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West Yellowstone to Anaconda, MT: A Tour of Remarkable Roads Less Traveled

Updated: Jul 12

Welcome to Montana! West Yellowstone to Anaconda, MT
Photo by Greg Tally (Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

It is possible to drive from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier National Park (or vice versa) via a direct route utilizing mostly busy interstates and lumbering motorhomes in about 6.5 hours (roughly 375 miles). Or, you can break up the trip and explore the smaller highways and byways of rural Montana and see the true beauty our state holds. In this blog, we’ll take you on a comfortable, scenic drive of less traveled roads from West Yellowstone to Glacier via Anaconda and point out some of the amazing attractions—natural and otherwise—along the way. take breaks, relax, enjoy the journey. Let’s drive!

Yellowstone Falls, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Falls. Photo by Grastel. (Ownwork, CC BY-SA 4.0

We begin our tour to Anaconda from West Yellowstone, the northwestern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. West, as the locals refer to it, is a small town that sees literally millions of Yellowstone National Park and other visitors every year, and rightly so. In addition to lodging, restaurants, and gift shops, the town itself boasts numerous attractions, including the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a non-profit wildlife park and education facility that offers visitors a chance to see live bears and wolves; and the Yellowstone Historic Center, which documents the region’s history in an old Union Pacific Train depot downtown. Have more than a day? The area is rich in outdoor adventures, including fishing, white-water rafting, and hiking.

Once it’s time to hit the road, head north on Highway 191 toward Big Ski and Bozeman. Mere minutes after leaving town (about 8 miles), turn west onto Highway 287 and enjoy the glorious views while driving along the nearly15-mile-long shores of Hebgen Lake, followed by Quake Lake, which was formed in 1959 following a massive earthquake and rockslide.  Along the route, the Madison Canyon Earthquake Area and Visitors Center offers information, historical context, and interpretive programs about the devastating 7.5 magnitude quake.

After leaving the confines of the Madison Canyon, continue north on Highway 287 and enjoy the breathtaking scenery as the canyon gives way to the expansive Madison River Valley and the towering mountains of the Madison Range to the east and the Gravelly Range to the west. This is Big Sky Country!  Keep an eye out as herds of elk are often seen grazing in the foothills. The highway follows the famous Madison River, a fly-fishing mecca known around the globe for world-class trout fishing.  Soak in the views—the scenery is truly majestic.

The Madison Range, Montana
The Madison Range. Photo by USDA NRCS Montana, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just over an hour of driving (about 72 miles) will bring you to the charming town of Ennis, considered by many the fly-fishing capital of Montana. The area is also renowned for expansive ranches and excellent hunting opportunities. In addition to the numerous outdoor pursuits available in Ennis, like fly-fishing, hiking, and golfing, the town offers some excellent alternative activities. Enjoy a leisurely walk around town on an Outdoor Art Tour, where dozens of art installations are displayed all over town; visit the Ennis Pharmacy and Yesterday’s Soda Fountain for an authentic, old-fashioned soda pop; or belly-up to the bar at Willie’s Distillery for a tasting of their legendary, small-batch spirits. Ennis is a lovely town to take a break and enjoy small-town Montana.

Once back on the road, stay on Main Street and watch for signs to Highway 287 South to Virginia City, Nevada City, and Twin Bridges. Located just 15 miles from Ennis, the historic Virginia City is another gem on our backroads tour. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, Virginia Cityand neighboring Nevada City—is the site of the richest placer gold strike in the Rocky Mountains, spurring a gold rush and population boom in the mid-1860s. Today, visitors can glimpse into the past with a myriad of activities and attractions, including riding the Alder Gulch Shortline Railroad, panning for gold, visiting the Thompson-Hickman Museum, or just enjoying a stroll on the wood-planked boardwalks, lined with lovingly restored historic buildings and shops.  Educational and entertaining—fun for the whole family!

Leaving Virginia City, you’ll soon exit the Tobacco Root Mountains and descend into the Ruby Valley towards Twin Bridges, about 30 minutes, or 29 miles, away.  Twin Bridges—another fly-fishing destination and Blue Ribbon water—is where the Big Hole, Beaverhead and Ruby Rivers converge, forming the Jefferson River. It’s also home to two famous Montana businesses: the R.L Winston Fly Rod Company, which has been making high-end fishing rods since 1929; and Montana Mad Hatters, who have been making handmade, customized cowboy hats for over 35 years, serving a clientele that includes George H.W. Bush and Hank Williams, Jr. Whether you need a custom-made hat or not, it’s certainly worth the time to stop in, look around, and try on a few hats!

In town, Highway 287 becomes Main Street. To continue our journey, stay on Main Street North, which becomes Highway 41. Driving north through the valley, Table Mountain to the west towers above as the highway follows the beautiful Jefferson River. Again, scan the hillsides for elk and pronghorn antelope. In about 14 miles, you’ll have a choice to make: 1) continue straight on Highway 41 (which becomes Highway 55) to Whitehall, and take Interstate 90 to Butte; or 2) keep left to continue on Highway 41 North toward Highway 2 West and a beautiful, winding road through the majestic Highland Mountains.  On this stretch, slow down, enjoy the stunning scenery, and be especially mindful of wildlife. It is not uncommon to see moose, elk, or deer in the area.

When emerging from the Highland Mountains, look for signs to Interstate 90 West toward Missoula. You’ll be on the outskirts of Butte now, the fifth largest city in Montana. Established in 1864 as a mining camp, Butte has an extensive history, especially in the area of mining and ore smelting. Located on an extensive copper deposit, Butte was once known as the “Richest Hill on Earth” and is designated the Butte-Anaconda National Historic Districtthe second largest National Historic District in the US, second only to New Orleans. (Keep an eye out for an additional Pintler Post detailing the many attractions of Historic Uptown Butte).

In addition to all services, the area offers many attractions for visitors, including the Butte Trolley, a two-hour overview of the town sights hosted by a local historian and includes a stop at the Berkeley Pit; the World Museum of Mining, an expansive complex with hundreds of artifacts, historic buildings, and even an actual headframe and mine shaft; and Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90-foot concrete statue of Mary perched atop the Eastern Ridge overlooking the town and valley below—to name a few.

At this point, the afternoon sun is likely sinking into the horizon and it’s time to make your way to Anaconda and Pintler’s Portal Hostel.  Continue west on Interstate 90 to the junction with Montana Highway 1, also known as the Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Scenic Highway, about 20 minutes away. Follow Highway 1 into Anaconda and make your way to Pintler's Portal Hostel. Voted the Best Hostel in Montana 2023, Pintler's Portal is a base camp to all the local community and the local natural environment has to offer. Brand new in 2021, its crisp clean lines and rustic decor offer a lodge-like feel right in downtown Anaconda. It's affordable rooms (rent a bed, a private room, or the entire facility) will spare your budget, its extraordinary common areas will facilitate a fine home cooked meal and an opportunity to make new friends from all over the world.

Anaconda is a unique experience all by itself. Described by Distinctly Montana Magazine as the "Prettiest Little Town in Southwest Montana" it warrants a several day stay. Local restaurants and activities are typically within a short walk of the Hostel. Get a good nights rest and explore! If you're new to Anaconda, or if you're wanting to stay up to date on its organized activities this summer, this blog has detail and a calendar! Watch The Pintler Post for an upcoming blogs where we discover more about Anaconda as a cherished Montana destination and we find more secret gems on the way to Glacier National Park.


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