Montana, Western US

Montana road trip 2022, part I: Philipsburg, Anaconda, and the Pintler Scenic Highway

After my mom retires in two years, she’s planning to move to Colorado. And while it will be nice to have her so much closer, I’m also sad I’ll no longer have much of a reason to visit Montana on a regular basis. Last summer, I flew home for a week and we road tripped through the central part of the state, visiting many places I’d never seen and learning so much about the history of my home state. It was fun and informative, and we had a wonderful time. Inspired by that trip – and her semi-imminent departure – we planned another Montana road trip this year. Only this time, we headed south and west.

Our intended theme of this year’s trip was a little less history and a little more scenery. The actual theme ended up being ‘where can we go next to avoid the rain?’ But despite the less-than-stellar weather, we mostly made it work.

Day #1 found us driving MT Highway 1, also known as the Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Scenic Highway. This two-lane route connects the towns of Drummond and Anaconda, with a handful of places to stop along the way. Due to the rain, our planned itinerary quickly went up in flames and we ended up doing things completely out of order. Rather than bounce around and backtrack as we actually did, I’m going to instead discuss each location along the byway in order, beginning in Drummond and ending in Anaconda.

Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Scenic Highway

First stop: Philipsburg, a town of about 850 people nestled in the Flint Creek Valley.

Philipsburg
Philipsburg Main Street
Police station and jail
Granite County courthouse

No visit to Philipsburg is complete without a visit to The Sweet Palace, the most famous candy store in the state (and, as they claim on their sign, the best candy store in the world). It hadn’t occurred to us to check the hours, because it was Saturday in the height of tourist season, so of course this major tourist destination would be open. It was not. Apparently they’re closed on Saturdays. Fortunately, we ended up back in Philipsburg on Sunday when the store was open, at which time we I spent way too much money on candy.

The Sweet Palace

We also enjoyed huckleberry ice cream at Philipsburg Creamery and visited Philipsburg Brewing Company, where I sampled a flight, and my mom a soda. (She despises beer. Vehemently.) I expected one of the wheat beers to be my favorite, but surprisingly it was the honey saison that took the crown.

L-R: raspberry wheat, wheat ale, honey saison, and Scottish ale
Broadway Hotel; the brewery is in the bottom right of the building

As a thunderstorm blew through, we stepped into the Montana Law Enforcement Museum for some shelter – and a quick gander at the collection of old uniforms, badges, and guns, as well as some history of the various branches of law enforcement in the state.

Old jail cell

Back on the road, we soon reached the best part of the byway, in my opinion: a climb through a canyon around mile marker 28. The rocks are slanted, layered, colorful, and just really neat. There is a pullout at the top and it’s definitely worth a stop.

Upon exiting the canyon, we had reached the high point of the highway and the turnoff to Echo Lake. A two mile drive down a fairly well-maintained dirt road brought us to Echo Lake picnic area and campground. We opted to forgo the tables and eat lunch on a small beach while gazing out over the water.

Scenic drive down Echo Lake Road
Echo Lake

By far, the most visited stop along the byway is Georgetown Lake. This reservoir is a fairly large body of water and a very popular recreation destination. It was also our intended home base for the first two nights of our trip. We’d reserved a site at Piney Campground, with lovely views of the water, and we were very excited.

Piney Campground
Piney Campground Site A4
Georgetown Lake, as seen from the campground

Unfortunately, we only lasted 24 hours. We were awoken around 2:00am the first night by an enormous thunderstorm; the lightning was blindingly bright, the crashes of thunder were almost immediate, and hail pummeled our tent noisily for at least 20 minutes. A second slightly less intense storm woke us again a few hours later. Ultimately we stayed dry, but we slept terribly. Also, our dining canopy didn’t fare so well.

It proceeded to rain almost the entire next day and was predicted to dump another ¾ inch (20 mm) overnight. Our gear was drenched, everything was muddy, and we were cold and miserable… so we packed up camp that afternoon and got a hotel, and we have absolutely no regrets.

Drying out our gear all over our hotel room (raise your hand if you’ve done this before!)

We still managed to make the most of the brief non-rainy stretches to see the remaining sights along the byway. We drove the road all the way around Georgetown Lake, spotting two bald eagles sitting side by side on a telephone pole.

Grassy Point
Georgetown Lake as seen from Rainbow Bay Picnic Area

We drove up to St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel and the “ghost town” of Southern Cross. The chapel was lovely, as was the view from outside. The ghost town was not remotely something that can be considered a town, and was not worth the drive.

Inside the chapel
Georgetown Lake as seen from the chapel
What remains of Southern Cross. It’s on private property, so we couldn’t even walk up to it.

Back on the scenic highway, we continued toward Anaconda, turning off onto Storm Lake Road. Storm Lake is about 7 miles (11.3 km) up this dirt road, though our car was not able to make it all the way to the lake. We parked at a pullout before the bridge and walked the remaining 1.5 miles (2.4 km) up to Storm Lake. Our original plan was to continue up the Goat Flat Trail, but it was ill-defined and completely covered in snow, and storm clouds were descending once again, so we opted not to continue. Storm Lake was beautiful, however, so we didn’t mind the change of plans.

Storm Lake

And finally, we’ve reached Anaconda. Anaconda is a copper mining town, through and through. Most of the copper was actually mined in nearby Butte, Montana, but Anaconda was the site of the ore processing. At its heyday, the region was one of the richest copper producing areas in the world. Marcus Daly, one of Montana’s “copper kings,” founded the Anaconda Copper Company and built an enormous smelter in what would soon become the town of Anaconda.

Today, remains of its mining history can be found all over Anaconda. The most obvious is the Washoe Smelter Stack, visible from miles away. The stack is 585 feet (178 m) tall – taller than the Washington Monument – and constructed with over 2.4 million bricks. Beneath the town, numerous flues connect various smelting locations to the Washoe Stack, where all the waste products were released into the air.

The Washoe Smelter Stack sits on a hill above town
Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park

We also walked up to the Deer Lodge County Courthouse and, during a brief stretch of sunshine one afternoon, walked the Copper Trail along the edge of Anaconda. This walk took us along a 1 mile (1.6 km) paved path with informational signs. It dead ends at the ruins of the Old Works, a complex of mills, refineries, and smelters built in the 1880s by the Anaconda Copper Company.

Deer Lodge County Courthouse
Anaconda, as seen from the Copper Trail
Old foundation
Flume
Remains of the Upper Works complex

All in all, the weather these first two days left a lot to be desired. A lot. We ended up driving back and forth much more than we intended as we reworked our itinerary to dodge the never-ending rain as best we could. But we still managed to see almost everything we wanted and, in the moments between storms, it was very clear that the Pintler Veterans’ Memorial Highway has earned its ‘scenic’ designation.


The Important Stuff:

  • Things to see in Philipsburg:
    • The Sweet Palace (open 9am-5pm Sunday-Friday; closed Saturdays)
    • Philipsburg Brewing Company (website; open daily 10am-8pm)
    • Montana Law Enforcement Museum (website; free, open Weds-Sun 11am-5pm seasonally)
  • Things to see along the byway:
    • Granite ghost town (website)
    • Echo Lake
    • St. Timothy’s Chapel
    • Georgetown Lake
    • Storm Lake (with a 2WD vehicle, 3 mile roundtrip hike with 400 feet elevation gain)
  • Things to see in Anaconda:
    • Washoe Movie Theater (website)
    • Copper Trail (1.9 miles round trip with 190 feet elevation gain)
    • Smoke Stack State Park (website)
  • Where to stay: there are campgrounds in Flint Creek Canyon, at Echo Lake, and all around Georgetown Lake. There are RV parks in Philipsburg and Anaconda, as well as cabins, lodges, and hotels in and around Georgetown Lake and Anaconda
  • Other: plan about an hour to drive the entire byway without stopping; depending on how much you plan to stop and see along the way, this could easily be a half or full day drive

39 thoughts on “Montana road trip 2022, part I: Philipsburg, Anaconda, and the Pintler Scenic Highway”

  1. The most famous candy store in MT is closed on Saturdays but open on Sundays? They’ve got it ass backward.
    I’m with your mom on the beer thing. 🙂
    Too bad about the rain but you made it work. I was raising my hand during your description of drying things everywhere in an emergency hotel room. Could you tell?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah… we were wondering if the owners are maybe Seventh Day Adventist or something that has a Saturday sabbath. It’s the only reason I can think of to be closed on a Saturday.

      I have a feeling many others were raising their hands at the same point. Glad to know I’m not alone in that experience.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was mid June. Montana, too, was overrun with rain. All the rivers were nearly overflowing their banks and the rain just wouldn’t stop.

      Like

  2. Ooooo, Storm Lake looks so pretty!!! And I saw bald eagles around Georgetown Lake too! We did not at all spend enough time in this area but I’m putting it back on the list now that I’ve read your post — seems like there’s a lot more to do there than I thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, we were surprised how much there was to see and do… and I’m sure there’s more, this is just what we managed to fit in over a couple days without getting drenched by rain

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s awesome that your mom is going to move closer to you when she retires. It’s a good excuse to explore as much of Montana before that happens. Glad to hear you had a second chance at the Sweet Palace. I have such a sweet tooth and I’m a sucker for a candy store. Seems like you had a good mix of indoor and outdoor activities, depending on what the weather was like. It’s always tough to camp in the rain though, even if you stay dry, everything feels damp. Plus your tent gets dirty, which makes paking up very miserable. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one that has abandoned my campsite to stay in a hotel!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like a fun road trip with your mom! Like your mom, I’m not a huge fan of beer (although I would definitely try the honey saison; it sounds divine!). The St. Timothy’s Memorial Chapel looks gorgeous: it reminds me vaguely of the Wayfarers Chapel here in Los Angeles, at least, the interior…or Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona…All the same, Montana looks gorgeous– never been to the state, but it looks like a gorgeous place to visit (I especially want to check out Glacier National Park). One of these days!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glacier is definitely the highlight of the state, but there is so much to see everywhere! Hopefully my annual roadtrips give you some things to add to your itinerary. I do see the resemblance between those chapels you mentioned and the one I saw.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. LOL! Yup! Hotel Room Bailout. Done that and had tents draped all over the furniture 🙂

    Montana sure is an interesting state. I have friends in Eureka. He is the local lawyer, and she owned Cafe Jax on main street for decades. Whenever I was getting hassled coming into the US, I’d casually mention my friends, and the border control would get a whole lot friendlier. Gotta love small towns.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There is a microbrewery somewhere in the woods. We walked to it from my friend’s house, so I have no idea where it is. There is a pizza truck there for food. If you feel like going on a hunt, ask the locals where it is.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. A great post, Diana, and you did a good job detailing the history of Anaconda. One thing you might add to your things to see in this historic mining city, is the Club Moderne. It’s a wonderful bar with a unique design and rich history. When it burned down, the entire City rallied to get it reopened and it is definitely worth a visit and a brew.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! I didn’t come across that place in my research. Anaconda is not far from my hometown so I’m sure I’ll be back through in a future year. I’ll add Club Moderne to the itinerary.

      Like

  7. Love the Storm Lake photos and the Sweet Palace looks amazing. The only thing I liked about The Horse Whisperer was the Montana scenery. Sounds like a great trip and I’m sure you’ll be back a few times before your mum moves away.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That sounds like a great trip Diana. Peggy and I will be in Montana this fall on the next phase of our full-timing adventure. If we get there before the snow, we will keep it in mind. We’ve been back and forth across the state a number of times and really like it. Our adventures have included backpacking in Glacier and I rode across the state on my bike when I was in the middle of my 10,000 mile solo trip around North America. Much beauty. Great handstand shot. Grin. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glacier is my favorite part of the state! Where in the park did you backpack? Hopefully you have good weather when you make it back to MT this fall.

      Like

  9. Montana reminds me a lot of Alberta. Too bad about your rained out tenting. Its no fun being in a tent during rain and hail (even less fun outside). Good to get to know the place you used to live. Thanks for sharing Diana. Happy Tuesday. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Philipsburg sounds like quite a small town, but the same can’t be said of their candy store! And what a scenic drive on Echo Lake Road – I love these gravel tracks. Storm Lake is beautiful (the road leading there, not so much)! And great pictures of the town Anaconda from your hiking trail.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This blog post brings back wonderful memories. I’ve visited Montana many times as it’s the first state south of Alberta. We’ve also made longer visits to see other parts of the state beyond the border areas. The last time we were there with the whole family we stopped at many places including Anaconda. I recall walking around the smoke stack park and being amazed at the size of it. We did other things but that was some time ago so I don’t remember all of them. I believe that the furthest south we visited was the Lewis and Clark Caves. Now that was quite an experience. It’s a wonderful state to visit (Oregon is still my favourite though). Thanks for the excellent blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, Lewis and Clark Caverns is pretty close to where I grew up, I’ve been there many times! I do wish the smokestack park had been fully open, we were only able to see it from afar.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.