertaining look at Butte’s history through the years. The tour begins with a brief history of how Butte came to be, how the demand for copper influenced the growth of the town, and even the damage that all the mining left behind and what is being done about it today. The walking portion of the tour takes you through some underground sections of the uptown area, the old city jail (1890), and ends with a visit to the Rookwood Speakeasy. While there is some disagreement within the Dailey family, some would say that this tour far more entertaining than the Seattle Underground Tour.
For a first-hand look at open pit mining, the Berkeley Pit is the place to go. The pit measures 7,000 feet long, 5,600 feet wide, and 1,600 feet deep. In its 27-year operation, the pit yielded nearly 300 million tons of copper ore and gave Butte the title of The Richest Hill on Earth. Although the pit is currently filling with water, a state-of-the-art water treatment plant was constructed to make sure the water level remains below 5,410 feet – a critical point for Butte’s water table.
As a child, I visited the Lewis and Clark Caverns (located just 40 minutes outside of Butte) on multiple occasions. The caverns were also a fun place to take visitors.
We had taken the kids to the caverns several years ago, but they remembered very little from the adventure… so we hit the road for another visit, this time with cousins who had not been to the caverns. With the same information delivered on each tour, memories were sparked and the kids were excited to remember their favorite parts of the tour – duck walk, back scratcher, and the few moments when the lights are cut and we are left in complete darkness.
A trip to Butte is not complete without a pork chop sandwich and a pasty (Cornish meat and potato pastry – pronounced with a short a sound). Although Pork Chop Johns has been our go-to restaurant for a pork chop sandwich, we also ventured into Muzz & Stan’s Freeway Tavern for their “World Famous Wop Chop.” I won’t cast my ballot just yet on which is better – both preparations of the pork chop sandwich have their pros and cons – but if you’ve never had a pork chop sandwich, either place will curb your craving for deep-fried pork. As for pasties, you will find only slight variances to this Butte staple anywhere you go.
Butte is home to three microbreweries that we felt we needed to check out. Quarry Brewing, Muddy Creek Brewery, and Butte Brewing Company are all doing their part to elevate Butte’s taste in beer. While we had good beer at all three locations, the vanilla porter at Muddy Creek was by far my favorite.
Ok, the car… it is by no means a new car, just new to us. We had been looking for an older car for RJ, who just turned 16 and will be starting to drive this fall. As it turned out, my Aunt had a car that her daughter had driven in high school, and that she was planning on handing down eventually to one cousin or another as their first car. RJ did some wheeling and dealing and struck a deal to purchase the car. Totally unexpected, but perfect timing. The smile says it all!
Find Out More
Want to know more? Check out the links below to find further reading on Montana, Butte, and the gems of Idaho and Western Montana.
While visiting Butte, I was given a copy of the book Butte’s Irish Heart. This book tells the story of the Irish neighborhoods and families of Butte. What makes this book even more special is that my grandma and two of my aunts have written passages about our family. I love that my children can pick up this book and see pictures of their grandfather, great aunts and uncles, and even great grandparents and get a sense of their family history directly from those who lived it!