So, I camped off the dirt road going to the Glacier Lake Trailhead for few nights while I hiked in Flathead National Forest. I had little shade, but great cell service which was a pleasant surprise in the wilderness. A car coming down from the Glacier Lake Trail stopped to warn me that a bear just ran by VANgo! Ugh, I’m so sad I missed it!! Annie growled at something, but I did not see a thing. It’s amazing how quiet they can be.
Anyway, from Condon, I took the scenic route to Butte in Southwestern Montana. I passed by Seeley Lake which I visited on my road trip across the USA 11 years ago and then dropped down into Drummond where I picked up the Pintler Scenic Byway.
On the way, I almost detoured to Garnet Ghost Town, the most well-preserved ghost town in Montana. As many of my readers know, I love old ghost towns, but Garnet was just a bit out of the way even though I was coming from the right direction, Montana Route 200.
What I mean by the right direction is, Montana Route 200 to the north is the best access road for Garnet Ghost Town. The entrance from I-90 and the south is not recommended for RV’s and trailers. While VANgo likely could have made it from both directions, I wasn’t up for any white knuckle driving and Google maps had me taking the south exit to Drummond afterward.
Pintler Scenic Byway
While I could have returned the way I came, it would have added another hour to my drive, and that wasn’t in the plans as there was lots to see on Pintler Scenic Byway.
I’ve never been on a scenic byway with a 70-mph speed limit! You could whiz right past a few cool sites if you aren’t careful. With the number of deer on the road, including the rare sight of a mama with four babies, I recommend slowing down and taking in the scenery.
Anyway, I spent most of my time between Phillipsburg and Butte. I don’t know how I missed this drive 11 years ago. My 120 Scenic Drives book by Reader’s Digest made this one optional. If you like historic downtowns, Pintler Scenic Byway is a “must see” drive.
My first stop on the Pintler Scenic Byway was in Phillipsburg. Phillipsburg is a historic mining town named for Phillip Deidesheimer, who designed and supervised the ore smelter around which the town originally formed.
Today the Phillipsburg main street, Broadway, is lined with restaurants, antique dealers, gift shops, and more.
I arrived mid-morning, and it was very quiet. By lunch, however, the parking spaces along Broadway filled quickly.
I parked near Sherry’s Homestyle Bakery, which had a steady stream of patrons. It was clearly the morning place to be. A few popular retailers in town include The Sweet Palace and Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine.
The Sweet Palace is a nostalgic candy store. It features shelves of every kind of candy you can imagine. It also makes its own taffy, fudge, and other chocolate treats. I’ve always had a soft spot for candy, so of course I had to collect some samples before visiting the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine.
Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine
I visited the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine store on Broadway. I did not know you could visit the actual mine. I would have loved that! At the store or mine you can buy a bucket of gravel and sift through it for sapphires! It costs $40 and takes one person about 45 minutes to complete.
They say they don’t sift through the gravel first, so you will find some sapphires, and some can be quite big. I wasn’t sold on sifting through the gravel by myself at the tables on Broadway, but I learned you can have a bucket of gravel shipped to you for $60.
How fun would it be to sip sapphire gin martinis while sifting for sapphires with friends?!? Apparently, a lot of people thought this would be fun during covid because their shipments increased from 30 buckets a year to 300!!
I was a little skeptical about finding gems, but I watched a family sift through the gravel, and the kids collected several precious stones waiting to be fired. Interestingly, while you might find a rough sapphire that looks blue, after it is fired it could be pink!
To visit the mine, you just have to make a reservation online. If you have a big group, you can order the Lucky 7, which is seven buckets for the price of six.
Other Places in Phillipsburg
Perhaps I should have gone to the mine instead of trying to find the Granite Ghost Town State Park. Google pointed me to one dirt road, while the signs pointed me to the another. But the signs pointed me to a road with a cautionary sign, “Travel at your own risk. Steep, narrow road. No regular maintenance.”
As I mentioned previously, I just wasn’t in the mood for a nerve-racking experience, and I bailed. This is one of the many times when I wished I had an ATV or RZR. I was 0-2 for ghost towns. I suppose I will have to return and give it another try. At least I saw a few remnants of mining along with an old car.
For the vanlifers and campers out there, Phillipsburg has laundromat with showers. This type of establishment has now become a favorite to me! Living in a van really makes you enjoy simple pleasures. It is next to Friday Night Pizza which is only open two nights, so there must be quite a demand.
Other points of interest in Phillipsburg include the Montana Law Enforcement Museum, the Granite County Museum, and the Opera House Theatre. None were open during the morning, but they were opening later in the day. You can also stay above the Opera House in an AirBnB. I’d probably make sure there wasn’t a show!
If you are staying the night (or not driving for hours like me), be sure to stop by Phillipsburg Brewing Company. There are two locations, one downtown and one on Brewery Road at the springs just outside of town.
From Phillipsburg I headed to Anaconda. About halfway between Phillipsburg and Anaconda is Georgetown Lake and Silver Lake surrounded by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest with many recreational opportunities.
Like Phillipsburg, Anaconda was once a mining town. It was founded by Marcus Daly, one of the Copper Kings, who financed its smelter to process the ore from nearby Butte. The smelter closed in 1980 when the prices of copper tumbled. While ARCO tore down the smelter plant, the townspeople saved the smelter stack.
Anaconda Smoke Stack
Standing at 585 feet, the Anaconda Smoke Stack is the tallest masonry structure in the world. For perspective, the Washington Monument can fit inside it! The historic chimney perched atop the hillside overlooks the charming town. It may be seen from just about anywhere in town, but for a closer look, visit Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park.
Today, the hospital is Anaconda’s number one employer and recreation is growing. With a population of almost 10,000, Anaconda is nearly 10 times the size of Phillipsburg. I took advantage of some grocery shopping and diesel prices that were below $5 on the outskirts of town before stretching my legs with Annie!
Anaconda Copper Trail
The 1.7 mile out-and-back Anaconda Historic Copper Trail is not far from the grocery store. While paved trails are generally not my favorite, I wasn’t out for hike, but just a stroll. Consequently, I found the interpretive trail which passed by the old Washoe smelting ruins to be pretty cool. Not to mention, of all my miles of hiking this summer, I finally saw a marmot (and of course only had my iphone with me rather than my camera)!
Old Works Golf Course
The trail also overlooks the Old Works Golf Course designed by Jack Nicklaus and affords nice views of Anaconda’s historic town. The world class golf course sits atop a superfund cleanup site. The black slag, a byproduct of copper smelting, is used as black sand in the bunkers. It’s quite unique looking!
While still on the outskirts of town, I stopped by The Washoe Park Trout Hatchery. The hatchery maintains Montana’s only native west slope cutthroat bloodstock. The visitor center features one of the best displays I’ve seen at a hatchery, and the trout are beautiful!
Along with the state’s oldest fish hatchery, Washoe Park includes a playground, duck pond, campsite, tennis courts and more. It is a nice place for a family outing.
Anaconda’s Historic District
After being on the outskirts of town, I finally visited the historic district which is rather large. Definitely walk down Main St. from Commercial Ave to the Deer Lodge County Courthouse. You will see some cool historical buildings, including the Washoe Theatre which was the last theater in the USA that was built in the Nuevo Deco architectural style.
It also takes you past the Kennedy Commons which features a war memorial, Christmas Tree, and the summer market on Tuesdays from 4-7.
Some of the side streets also feature many interesting historic buildings. The Visitors Center is housed in a turn of the century replica train station complete with a train display. A historic tour of Anaconda in a 1936 red bus takes off from the Visitors Center and covers most of the aforementioned sites plus more.
After strolling all the blocks of downtown, return to Commercial Ave and Main Street and throw back a cold beer at the Smelter City Brewing.
Where to Stay in Anaconda
If you plan on staying the night in Anaconda, try the Forge Hotel in town or the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, a short drive away. I was camping in VANgo, so I found a convenient rest stop between Anaconda and Butte, as Butte was my next stop.
Overall, I really enjoyed Pintlers Scenic Byway and could have easily planned an overnight in both Phillipsburg and Anaconda while adding on a few hiking opportunities in Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest or Lost Creek State Park. ETB