Autumn & winter attractions: Subterranean spectacle, colorful culture, haunted history

The region of Southwest Montana (formerly called Gold West Country) is a large swath of mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and hearty communities halfway between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.  An easy day trip on Interstate 90 from Spokane, the region offers a sampling of all of Montana’s lightly-tread amenities, including mega-mountains, lunker trout, budding melting pots for art and culture in Butte and Helena, remote yet luxurious escapes, and a slice of the Wild West through the numerous and well-preserved ghost towns in its mineral-rich hills.


October 19-20, 2012, Southwestern Montana’s most famous ghost town lives up to its billing when Bannack State Park presents Ghost Walk. In two nightly performances, a host of actors portray famous and infamous residents of the town and reenact significant events in the history of Bannack, a beautifully preserved 19th century gold-rush town near present-day Dillon. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children; reservations required (call 406-834-3413).


During the last three weekends of December, experience Lewis and Clark Caverns the way its first explorers did: by candlelight. These two-hour guided tours begin with an outdoor hike from the visitor center to the mouth of the caverns, so visitors should be prepared for the weather…but then, be prepared for an unforgettable experience of the cave’s profound quietude and otherworldly beauty. Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is located 19 miles west of Three Forks on Montana Route 2. Reservations for the candlelight tours are required (call the park office at 406-287-3541). Admission is $15 for adults and $8 for children; candles are provided.


Over the past three decades, Canyon Ferry Reservoir has become a regional epicenter of iceboating, an adrenaline-charged sport that’s half sailing, half ice skating. Every weekend from late December into March, the frozen lake just east of Helena draws hoards of avid iceboaters, many of whom are happy to take first-timers out for a high-speed trip across the ice in their sleek, outrigger-style boats. Thanks to reliably steady winds, hard freezes and scant snow, the lake is known to aficionados as one of the fastest and most scenic iceboating spots in the world.


For years, Nordic skiers from around Montana have flocked to the Mount Haggin Nordic Ski Area. With 25 km of groomed ski trails that reach to the Continental Divide south of Anaconda, the area boasts plenty of snow — averaging over 100 inches a year — and spectacular scenery. Recently, the area has also become a magnet for snowkiters, who find abundant open space and steady winds to propel epic high-speed kite skiing and snowboarding. Whether you come as a spectator or skier, you’ll want to make time to warm up at the Soup Shack, a classic Montana lodge located just across Mill Creek Road from the ski area that offers simple, delicious lunches during the winter months.

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