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    Road trip to Montana: the Vigilante Trail from Yellowstone to Glacier

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    Lluis Enric Mayans

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    Who goes to West Yellowstone in Montana he usually does it for one reason: to visit the marvelous Yellowstone Park. What if I told you that in addition to the famous park around the city there are many other interesting things to see? Of course, nothing compares to Yellowstone in terms of beauty and majesty, however, those who love to go in search of destinations less traveled by mass tourism (the so-called hidden pearls) will find something for their teeth; eg Mesa Falls, the imposing Idaho waterfalls just an hour away, or the suggestive ones ghost town di Virginia City e nevada city, authentic western towns where time seems to have stopped.

    Today I would like to talk to you aboutitinerario which leads to visit these 2 evocative ones incredibly well preserved old west villages, a splendid section that unfolds along typical landscapes of the Montana, with pastures, mountain ranges in the background, the inevitable ranches, crystal clear mountain lakes and of course, the myth of the old west. This route is known as trail watcher, a path that interests, at least in part, even those who intend to go da Yellowstone a Glacier National Park and which takes its name from the era of the gold rush, when outlaws raged in these lands, and a group of cowboys, "the vigilantes", decided to put an end to the raids of the many bandits who stole the gold found by the miners .


    • Preliminary information and what to expect
      • Hebgen Lake
      • Earthquake Lake
      • Ennis
      • Madison Valley History Museum
      • Scenic turnout: Madison Valley views
      • Virginia City e Nevada City
      • Continuing along the Vigilante Trail

    Preliminary information and what to expect

    The driving time is about 1:30 one way (to Nevada City) and, taking the right time to enjoy the stops you will stop at, you can easily dedicate a whole day to this road trip through the lands of the Montana, taking the same amount of time to return to West Yellowstone. If you intend to continue on to Glacier National Park, consider making a stop for the night, for example a Mound, a town 4 hours away from the park with a fair number of accommodations and, as we shall see, with a number of interesting attractions. As for West Yellowstone accommodation, you can take a look at the our dedicated advice.

    Il typical landscape that you will cross in this journey it is mainly composed of immense prairies and pastures; you will see an incredible amount of ranches, cows and horses, and in the background, framing it all, the splendid mountain ranges of Montana, the perfect delimiter of a clear sky that seems truly immense, it is no coincidence that this state is known as Big Sky Country.

    Here are all the stages you will encounter along the way:

    Hebgen Lake

    view from the car

    Distance from West Yellowstone: 15 minutes (street view) 26 minutes (arriving at the lake)

    The first of the lakes that you will skirt along the way is Hebgen Lake, which you will see better during the return leg as it will be on your left on the outward journey. If you want you can decide not to settle for a view from the road and visit the lake (deviating from 191 in Rainbow Point Road), however, beyond the pleasant view, it is not a particularly memorable lake, and is especially loved by those who love fishing and canoe rides.

    Earthquake Lake

    Distance from West Yellowstone: 26 minutes

    This lake, characterized by numerous bare trees that protrude from the water, certainly deserves more than the previous one. The name derives from its dramatic formation process: in August 1959 an impressive earthquake of magnitude 7.3 moved 80 million tons of earth, producing a radical change of landscape that led to the emergence of the new lake. In the event, 28 people who were camping in nearby Hebgen Lake died. You can drive along the lake by car and appreciate the beautiful views it offers from the road, or stop at the Visitor Center and the nearby Memorial Boulder, a massive piece of mountain on which a commemorative plaque dedicated to those who lost their lives during the seismic event is affixed and which gives a good idea of ​​the power that Mother Nature created that day.


    Distance from West Yellowstone: 1 hour 10

    After so much nature, the time has come to stop in the first western-style town you will meet along the way. It is about Ennis, a pleasant taste of the final destinations of this itinerary.

    Take a leisurely stroll down the village's picturesque main street, strolling among its wooden arcades and street-side shops. Maybe it's too early for such a stop but if you want to taste some good local whiskey you can go to the village distillery (Willies Distillery).

    Madison Valley History Museum

    Distance from West Yellowstone: 1 hour 15

    Past Ennis, just before reaching Virginia City, the road will begin to climb and you will notice on the left a building with the inscription History Museum. What is a museum doing here in the open countryside? It is an institution created with the aim of preserving the history and culture of the Madison Valley, a veritable repository of artifacts, objects and materials that tell the western past of this small region.

    Among the "precious pieces" of the collection it is worth mentioning the madison monster, an animal (probably a wolf) that would have terrorized the region many years ago, whose raids were interrupted by the rifle of the daredevil IA Hutchins (fans of stories of this type will find in the museum all the documentation on the history as well as the mysterious stuffed animal) .

    Admission is free, the museum is open from the end of May to September (check the timetables on the official website).

    Scenic turnout: Madison Valley views

    Distance from West Yellowstone: 1 hour 20

    Just before arriving in the western town of Virginia City you will find a truly remarkable vantage point, an elevated view that will give you a splendid view of Madison Valley and the mountains that overlook it. To indicate this point there is a sign with the words “Scenic Turnout”. When I passed it I was literally speechless.

    Virginia City e Nevada City

    Virginia City

    Distance from West Yellowstone: 1 hour 30

    Here we are at the 2 most interesting destinations of the trip, the heart of the so-called trail watcher: the western towns of Virginia City e nevada city, 2 villages so close that they can be reached in less than 5 minutes by car (there is also a special train that connects them, active until mid-afternoon during the summer). The first is a small town that is still alive and well, with a visitor center, shops and various activities. Along the main street, shops still in activity alternate with historic buildings with explanatory panels where you can read up on the history of the town; there is no shortage of saloons, the blacksmith's shop, the barber's shop, the blacksmith's shop, the cemetery and all that is reasonable to expect from a town of the Gold Rush era (for lovers of the genre I also recommend reading our itinerary on the Gold Rush in California). There are more than 70 historic buildings and attractions, most of which are located on Wallace Street (the town's Main Street), so if you want to do an exhaustive tour of the whole site, it might as well take a full 2 ​​hours.

    nevada city

    The smallest nevada city it is no less interesting, indeed, in some ways it can be considered even more authentic: I don't think anyone lives there and the only activities I have noticed are a hotel, a saloon / museum and a restaurant. It is therefore a real ghost town, occasionally enlivened by the tourists who visit it and by the costumed figures who revive it during the summer weekends. Very nice is the Visitor Center, set up inside the old train station, the point from where I recommend you start your visit and read up on the past of the town.

    Our guide to Virginia and Nevada City

    Continuing along the Vigilante Trail

    At this point you can turn around and go back to West Yellowstone, but if your itinerary plans to continue north towards Glacier National Park be aware that the trail watcher does not stop there, but continues through other border villages, even if not as interesting as the 2 we have just discussed, up to the town of Mound. The most interesting attractions are located in and around this town, for example:

    • World Museum of Mining: a really well-curated museum that includes the full-scale reconstruction of an old mining town, the “underground recreation” of what was the life of the miners of yore and various exhibitions dedicated to the theme with original objects and tools.
    • Copper King Mansion: this villa built between 1884 and 1888 belonged to one of the great magnates of the time and it is possible to visit it with guided tours or even sleep in it. The interiors are all to be admired, with frescoed ceilings, hand-decorated fireplaces, stained glass windows and precious materials.
    • The Berkeley Pit: Lovers of unusual attractions might find this former open-cast copper mine interesting, which is, in fact, nothing more than a large pool of toxic waste. The reddish color of the water, produced by the bacterial action, makes the site of some interest from an aesthetic point of view, if you are curious you will have to pay an entrance fee of 2 dollars.
    • Our Lady of the Rockies: ideally embracing the whole of Montana, at the top of the Continental Divide, at 27 meters high, is the third tallest statue in the whole of the United States, depicting the Madonna. To get to the top you will have to take an organized tour lasting a total of about 2 and a half hours, but you can be content to see it from the road, perhaps with the help of binoculars.

    About halfway between Nevada City and Butte is one of the most popular destinations in the region, the Lewis & Clark Caverns, an underground geological wonder that can be explored with a special guided tour.

    Lewis Clark caverns
    Do you want to take a little detour? Heading west, about 1:30 am from Nevada City, is another interesting western town we've already talked about, Bannack 
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