“My favorite state has not yet been invented. It will be called Montana, and it will be perfect.” Abraham Lincoln said this shortly after Montana became a United States territory, but about 25 years before it became a state. It is also one of the things that stayed with Senior Video Producer Matt Paco well after his weeklong trip to Montana to film the video for this year’s Best in Travel.
“What’s perfection? Driving through Montana, meeting the nicest people, seeing the beautiful countryside, I think I saw it.” Matt says. “There’s no traffic, no stress, no people bothering you. The only thing that I could find remotely stressful was the weather, but that was kind of incredible, too.”
Matt and the Lonely Planet film crew hit 23 locations in Montana over six days, trying to capture the spirit of this wild and wonderful place through its people and its most uniquely Monantan experiences. Matt recounted his trip for me in a recent conversation, inadvertently creating an outline for a future road trip (or more likely, multiple trips) to Montana. Watch the video and then read on for some details about all the places they went.
Day 1: Paradise Valley
Of course if you go to Montana, you know a river runs through it – so the first stop in Paradise Valley was Livingston to go fly fishing in the Yellowstone River. The crew hooked up with Alex Emery from Sweetwater Fly Shop and spent several hours waiting for action. “He didn't catch a fish, though. But it was a beautiful day.” Matt says. “I also learned that they don’t stock the rivers and lakes in Montana. You know that fish (should you have caught one) was born in the state.”
In the afternoon the crew visited The Old Saloon in Emigrant for a well-earned bison burger and a game of Shake a Day. This historic watering hole has operated in the area since 1902 and is a great spot for food, drink, dancing and a few rolls of the dice.
“I was a little obsessed,” Matt says. You put a dollar in that goes into a pot. You roll the dice, and if it’s a yahtzee (all the dice are the same number), the pot is yours. I could have won a few thousand dollars.” You can play this bar game across the state, but you’re only allowed to play once. Hence, “Shake a Day.”
Final stop: the Gardiner entrance to Yellowstone National Park, which is the only entry point that is open year-round and is referred to as “nature’s favorite entrance.” Gardiner’s most photographed sight is Roosevelt Arch, dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt himself on April 25, 1903. It is inscribed with Congress’ words: ‘For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’
Day 2: Bozeman and Big Sky
The Montana uniform is pretty much “cowboy,” and Bozeman is an ideal location for those in search of that fit. Head West is a downtown boutique known for its on-point new and vintage western wear. “They have the coolest stuff you’ll ever see,” Matt says. They also met and filmed Alberto Hernandez, a third generation hat maker and founder of Meshika Hats. His dedication to craftsmanship has garnered him a devoted clientele (including celebrities and television and film productions). Custom hats don’t come cheap, but your cameo in Yellowstone is assured.
The short drive to Big Sky was meant to capture some zip-lining, but Mother Nature did not cooperate. Thankfully the evening plan, filming Music in the Mountains, a summer concert series that takes place every Thursday from June through September. “It’s free, great for families, in a park surrounded by houses. People will come out of their front door to listen to the music,” Matt says.
Day 3: Moonshine and chop suey
Nothing like starting the day at a distillery! The crew shot at Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana. Apart from making excellent spirits (including Snowcrest Huckleberry Vodka and Montana Moonshine), their tasting room is a great spot to taste their booze while listening to live music.
Next up was Virginia City, a classic, Old West ghost town of the first order. It was a boomtown during the gold rush and is a well-maintained relic of that evocative era. You can still pan for gold or take a stagecoach ride or have a cold one at The Bale of Hay, Montana’s oldest saloon. “Virginia City feels like Montana’s living history, except it’s mostly a relic,” says Matt. They also visited Nevada City, a mile away, connected by the Alder Gulch Shortline rail. Nevada City is an abandoned town that has been rebuilt on its own footprint.
The last location of the day was the one Matt was most excited about, “When I found out that the oldest Chinese restaurant in the United States was in Butte, I knew we had to cover it.” Pekin Noodle Parlor has been operating since 1911, when Butte’s Chinese community made up a large swath of the small mining town’s population. The menu features Chinese-American comfort dishes like Chop Suey and Chow Mein and has not changed much in the last century. And if you’re wondering about the quality of the food, Matt says, “they won a James Beard award this year!”
Not far from the Pekin (as locals refer to it) is the Mai Wah Society and its museum dedicated to preserving Asian history and culture in Butte. See the refabrication of the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile general store in the building that once housed it, with original artifacts arranged much as they were in the early 1900s.
Day 4: History, spectacle and mermaids
An historical guided tour might not be at the top of your list, but the one the crew followed in Butte was worth its weight in gold. Old Butte Historical Adventures offers “The City Underground Tour,” which brings you to the well-preserved speakeasy in the infamous Rookwood hotel, a replica of a 1950s Barber Shop and the Old City Jail, which once housed Evel Knievel in 1956.
From there the crew made their way to the Montana State Fair, which takes place over two weeks every summer in Great Falls. “They have horse races, carnival rides, rodeos, livestock shows and that kind of thing. We asked a bunch of people at the fair what they thought of Montana, and they all gushed.”
They wrapped the day at the Sip ‘N Dip, a tiki lounge that is renowned for its mermaids and its fishbowl cocktail. “If you tell anyone you’re going to Great falls, they’re going to tell you to go to the Sip ‘N Dip.” The lounge is part of the O’Haire Inn (there’s also a diner), so naturally that’s where the crew spent the night. Do not drink fishbowls and drive!
Day 5: Glacial pace
An entire day at Glacier National Park? Not enough. But the crew did what they could do to capture this epic and extraordinary natural wonder. “There’s no way we could have gone to Montana and not done Glacier. It’s my favorite National Park. So far,” says Matt.
There’s no end of adventure and beauty to take in. There are hikes and rivers, melting glaciers turned stunning waterfalls, stunning sunrises and sunsets. It’s also where you can drive the most spectacular road in the United States: Going-to-the-Sun Road, from Lake McDonald to the turquoise blue St Mary Lake.
Day 6: A day at the ranch
Driving though Kalispell to Whitefish the crew shot more of Montana’s breathtaking landscapes. Their destination was Bar W Guest Ranch, a classic dude ranch in Whitefish where guests can get in on all the action, from horseback riding to trout fishing to campfires – you can even sleep in a covered wagon. “They had such a diverse group of ranch hands. It was so cool to see people of all different backgrounds riding horses as cowboys. If there is one place I need to go back to, it’s Bar W,” says Matt.