Montana day trip: Butte

Keep it real in Montana's most authentic town
Dina Mishev

Why go: You haven’t seen the real Montana until you’ve been to Butte. The Old West-meets-urban vibe makes it one of the most authentic and interesting stops on your summer road trip (it’s roughly halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier).

The setting: Butte spills down a hillside in southwest Montana, where mellow mountains meet wide valleys.

Local lingo: Downtown is known as Uptown, because it’s on a slope.

The boom years: 1900–1920, when mining riches made Butte the biggest city between Minneapolis and Spokane.

Don’t expect to see: Any wooden façades. After an 1879 fire destroyed nearly all 26 blocks of downtown, new buildings were made of brick or stone. And most of these ornate high-rise jewels are still standing.

Hometown hero: Evel Knievel, who allegedly got his nickname after a night in the old city jail ($10; 117 N. Main St.; buttetours.info). 

Join the crowd: Two hundred thousand people show up next month for the National Folk Festival (Jul 9–11; free).

The view from the top: Tourists like to gawk into the Berkeley Pit, an enormous former open-pit mine, but locals know the real views are from Red Mountain in the Butte Highlands in nearby Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

Pull over along Highland Road for scenic hiking trails. Or drive to 9,000 feet and hike another mile or so to the 10,070-foot summit, looking down on Butte.

Sip and shop in Uptown: Fuel up with a latte from Blue Luna Coffee & Tea House ($; 124 S. Main St.; 406/498-5295) before shopping for throwback treasures.

There’s no shortage of vintage shops, but Old Butte Antiques (123 N. Main St.) is our favorite. In what was once a corset factory, you now might find Serbian musical instruments, painted Austrian china, and Chinese opium pipes. Most everything dates from Butte’s mining heyday.

Go deep into Butte’s history: The World Museum of Mining shows you why Butte is “The Richest Hill on Earth” (we’re talking 16.3 million tons of metals produced since 1880).

A tour takes you 65 feet deep into a retired shaft; a reconstructed mining town transports you to the 1890s; and many of the chatty volunteers worked for years in these mines. From $8.50; 155 Museum Way.

100 years in 90 minutes: When you’ve got a 26-block area with roughly 6,000 buildings to check out, your feet can use a little help. In 90 minutes, the Butte Trolley ($10; 1000 George St.) hits the historic district, the Dumas Brothel Museum (a working brothel until 1982), and the impressively frescoed, 34-room Copper King Mansion (pictured).

Make it a weekend: Toad Hall Manor, a four-room, The Wind in the Willows–inspired B&B on the outskirts of town, wakes you up with hot scones and organic coffee. And the scones are just appetizers—the sit-down breakfast might be vegetable frittata, quiche, or fruit crêpes. From $115. 

Hungry? 4 great places to eat in Butte, Montana

Quarry Brewery ended the city’s 40-year local-brew drought when it opened in 2007. Try Bavarian-style Headframe Hef or the chocolaty Open Pit Porter. 45 W. Galena St.; 406/723-0245.

Most every Montanan knows what to expect from Uptown Café: one of the best meals in the state, whether it’s the artichoke ravioli, beef Wellington, or scallops Provençal. $$$; 47 E. Broadway St.; 406/723-4735.

John Burklund first sold lightly battered, deep-fried, Montana-raised pork patties from the back of a cart in 1924. In 1932 he opened Pork Chop John’s, with a counter, 10 stools, and a walk-up window. It’s the same today. $; closed Sun; 8 W. Mercury St.; 406/782-0812.

Matt’s Place, the state’s oldest drive-in, draws crowds for local specialty nutburgers—hamburgers topped with mayo mixed with ground peanuts. $; 2339 Placer St.; 406/782-8049.

More: Perfect summer trips