Guided road trip and photos by Will Casella

Southwest Montana’s small towns and public
lands offer endless exploration for locals and
visitors alike. From casual scenic drives to
hardcore backcountry adventures, Montana is
what you make of it. The key is to get out, get
off the paved roads, and explore.

Our road trip starts in Ennis, Montana,
a small cattle town with a big
fishing problem. The draw: some of
the best fly-fishing in the world, a
Main Street studded with unique, locally
owned restaurants, galleries and
shops, and the dramatically beautiful
Madison Valley. With quality products
and services more typical of a posh
resort town than a small agricultural
community, Ennis is your last fullservice
stop, so stock up here.
If you need a fix, there are eight well
posted State Fishing Access Sites
along the upper Madison River that
provide ample fishing
opportunities.

Inquire within a local
fly shop for what
parts of the river are
fishing the best.
From Ennis, continue
on US 287 toward Alder.
This road winds
through the historical
mining towns of
Virginia and Nevada
City
. Seemingly
stuck in Victorian
times, these towns
offer a glimpse into
rich Montana history.
Take a historic fire truck tour in
VC, pan for gold and garnets in Alder
Gulch, or saunter down the boardwalk
to the Pioneer Bar or the Bale of Hay to
whet your whistle and enjoy the living
history.

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The last stop prior to getting off of the
beaten path is in Alder: Chick’s Bar always
has colorful and friendly characters
saddled up to the horseshoe-shaped
bar, and the In Back Restaurant serves
up fat burgers and juicy prime-rib.
Now, following signs for the Ruby
River Reservoir, turn onto MT 357.
This is the Upper Ruby Valley, and
the next 40 miles of gravel road have
stunning scenery, ample wildlife viewing
and good fishing. The reservoir
has excellent boating and uncrowded
campsites. Continuing on, keep an eye
on the river basin for moose and bears,
and scope the cliffs on your left for
bighorn sheep. This section of river
boasts native Artic grayling, as well
as rainbow and cutthroat trout; however,
it is a delicate small stream fishery
so please treat with according respect.

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Soon the topography begins to
change. Sprawling working ranches
are exchanged for narrow pine forest
valleys. MT 357 turns into Gravelly
Range Road (FR 100)—there are no
road signs, but if you don’t turn off through the heart of the Beaverhead-
Deerlodge National Forest
,
this road offers unparalleled vistas of
near 10,000’ peaks and backcountry
adventures galore.
FR 100 turns into route 204 at the
entrance to the Centennial Valley,
an otherworldly place of vast prairies
and wetlands.
Turn left on North Side Road (route
268) heading into Red Rock Lakes
National Wildlife Refuge
. These
wetlands have great bird and wildlife
viewing—keep an
eye out for Trumpeter
swans, which convene
here each year by the
thousands to breed.
Off route 268, follow
signs for Elk and Hidden
Lake
, two of the
most stunning lakes in
Southwest Montana.
There are several camping
areas, and Elk Lake
Resort offers accommodations
and dining.
Follow Red Rock Pass
Road (route 201) out
of the Centennial Valley to Henry’s
Lake
. From here, you can continue
back to Ennis via US 87 or carry on
to West Yellowstone via US 20 concluding
your Montana backcountry
road-trip.

This loop could be completed in one long day, or over the course of
weeks, for those willing to stop and explore. There are many rustic
campsites in Ennis, on the Reservoir, along the Upper Ruby River, and
on Elk and Hidden Lake. A variety of motel, lodge and RV accommodations
are available in Ennis, Virginia City and Alder. Pack your bags
and hit the trail. The diverse scenery, wildlife, and outdoor recreation
in the Ruby and Centennial Valleys will not let you down.

Will Casella has been wandering the
world in pursuit of the ultimate outdoor
travelling/camping/fly fishing experience
for the past 10 years. Since unpacking
his bags in Bozeman, he started
Phasmid Rentals, through which he
shares his passion for Montana and self-drive
adventures by providing outfitted
rental vehicles and itinerary planning
for like-minded souls. Phasmid is part of
the Outlaw marketing grant program. phasmidrentals.com